- Q&A: The hard facts of the case
- Pay $100m and Ecclestone is off the hook
- Ecclestone relieved at deal
It was almost as if he had worked it out so that everyone in Formula One would be away on their annual August break, so as to guarantee minimal fuss. Knowing Bernie Ecclestone, nothing would surprise.
Certainly the news yesterday (Tuesday) that a German court was dropping its high-profile bribery suit against the octogenarian Formula One impresario after he agreed to make a hefty $US100 million ($A108.2 million) payment will surprise no one within the sport. A raising of the eyes and a shaking of the head is all it will elicit in the paddock in Spa when Formula One reconvenes later this month. "Bernie does it again."
Great survivor: Bernie Ecclestone. Photo: Reuters
That is not to say that the irony of Ecclestone paying an eye-watering sum of money to make bribery charges go away is lost on anyone. It is just that, where Bernie is concerned, he has been getting his way forever.
Ecclestone has been wheeling and dealing since he was a schoolboy doing paper rounds, using the proceeds to buy sticky buns, which he would then sell in the playground, for a modest profit of course. No, if there was a deal to be made in Germany, Bernie was going to make it. The only surprise is that it has taken him this long.
It has been over three years since Gerhard Gribkowsky, the German banker to whom Ecclestone was accused of paying US$44 million (#A47.3 million) in bribes, was arrested. Three years in which Ecclestone's grip on a sport he has run for more than three decades has come under serious scrutiny.
Bernie Ecclestone endured "three and a half years of aggravation, travelling, meeting lawyers, and God knows what else". Photo: AFP
No one in the sport seriously expected Ecclestone to go to jail. How many 80-year-old billionaires go to jail? What was less clear was whether he would keep his job.
Last autumn's High Court case, brought by German media firm Constantin Medien, which claimed $US140 million ($A150.5 million) in damages as a result of Ecclestone's actions, was particularly costly. Although the judge dismissed the claim, he found Ecclestone culpable of having paid these monies and accused him of being a wholly unreliable witness. The court also heard some pretty unsavoury evidence.
Ecclestone shrugged it off, just as he shrugged off Tuesday's outcome. $A108.2 million "I'm a bit of an idiot for paying it," he quipped. "They [the prosecution] didn't really have a case." Obviously enough of one for him to have paid what is believed to be the largest amount in German judiciary history.
He will consider it money well spent. With an estimated $A7.26 billion in the bank, he will not miss the cash. And the genius of the settlement is that there is no suggestion of guilt on his part. More than that, the presiding judge Peter Noll actually said that the charges could not be substantiated in important areas.
Ecclestone breezed out of Germany, his third wife on his arm - the Brazilian Fabiana Flosi, who so memorably entered the Austin paddock wearing a "Good Girls Like Bad Boys" T-shirt at the height of the High Court trial last autumn, a joke she was persuaded into carrying out by Ecclestone himself - and was straight back into a sport that is, to all intents and purposes, his life.
He admitted that the trial had been a distraction, describing it as "three and a half years of aggravation, travelling, meeting lawyers, and God knows what else" but it was more than that.
CVC co-founder Donald Mackenzie's warning during the High Court trial last autumn that any conviction for criminal activity would result in his sacking had been like a blade hanging over Ecclestone's neck.
And when he stepped down from the F1 board earlier this year to prepare for the criminal trial in Germany, his grip really did appear to be loosening.
After all, CVC is known to have conducted a wide-ranging search for his successor, and there remain tensions at board level over Ecclestone's continued administration. Not that any of the CVC board was actually prepared to speak on Tuesday. As so often, it was left to Ecclestone to speak for them, to craft his own narrative. "Yes, of course," he said when asked if CVC was happy for him to continue as chief executive. "This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1."
Bernie will not go on forever, of course. At 83, his days are numbered. His feel for social media and for the younger generation of fans is thought to count against him but it is F1's core audience who feel increasingly alienated, aghast at how their sport has been hijacked by commercial and corporate elements, by men in suits, by gimmicks and gizmos on the track. Audience figures are down.
It has become more apparent than ever that Formula One needs to think very carefully about where it is at the moment and where it is headed. The sport appears stuck between trying to spice up the entertainment artificially and staying true to its roots.
It still makes its investors an obscene amount of money, of course, which is ultimately why Ecclestone is still there.
You have to give him credit, he is one of the great survivors.
The London Telegraph