Bernie on a rough track, but still defiant

New Delhi/ Berlin: Bernie Ecclestone remained defiant Thursday as it was revealed that the search for his replacement at the head of Formula One has started.

The man who has ruled F1 for more than 30 years is facing a $400 million compensation claim from one of Germany's biggest banks, which alleges it was short-changed in the sale of the sport seven years ago. But a prosecutor in Munich is also mulling over evidence to decide whether Ecclestone should face criminal charges.

It is the biggest challenge facing Ecclestone, who will be 82 on Sunday, in his long career and has shaken shareholders in F1. Board members asked one of the world's biggest headhunting companies to draw up a list of potential replacements for F1's ageing chief executive.

Egon Zehnder International, which has offices around the world, was asked to suggest names of executives who could follow Ecclestone should the worst happen and he is charged by the German authorities. The request came as shareholders made a play to float F1 on the Singapore Stock Exchange.

Ecclestone featured heavily in the briefing notes to future investors, stressing how invaluable he is to a sport that he has run as a personal fiefdom and that has also been one of the most profitable franchises in the world.

Ecclestone sees no reason why he should not go on running F1 even in the swirl of legal actions now engulfing the sport. He says that BayernLB will have to sue him in court in Britain if the bank wants its money back.

"I have been under a cloud for three years," Ecclestone said. "There is nothing to worry about. I am not worried ' I am aggravated with the nonsense I'm being put through for all this. I sold the bloody shares for the bank. It was something they couldn't sell. They had six people look at it and wouldn't buy. I got them out of trouble and now I'm in trouble. Life is like that sometimes."

Ecclestone admitted that his lawyers in Germany had received a letter from the BayernLB bank asking for compensation after Gerhard Gribkowsky, one of its former senior employees, was jailed for taking bribes from Ecclestone over the sale of F1 in 2005 to CVC Capital Partners, a City-based private equity company.

Gribkowsky has testified to prosecutors that BayernLB's stake in F1 could have fetched $450 million more than the $756 million paid by CVC in a deal brokered by Ecclestone. According to reports in Gemany, BayernLB is also said to want back $66 million of its money paid as commission to Ecclestone by Gribkowsky for smoothing the deal.

Gribkowsky was imprisoned in June for 8 and a half years for accepting $44 million from Ecclestone and the family trust he set up for Slavica, his ex-wife, and Tamara and Petra, his daughters. Ecclestone vehemently denies wrongdoing and maintains that this money was not a bribe but a form of blackmail by the banker.

The claim from the bank came after prosecutors shared their latest evidence with BayernLB. A spokesman for the Munich prosecution office Thursday said that it had received a lengthy statement from Ecclestone's lawyers over the bribery claim, "which we now have to analyse and evaluate" before deciding on whether to launch a prosecution. It could give no timetable.

But during the Gribkowsky case in June, the court did not hear any evidence that a bigger offer was made for the F1 stake bought by CVC.

The chances of a prosecution for bribery may rest on whether it can be proved that Ecclestone knew that he was paying money to a public official, which is what Gribkowsky was because the bank is run by the state of Bavaria.

Gribkowsky is said to have testified that Ecclestone once mocked him as a "civil servant". Matthias Lucke, a spokesman for BayernLB, confirmed that the bank had written to Ecclestone's lawyers this week seeking damages but declined to discuss details Thursday.

Bernie mum on his problems: Pg 18