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F1 boss Ecclestone denies bribery at German trial

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone arrives at court for his trial in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone arrives at court for his trial in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone went on trial in Germany on Thursday, denying charges of bribery that threaten to land the British billionaire in jail.

Ecclestone, 83, is accused of paying a German banker tens of millions of dollars to ensure his continued grip on the motor sports empire he built up virtually single-handedly over four decades.

The mop-topped, diminutive F1 magnate entered the packed Munich courtroom in his trademark black suit and white shirt, saying only: "I'm confident, the sun is shining."

The defendant then confirmed his name and personal details, stumbling briefly before saying "yes, I am married", to which judge Peter Noll replied: "OK, those were the easy questions".

Ecclestone then silently followed line by line on paper the prosecution brief, which alleges serious corruption charges that carry a maximum jail term of 10 years.

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone puts his hands on a chair as he waits in the dock for the opening of his trial at court in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone puts his hands on a chair as he waits in the dock for the opening of his trial at court in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014

His lawyer Sven Thomas dismissed the allegations as "inaccurate, misleading and unsubstantiated", saying "the alleged bribery did not take place".

He also declared that Ecclestone does not intend to speak for now in the trial that is set to run until September.

The case centres on a payment Ecclestone made to a German banker eight years ago, and the question is whether it was a bribe or -- as the defence claims -- hush money after a blackmail attempt.

The cash changed hands at a time when a German corporate bankruptcy had left several banks in charge of major stakes of the Formula One enterprise, which Ecclestone had built up since the 1970s.

Ecclestone paid $44 million (32 million euros) to Gerhard Gribkowsky, then the risk manager of one of the banks, Germany's BayernLB.

Prosecutors charge that the money was a bribe meant to ensure BayernLB sold its shares to Ecclestone's preferred bidder, CVC Capital Partners of Britain, now the sport's majority shareholder.

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his wife Fabiana Flosi walk through the pits during the US F1 Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on November 14, 2013
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone and his wife Fabiana Flosi walk through the pits during the US F1 Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, on November 14, 2013

They charge that Ecclestone, "the hitherto virtually uncontested leader of Formula One", saw the banks' involvement as a "nuisance" and wanted a takeover by CVC, which had made clear it would keep him on as CEO.

Ecclestone claims the millions were not a bribe but hush money after Gribkowsky threatened to make trouble for him with Britain's tax authorities.

"It was clear he wanted money," Ecclestone said a statement. "I had the concern Mr Gribkowsky could inform the tax office."

- 'Charm and sophistication' -

Former Bayern LB (Bavarian State Bank) chairman Gerhard Gribkowsky enters the courtroom during an earlier hearing in Munich, southern Germany, on January 27, 2014
Former Bayern LB (Bavarian State Bank) chairman Gerhard Gribkowsky enters the courtroom during an earlier hearing in Munich, southern Germany, on January 27, 2014

The presiding judge in Ecclestone's case is the same man who in 2012 sentenced Gribkowsky to eight-and-a-half years' jail.

At the time, Noll said he saw Ecclestone as the driving force in the case, who had used his "charm and sophistication" to lead the banker into crime.

Ecclestone has reduced his role in the running of Formula One pending the outcome of the trial.

He is set to be in court two days a week, a schedule designed to allow him to attend races, although he missed last Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai to prepare for the case.

Donald Mackenzie, co-founder of CVC, told Britain's High Court last year that Ecclestone would be fired if he was found to have committed a criminal offence.

Ecclestone began his career selling cars and motorcycles and also briefly drove race cars himself, but his career was cut short by an accident.

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone (R) arrives at court for his trial in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014
Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone (R) arrives at court for his trial in Munich, southern Germany, on April 24, 2014

He bought the Brabham team in 1972 and his control of the sport grew from his pioneering the sale of television rights in the late 1970s.

Dubbed "Napoleon" due to his 1.63-metre (five foot, four inch) stature and firm control over F1, Ecclestone was valued by Forbes magazine at $3.8 billion in March 2013, making him one of the richest 500 people in the world.

An outspoken and combative figure, he had to apologise in 2005 when he said women should be "dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances".

In 2009 he again drew widespread criticism for saying he admired Adolf Hitler for being "able to get things done".

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