Ecclestone talked and smiled with his lawyers as he arrived in the courtroom in Munich on Thursday. The 83-year-old is accused of paying $44 million (31.8 million euros) in 2006 to a German banker to ensure the F1 business was sold to the motor sport supremo's preferred buyer.
Ecclestone, who once again is thrust into the spotlight of controversy, denied any wrongdoing in a statement read out in German by his defense team. He told the court he was "grateful" to be given the chance to share his side of the story, saying he would answer questions from the court through his lawyers, rather than personally.
At the center of the trial is the question of why Ecclestone paid German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky millions. Gribkowsky says he was bribed, while Ecclestone says he was blackmailed.
"Gribkowsky did not tell the truth at crucial points," Ecclestone told the court in a 100-page statement that was read aloud. He added that Gribkowsky, the former chief risk officer at BayernLB, had threatened to make damaging claims about his tax affairs.
"I saw my life's work in danger," he said, adding that this was why he had paid Gribkowsky.
In 2006, CVC Capital Partners paid around $830 million to buy a 47 percent stake in F1 held by German bank BayernLB. Ecclestone received a $66 million commission from Gribkowsky for the deal, and then allegedly gave $44 million of it back to the German banker.
Prosecutors suspect the payment was a bribe to ensure CVC and not another rival bidder took control of the stake. They claim Ecclestone favored CVC because it was retaining him as chief executive.
Ecclestone's lawyer Sven Thomas on Thursday dismissed the prosecution's allegations as "inaccurate, misleading and unsubstantiated."
"The alleged bribery did not take place," he said.
Gribkowsky was sentenced in 2012 to eight-and-a-half years in prison for bribe-taking in a trial that included testimony from Ecclestone. That same judge who convicted Gribkowsky, Peter Noll, is now presiding over Ecclestone's trial. Gribkowsky, meanwhile, is set to testify in Ecclestone's trial.
The Briton could face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty. Ecclestone is due to be in court for two days per week during the trial, with 26 days of hearings initially scheduled and a final verdict not expected before mid-September. The proceedings' part time schedule is designed to allow him to attend F1 races.
During a civil case in London last year, Ecclestone successfully defended a separate $100 million damages claim over accusations he undervalued F1 when it was sold to CVC.
Ecclestone, a former used car salesman, first entered the world auto racing stage as a failed driver in the 1950s and later team owner in 1972. The controversial businessman helped to transform F1 into one of the world's biggest entertainment franchises after acquiring the global television rights for the sport in the 1970s.
dr,rc/hc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)