Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone will appear in a Munich court on Thursday for the start of his trial on bribery charges, for which he could face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.
The 83-year-old has been in charge of F1 in one way or another since 1974 and the outcome of the trial could have a huge impact on the future of the sport.
The motor racing mogul stands accused of giving a bribe worth $45 million (£27.5 million)—per BBC News—to a German banker to facilitate the sale of a stake in the F1 business to his favoured buyer.
The allegations claim Ecclestone bribed Gerhard Gribkowsky, a former executive at German bank BayernLB, who was in charge of selling the company's stake in F1.
It is alleged that Ecclestone paid Gribkowsky so that he would make sure that the bank's 47.2 per cent stake in F1 was sold to the Brit's preferred buyer, current owners CVC, as reported by Paul Kelso on Sky News.
The payments took place in 2006, per the Daily Mail's Jonathan McEvoy, and Ecclestone supposedly supported the sale to the private equity firm as they wanted to keep him as chief executive.
Gribkowsky is currently already serving an eight-and-a-half year jail sentence for receiving the payment but Ecclestone has consistently denied he did anything wrong, claiming he was the victim of blackmail, per the BBC News report.
Ecclestone admits making the payments but maintains that Gribkowsky was threatening to reveal false details of his tax affairs.
While Ecclestone continues the day-to-day running of his sport, he did step down as director of F1's parent company Delta Topco when the trial was announced in January, per Andrew Benson of BBC Sport.
Christian Sylt of Autoweek also reported that the trial judge, Peter Noll, who convicted Gribkowksy, agreed to schedule hearings only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so as not to clash with the F1 calendar, with Ecclestone saying:
Of course I can run the company at the same time as doing the trial in Germany. I am in court for two days a week on Tuesday and Wednesday. The judge did it so I am able to go to races at the weekend. I will probably go on Monday nights, because I have to be there at 9.30am, stay Tuesday night and come back Wednesday. He said we will get the hearings on Wednesday out of the way before 5pm so I can leave.
The trial is expected to last until Sept. 16, per McEvoy's report, with Ecclestone required to attend throughout its duration.
Thursday's session will include the reading out of the 257-page indictment against Ecclestone in which the prosecutors claim, per Kelso's report:
The accused decided to win over the since-convicted Dr Gribkowsky by offering him the prospect of personal gain in order to end Dr Gribkowsky's confrontational course and dispense with BayernLB as a Formula One shareholder as quickly as possible.
If found guilty, the future of F1 will become very uncertain, with CVC co-chairman Donald MacKenzie saying he would fire Ecclestone if any wrongdoing on his part is proven, as reported by Paul Weaver in The Guardian.
This would mark a watershed moment in the sport's history as Ecclestone's influence has been so longstanding and so powerful with F1 now a billion-pound business.
His steady, if sometimes controversial, hand at the helm of the sport has been a constant over four decades, and if Ecclestone were to be removed from F1, its future would be uncertain.
Current speculation asserts that Red Bull boss Christian Horner is the only viable option as a replacement, per ESPN:
While some may welcome a new figure at the head of the sport, there is no doubting that if Ecclestone is found guilty, F1 would face some uncertain moments in the coming years.
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