F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone has revealed that his involvement in the redevelopment of the Paul Ricard circuit was central to the chain of events that led to him buying German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky's silence.
Ecclestone has long claimed that the $44m payment to Gribkowsky was made in order to prevent the German from contacting UK tax officials and 'leaking' details of his financial affairs. The octogenarian still maintains that what Gribkowsky had to say was false, but wanted to avoid a lengthy, and costly, investigation by HM Revenue & Customs. The German courts, however, saw things differently, jailing Gribkowsky for accepting a bribe to help steer the sale of F1 towards Ecclestone's preferred bidder, private equity firm CVC.
Until now, the Briton has never disclosed what Gribkowsky was preparing to use against him but, according to Britain's Telegraph
newspaper, it was based on Ecclestone involvement with the Paul Ricard circuit, which was owned by a company, Excelis, ultimately controlled by the Bambino family trust registered in the name of his ex-wife.
The transformation of the venue from rundown former French Grand Prix host into a high-tech testing facility was co-ordinated by Excelis chairman Philippe Gurdjian under the advice and guidance of Ecclestone, but it is alleged that Gribkowsky saw the Briton's involvement as contrary to the terms of the trust's control.
As a UK taxpayer, Ecclestone was not allowed direct involvement in the trust – or to enjoy the benefit of income derived from it - without attracting accusations that it was a tax avoidance scam, but Gribkowsky felt that this was not the case.
“I helped the people that own the circuit as it belongs to the trust,” Ecclestone insisted, “I helped them, told them the sort of hospital they should build and even the sort of car run-off areas they should build. Gribkowsky said I ran the trust and this is one example.”
Whilst insisting that there was no basis for Gribkowsky's claims, Ecclestone admitted that he had been concerned that HMRC might take it seriously and 'assess a tax bill of many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of pounds that I believe I did not owe', with 'the burden of proof on me to prove that the authorities were wrong in their assessment', so felt that paying the banker to keep quiet was the better option.
“He shook me down and put me in a position that I believed perhaps he was going to do what he was saying he could do, even if he couldn't,” Ecclestone said.
Ironically, HMRC has since opened up an investigation into the Briton's affairs and his involvement with various offshore trusts, although he is not suspected of tax evasion. Ecclestone is also the subject of investigations by prosecutors in Munich who continue to believe that there is a connection between Gribkowsky and CVC's acquisition of the F1 rights.