Bernie Ecclestone and his wife Slavica are set to become embroiled in what could result in 'the biggest [divorce] settlement of all time', it has been claimed - with the couple's Christmas show of togetherness revealed as having been nothing more than a publicity stunt.

It was reported late last year that Croatian-born former model Slavica had filed for divorce against her husband of 24 years, and though photographs showing the pair in an embrace during a family Christmas in Belgrade in Serbia suggested they had elected to give the relationship another go, it would seem they 'made up' only for the benefit of the cameras.

Of most concern to Formula 1 impresario Ecclestone is the fact that ?1.9 billion of his ?2.4 billion reputed fortune - accrued from the sale of 75 per cent of his company Formula One Management - has been placed in an off-shore trust in Jersey in his wife's name, as she benefits from non-domiciled tax status.

With the impending court case likely to run for several months at the very least given the complications of dividing up assets, Ecclestone has hired Helen Ward, the wife of a Court of Appeal judge, to represent him. Lady Ward is an esteemed and feared lawyer who secured film director Guy Ritchie a payout of about ?45 million - the largest sum ever received by a man from his wife - from pop star Madonna.

She also secured ?48 million for Beverly Charman, the former wife of insurance magnate John Charman. The latter figure is the highest award ever made by a British court, but Mrs Ecclestone stands to earn up to ?1 billion from the sport's commercial rights-holder.

Slavica is understood to have enlisted the services of Clintons law firm partner Liz Vernon, who herself successfully negotiated an unprecedented sum for the ex-wife of former Arsenal and England footballer Ray Parlour.

"Bernie may have to sue Slavica to get his money back," a source told London newspaper the Evening Standard. "She will have to pay him the biggest settlement of all time. All the money in her name in the trust will have to go into the matrimonial pot.

"A case of this magnitude is crying out for careful negotiation. This is not the sort of case that should go to court."

The 28-year age gap and ten-inch difference in height - both in Mrs Ecclestone's favour - have provided constant fodder for debate in the grand prix paddock since the couple met back in 1982.



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