Bernie Ecclestone celebrated his 83rd birthday on Monday but it is doubtful whether Formula One's chief executive enjoyed himself much with a $171 million (pounds 106?million) damages suit due to begin in London's High Court this morning.
The suit, filed against him earlier this year, is the first of several cases around the world, all of which are linked to ongoing bribery allegations in Germany, which may determine whether Ecclestone remains as chief executive of a sport over which he has presided for 40 years.
The central charge against Ecclestone, which is still being investigated in Germany, is that he paid -$44 million (pounds 27 million) in bribes to a -German banker to engineer the sale of the sport to present owners CVC Capital Partners in 2005. Gerhard Gribkowsky, formerly the chief risk officer of BayernLB, has already been jailed for 81/2 years by a Munich court for being in receipt of corrupt payments.
The Munich state prosecutor has indicted Ecclestone on charges of bribery and a German court is now deciding whether the case should proceed to a criminal trial. Ecclestone does not deny paying Gribkowsky but insists he was blackmailed by the German, who threatened to make false claims to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs which could have triggered a lengthy and costly investigation.
He said last year that CVC "will probably be forced to get rid of me if the Germans come after me. It's pretty obvious, if I'm locked up". A statement from the Munich court last month said that a decision on whether to proceed to trial was "no longer expected this year" but there are rumours in Germany that the case could now be moved forward, possibly to as early as next week.
German prosecutors are likely to be watching closely to see what -happens in the High Court, where German media company Constantin Medien, a former shareholder in -Formula One, will argue that Ecclestone and three other defendants deliberately undervalued Formula One when private equity firm CVC bought into the business in 2005. Constantin sold its 16.7 % stake for euros 8.5 million (pounds 7.2 million) to BayernLB in 2003.
It sold at a loss on condition that it would receive a 10 % share of any proceeds if the bank's stake was sold for more than $1.1 billion (pounds 680 million). CVC paid $814 million (pounds 505 million) to Bayern-LB, so Constantin missed out on a payment.
Constantin claims that CVC was Ecclestone's preferred buyer as it had agreed to retain him as F1's chief executive. Ecclestone's former lawyer, Stephen Mullens, the Ecclestone family's Bambino Holdings trust fund and Gribkowsky himself are the other defendants in the damages claim.
The case is expected to last three to four weeks. Ecclestone is also facing action in the United States, where an American private equity firm, Bluewaters -Communications Holdings, has filed a $650 million (pounds 408 million) lawsuit at the Supreme Court of New York State.
Bluewaters says it should have been sold BayernLB's stake as it had offered "10 % above any genuine bona fide offer put forward by any other competing buyer". Ecclestone has missed the last three Formula One grands prix, in Korea, Japan and India.
"It's not ideal, it would be better if it wasn't happening, but we can't change the court system," he said of the High Court case beginning today. Christian Horner, meanwhile, has vowed Red Bull will treat the remaining races of the season "like three FA Cup finals" even though they took the constructors' title and the drivers' championship on Sunday.
With sweeping regulation changes coming in from 2014 and both titles already in the bag, Red Bull could be forgiven for taking their foot off the gas over the closing races in Abu Dhabi, the United States and Brazil. But the Red Bull team principal is refusing to allow his rivals to steal a march.