Last updated: March 3, 2014 4:16 pm

Bernie Ecclestone prepares for Formula One departure

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Bernie Ecclestone©Getty

Bernie Ecclestone is preparing the ground for his eventual departure from Formula One, saying he will not be able to run it full time because of his forthcoming bribery trial in Munich.

In a further sign of the pressure on him, the F1 chief executive also expressed frustration at remarks by a High Court judge in a $140m civil action, which could have a bearing on the Munich trial.

The judge branded Mr Ecclestone an unreliable and untruthful witness and said payments he made to a German banker working on the sale of F1 were a bribe.

The Munich trial, set to begin on April 23, has already forced Mr Ecclestone to stand down from the F1 board.

Despite his stepping down, F1’s leading shareholder, private equity group CVC Capital Partners, remains under pressure to hasten the search for a successor to Mr Ecclestone, who is 83.

CVC is sticking by Mr Ecclestone for the time being. But the Munich trial is starting to weigh heavily on him and his enjoyment of running F1 is thought to be on the wane.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Ecclestone said: “I’ve been spending time on this [civil] case and to spend time on Munich I am not able to give what I normally would do, 24/7, to the business.

“I’ve been looking, over the last few years, for somebody who can join me to assist with what I have to do. I will eventually be in a position, if I decide to retire – or unfortunately become dead – to have someone to step into my shoes.”

The comments are markedly different from the defiant tone he set in January in response to the Munich court announcement that he would have to stand trial, when he said: “Nothing has changed.”

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CVC announced at the time that Mr Ecclestone would stay on as F1 chief “on a day-to-day basis”, even though he is expected to attend court two days a week.

Mr Ecclestone had been hoping the outcome of the civil action, brought by German media group Constantin Medien, would start to relieve the legal pressure on him.

Mr Justice Newey dismissed Constantin’s claim that F1 was undervalued when sold to CVC in 2005-06 because of payments by Mr Ecclestone to former BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky.

But the judge concluded the payments constituted a bribe, and said it was “impossible to regard” the F1 chief executive as a “reliable or truthful witness”.

Mr Ecclestone said: “I was a little disappointed at the judge’s remarks but I understand he was in a difficult position because of the lack of evidence in front of him.”

Potential successors to Mr Ecclestone are in short supply. Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal who is close to Mr Ecclestone, is being pushed in some quarters.

Any successor needs to have the blessing of F1’s most important team, Ferrari, and its powerful president, Luca di Montezemolo. Mr Ecclestone has said in the past that the role should be divided up between different individuals.

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