The reports that Bernie Ecclestone is offering $33 million to settle the criminal trial in Germany are just plain weird. There have long been rumours that Ecclestone was looking for a financial settlement, but it has always looked to be rather unlikely. A fine is OK for a parking offence, but only a politician could argue against the absurd irony of letting a briber off with a fine. That’s not to say that Ecclestone is admitting guilt here, he just wants the trial to be over. He does not want a guilty verdict because he knows that this would mean that his F1 toys will be taken away from him. The only way he can keep the train set is to be declared “not guilty”, but even then there are no guarantees when dealing with private equity people who work only on risk analysis. They have taken a huge risk already getting things this far and one cannot help but feel that at some point they will pull out their glistening knives and solve the problem in a different fashion. Mr E is approaching his 84th birthday and has no successor. There are plenty of folk who think that getting him out of the way would instantly add to the value of the business. What has kept CVC Capital Partners supporting him so far is the fear of what might happen if he is not there… This is why they are in a hurry to sell now. It may have been a wildly successful investment, but the suits in the shadows don’t like being dragged into court and forced to admit that they don’t really know their management has been getting up to. It’s bad for their image.
Whatever the case, one cannot help but conclude that wanting a pay-off has bad implications. Why would an innocent man pay to stop a trial that should logically find that he has been telling the truth? Lawyers are not stupid men and women, although in general terms they will always kowtow to the man with the cheque book. The customer is always right, and so on….
So what is the angle here?
One likes to believe that justice does not work like this, otherwise what is the point of a justice system? Every crook and shyster would claim that there was a precedent and bribery would have to become acceptable behaviour in Germany, either that or the decision would have to be overturned and the judge fustigated for having allowed it to happen. He would have no career ahead of him.
If the case against Ecclestone is not good enough then the prosecutors may lose and be embarrassed, so perhaps this pay-off is being floated as a better option for them. Perhaps it is, but it would still be a lousy decision for justice in Germany. But then, if Ecclestone is confident of winning why would he not push for the victory? That is what you would do…
There are some who see a fine as being the pragmatic answer to a guilty verdict. The Germans obviously don’t want to stick an 83-year-old man in jail for a white collar crime, but just because one is old should not be an excuse if you have committed a crime. Let them all off and we will have a crime wave of cat burglar euro-pensioners… justifying their actions because pensions are shrinking. Some would argue that if a man can handle a wife roughly half his age, he can also handle some porridge [British slang for time in prison].
I cannot claim to know what is going on in Germany. What I do know is that none of it is good for the sport and in a corporate world this would not happen. And this is why one has to eventually reach the conclusion that a corporate structure is best for the future of F1. Transparency is good. More sensible financial structures are essential and a new age can then begin.
It is, in truth, a pattern that has been repeated over and over. The trailblazers go in and create a colony, the entrepreneurs give it dynamic growth and then the administrators are required. There is no room after that for the buccaneers. A calmer future beckons.
If other sports can make corporate management work, there is no reason why F1 cannot. It merely requires some owners who see the value in not always going for the fast buck, people who want profits but are willing to invest to build a stronger business. It needs competitors who are reasonable and fair and a management that is enlightened and open to new ideas.