Formula One commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone is coming to Germany for Sunday's Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring. The planned visit comes as Munich prosecutors are considering launching legal proceedings against him.
Bernie Ecclestone and the rest of the Formula One circus are at the Hockenheimring all weekend for the German Grand Prix, with the first free practice sessions taking place on Friday.
To the south of the Baden-Württemberg circuit, in the Bavarian capital Munich, public prosecutors are investigating the possibility of charging Ecclestone with bribery. According to the Friday edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, that investigation is now being pursued "with high pressure" after further statements from Gerhard Gribkowsky.
Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison last month for his role in the 2006 sale of the commercial rights of Formula One. He was the senior risk manager and a board member at the BayernLB bank, which inherited the rights after the previous owner, German media mogul Leo Kirch, went bankrupt.
The banker said that Ecclestone paid him $44 million (35.8 million euros), alleging that this money was a bribe to facilitate the sale of the F1 commercial rights at an undervalued price.
What was the money for?
Ecclestone does not contest the payment, though he disagrees on how much was paid, but says that he was the victim of a "subtle shakedown" by Gribkowsky. He told the Munich courts last year that the banker had indirectly threatened to instigate a tax investigation by the authorities in Britain.
Ecclestone also told the court that he had no outstanding tax obligations, but said his accountants advised that the investigation would still cost him far more money than the payment to Gribkowsky. The Formula One commercial boss received immunity from prosecution on the basis of his own testimony, but prosecutors could still launch a case based on other evidence.
A private equity company, CVC Capital Partners, purchased the rights - subsequently hiring Ecclestone to remain the commercial face of the sport on their behalf. State prosecutors in Munich allege that Ecclestone wanted to rush a deal through with a preferred business partner after the rights unexpectedly landed in the hands of the partially state-owned German bank.
CVC remains the principal stakeholder in the rights, but started selling portions of their F1 assets to a trio of banks and investment companies in recent months. The group had also planned to float a further stake on the Singapore stock market this summer - this move was cancelled earlier in the year, with Ecclestone citing turbulent markets after the Facebook initial public offering as the reason.
Strictly speaking, the "ownership" of F1's commercial rights constitutes a 100-year lease valid for the rest of the century.
Elsewhere in German motorsport, the fabled Nürburgring race circuit was forced to declare insolvency on Wednesday - and it's rumored that Ecclestone might step in and "save" the circuit, which is currently scheduled to host next year's German Grand Prix.
msh/pfd (dpa, SID, Reuters)