Following on from yesterday’s powerful statement by a High Court judge regarding Bernie Ecclestone, Formula 1’s commercial boss for the last 30 years, the sport is holding its breath to see what action the sport’s major shareholder, CVC Capital Partners, will take next and specifically whether they will seek to remove the 83 year old from his executive role in the sport he built up.
Ecclestone has already stood down from the board of F1’s holding company pending his criminal trial in Germany in April. But will CVC follow through on a threat to remove him if he was found to have done anything wrong, made by its senior partner during the London High Court action which concluded yesterday?
The judge in the London case, brought against Ecclestone by Constantin Medien, said that he was satisfied that Ecclestone paid a bribe to Gerhard Gribkowsky, over the sale of F1 in 2006. Mr Justice Newey went on to criticise Ecclestone, stating that, “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 payments were a bribe. They were made because Mr Ecclestone had entered into a corrupt agreement with Dr Gribkowsky in May 2005.”
Last night Ecclestone was moved to issue a very clear statement, saying that the judge’s words constituted an “opinion” and that this didn’t stand up, because the court had not heard from all the witnesses it could have heard from, so was not in full possession of the facts.
“As this was a civil claim, the judge was only required to deal with the claim on the balance of probabilities, ” said the statement.
“This is a much lower standard of proof than would apply in a criminal case [Editor’s Note: This would need to be “beyond reasonable doubt”]
“The judge has expressed his opinion that on the balance of probabilities there was an unlawful agreement made with Dr Gribkowsky and that payments that Mr Ecclestone made for Dr Gribkowsky’s benefit were a bribe, but this view is not underpinned by reliable evidence.
“The source of these allegations is Dr Gribkowsky himself, who did not give evidence in this case.
“The judge expressly recognised there was clearly considerable force in the point that there had been no opportunity for Mr Ecclestone’s (and the other defendants’) legal team to cross-examine important witnesses, including Dr Gribkowsky.
“As such, the judge’s opinion is expressed in the light of hearing only partial evidence that has not been properly tested.”
Ecclestone is understandably keen to maintain that he has done nothing wrong. He clearly feels that only the criminal trial in Munich, starting on April 24th, will be able to establish this. This is important because a sword is hanging over his head from a statement made by F1’s largest shareholder during the Constantin Medien case.
Central to this issue is what CVC boss Donald Mackenzie said during evidence given in this case last November. Speaking about the allegations against Ecclestone, he said, “We’ve always taken the position that if it’s proven that Mr Ecclestone has done anything that’s criminal or wrong we will fire him.
“But until that happens we will give him the benefit of the doubt, provided it is not seriously damaging the business of Formula 1.”
The question therefore arises as to whether the judgement and words of Mr Justice Newey yesterday constitute what CVC’s board and Mackenzie would consider proof “that Mr Ecclestone has done anything that’s criminal or wrong.”
Ecclestone was not on trial in the Constantin Medien case, so there is no question of yesterday’s judgement being proof of guilt.
But it certainly gives the CVC board a headache and a very difficult challenge over the coming weeks and months.
Due to work done behind the scenes by Ecclestone in the last 24 months, F1 is in a period of stability until 2020 with all the teams signed up on long term contracts and the FIA also bound to the commercial rights holder (CVC and Ecclestone).
But at present there is no Concorde Agreement binding the three parties together.
CVC cannot float F1 on the stock market and make its lucrative exit until that agreement is in place and the question CVC must work out is – how central to achieving that Concorde Agreement is Ecclestone himself?
Meanwhile Constantin Medien have said that they will appeal the High Court judgement.