How Long Till Bernie Goes Now?

Thursday 20th February 2014

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How Long Till Bernie Goes Now?

How Long Till Bernie Goes Now?

It's good to have a cheeky little punt on F1 every now and then, but right now you can't get odds from Paddy Power on one particular outcome. What's the likelihood that Bernie Ecclestone will appear on the German Grand Prix grid? Very slim you'd think after today's High Court judgment.

In case you missed it, Mr Justice Newey (presumably no relation of Adrian) found that Mr. E had made a "corrupt" deal by bribing a German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, to sell F1's commercial rights to a buyer of Bernie's choice. CVC Capital Partners bought the commercial rights to F1 in 2005 and have held them ever since.

German media group Constantin Medien had taken Bernie to court alleging that the bribe Bernie paid to Gribkowsky was to undervalue F1, so that not only did CVC Capital Partners get the asset, they also got a bargain.

The judge has now ruled that there was no evidence that F1 was undervalued - thus making Bernie the winner of the case. But it looks like a very hollow victory. Because the judge reserved some damning comments for the man in charge of F1 for so long - ones that must surely mean he will have to step down pretty soon, given his employer's pre-trial assurances.

Bernie's defence was that Gribkowsky - already serving an 8-year sentence in a German prison for receiving the bribe from Ecclestone - was blackmailing him and the £28 million was hush money. The judge rejected this.

Mr Justice Newey said: "The payments were a bribe. They were made because Mr Ecclestone had entered into a corrupt agreement with Dr Gribkowsky on May 2005 under which Dr Gribkowsky was to be rewarded for facilitating the sale of BLB's shares in the F1 Group to a buyer acceptable to Mr Ecclestone.

"Mr Ecclestone's aim was to be rid of the banks [who Gribkowsky represented]. He was strongly averse to their involvement in the F1 Group and was keen that their shares should be transferred to someone more congenial to him."

The judge also said: "Even... making allowances for the lapse of time and Mr Ecclestone's age, I am afraid that I find it impossible to regard him as a reliable or truthful witness."

The boss of CVC Capital Partners, Donald McKenzie, said before the trial that if there were evidence of wrongdoing then Bernie couldn't continue. He's got it now - what's he going to do?

After the trial there was a hilarious statement from Bernie's legal team:

The judge's finding that Mr Ecclestone had paid a bribe was, it said, "not underpinned by reliable evidence" because the source of the allegation - Gribkowsky - had not given evidence in the case.

No, and the reason why was because he was already in prison convicted of bribery.

Bernie is also facing trial in Germany later in the year for the allegation that he bribed Gribkowsky. An English judge has now ruled that in his opinion Bernie did indeed bribe Gribkowsky, and Gribkowsky is in prison for confessing that he took the £28m bribe. Gribkowsky is not appealing.

So while Bernie may have got away with having to pay back money to Constantin Medien, the judge's written comments have a fatal impact. How can CVC still employ Bernie to run F1's commercial arm, and hang on to an asset that a judge has decided was obtained in a corrupt deal? Some might say, they suspected this all along. Well now they have to put a public face on it.

The usually savvy Christian Horner (who was supposedly the only F1 team, boss invited to Bernie's third wedding in 2012) told the BBC's Jenny Gow on Thursday. "It's good news for F1 and great news for Bernie. The business needs him at the moment as it's tough times with such a big regulation change. Formula 1 more than ever needs Bernie Ecclestone."

Not everyone would agree.

Certainly in the next few months CVC will be scurrying around to find a successor (or successors) to Bernie, if they haven't already done so. The likelihood of Mr.E getting a positive result in Munich later this year is a bit like Arsenal's return Champion's League tie with Bayern Munich. It's possible, but most people don't think it's going to happen.

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