F1 Boss Ecclestone Faces Trial In Germany
Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One supremo, is expected to face formal charges over secret payments to a German banker when the sport changed hands nearly a decade ago.
Sky News can exclusively reveal that Mr Ecclestone is to be confronted with the biggest challenge in his five decades at the helm of the world's richest motorsport.
State prosecutors in Munich are poised to end months of speculation by announcing as soon as Thursday that they will bring formal criminal proceedings against Mr Ecclestone over $44m (£27m) that was paid to Gerhard Gribkowsky, a banker who was involved in organising F1's sale.
Mr Ecclestone's trial is understood to have been provisionally scheduled to begin on April 23.
The F1 boss will step down from the board of the company which runs the sport pending the outcome of the trial, people close to the situation said, although he will remain in charge of F1's day-to-day management.
A statement is expected from the Munich prosecutor's office confirming the opening of formal proceedings on Thursday, although it could be delayed, one insider said.
It also remains possible that an out-of-court settlement could still be negotiated that would delay the filing of formal charges, although this appeared to be a remote prospect on Wednesday.
The precise nature of the charges is unclear, although they may allege that Mr Ecclestone tried to bribe a public official because Mr Gribkowsky's employer, Bayerische Landesbank, was a state-backed lender.
Earlier on Wednesday, Christian Horner, boss of the Red Bull Racing F1 team and a confidant of Mr Ecclestone, insisted that he remained the right person to run the sport regardless of his legal difficulties.
Mr Horner said that Mr Ecclestone was "absolutely the best and only guy to do what he does, to take Formula One to the global reach that the sport has achieved ... it's in all our interests that he's around as long as possible".
The trial will represent the latest, although not the only, legal setback to confront Mr Ecclestone in recent times.
He is a defendant at a High Court case in London at which a German media group has accused the F1 chief executive of conspiring to undervalue the sport when it was sold to CVC Capital Partners in 2005.
The "corrupt bargain" to which Mr Ecclestone was a party enabled him to remain at the helm of F1's commercial rights-holder, Constantin Medien has alleged.
Reports last month said that BayernLB was preparing to file a separate damages claim alleging a conspiracy between Mr Ecclestone and Mr Gribkowsky to sell F1 for a knockdown price.
Mr Ecclestone has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
He conceded that he had made part of the relevant payments to Mr Gribkowsky but said that he had done so because he was concerned that the German would make unfounded allegations about his tax affairs to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
CVC has made billions of pounds from its original investment in F1 and has drawn up plans to float the company on the Singapore stock exchange.
It has conceded that that plan is unworkable until the legal issues surrounding the sport are resolved.
The private equity firm instead reduced its shareholding in the sport by selling a series of minority stakes to investors from the US and Norway.
Donald Mackenzie, the CVC founder who sits on the board of F1, said at the High Court in November that it was right to have retained Mr Ecclestone's services despite the legal maelstrom surrounding the sport.
"If Mr Ecclestone had done anything criminal or wrong, we would fire him," he said.
The phrasing of that statement is understood to mean that CVC has decided to allow Mr Ecclestone to continue running the sport even during his trial.
However, insiders suggested that he was likely to step down from the company's board with the possibility of being reinstated if he is subsequently cleared of wrongdoing.
Peter Brabeck, the chairman of the Swiss consumer goods giant Nestl?ho also chairs F1's parent company, is likely to take on a more hands-on role during the coming months.
A board meeting is understood to have been organised to discuss the latest developments on Thursday.
CVC declined to comment, while a spokesman for F1 could not be reached.