Berlin: Formula One commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone is due to go on trial on bribery charges in late April in connection with a lucrative rights deal, a German court said Thursday.
He was charged last July in relation to a USD 44 million (32 million euro) payment he made to former German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky which was linked to the sale of the Formula One championship rights in 2006.
"According to current plans, the trial is set to start at the end of April," the regional court in the southern German city of Munich said in a statement.
The mop-topped 83-year-old motor-racing magnate has repeatedly denied he did anything wrong. But the German court's decision to proceed to trial will create deep uncertainty about his future in the sport.
Ecclestone has been under investigation on suspicion of bribery and incitement of fraud since Gribkowsky was convicted of taking an illegal payment when the Formula One rights were sold in a 2006 deal.
The case revolves around rights held by the German bank BayernLB and sold to Britain's CVC Capital Partners for USD 830 million, the court said.
Ecclestone received a $66 million commission from Gribkowsky as part of the deal. Then the Formula One boss allegedly gave him USD 44 million of the sum back in exchange for Gribkowsky ensuring that the buyer of his choosing, CVC, would get the rights.
In so doing, prosecutors say, Ecclestone could maintain more control over Formula One business. Last June, Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight and a half years in jail in Munich. Ecclestone has always denied bribing the German, claiming he was blackmailed by Gribkowsky.
Having appeared at Gribkowsky's trial, Ecclestone told the Munich state court he felt pressured into paying the cash because he was worried the banker would make unfounded allegations about his tax affairs to Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs.
"I paid because he threatened to go to the Inland Revenue," the diminutive tycoon said at the time. Ecclestone has put a brave face on the proceedings.
"This is about me proving my innocence," Ecclestone told German business paper Handelsblatt Thursday. "That is why I will go to Munich for this trial."
When asked whether he could keep hold of the reins at Formula One while facing court, Ecclestone said: "In Britain there is the presumption of innocence, you are not guilty until such a verdict has been reached."
His defence team said Thursday that statements implicating Ecclestone made by Gribkowsky during his trial were "inaccurate and do not present a coherent story given the facts".
"The claimed bribery never happened," the lawyers, Sven Thomas and Norbert Scharf, said in a statement. Having been at the top of Formula One for four decades, Ecclestone could face a jail term if convicted by the same court that tried Gribkowsky.
He is also enmeshed in a civil case in London, accused of striking a "corrupt bargain" in a bid to maintain his grip on the sport.
A German media group, Constantin Medien, which claims it lost out in a deal to sell the Formula One group, launched legal action against Ecclestone and three other defendants.
Constantin is seeking more than USD 100 million in damages. Media reports said a verdict in the case is expected in the coming days.
And Swiss prosecutors announced in October they were opening their own probe into the issue, in the latest challenge to Ecclestone's authority in a sport he had helped turn into a billion-dollar business.
Ecclestone's rise began in the late 1970s when he bought Formula One's television and marketing rights and has built it up into one of the world's most profitable sports events.