It has been confirmed that Bernie and Slavica Ecclestone are to divorce - meaning the former is facing an unprecedented legal battle on his hands to keep hold of his ?2.4 billion amassed fortune.

It was revealed last week that the wife of Formula 1's commercial rights-holder had moved out of the family home in Chelsea over the weekend of the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos earlier this month [see separate story - click here], and though she was not willing to comment at the time, it has now been announced that the couple are indeed to separate.

"Prompted by media speculation, it is formally announced that Mrs Slavica Ecclestone has filed for divorce," a spokesman for the Croatian-born, former international fashion model is quoted as having said by British newspaper The Times. "Mrs Ecclestone has asked that her privacy and that of her children should be respected."

The Ecclestones - who met when Slavica was modelling at the 1982 Italian Grand Prix at Monza, though it is said she did not know who he was at the time and consequently gave him a false 'phone number - have been married for 24 years and have two daughters together, Tamara, 24 and Petra, 19.

The couple's relationship has long been the subject of curiosity in the tabloid media for the 28-year age gap that separates them, and the fact that whilst he is just 5ft4, she is a statuesque 6ft2.

The main problem for the Formula One Management chief executive now is the fact that he signed over the bulk of his personal fortune to his wife after he made ?1.9 billion from a bond issue in 1999, electing to place the money in off-shore trusts controlled by Slavica.

That raises the intriguing prospect of the man who placed 24th in this year's Sunday Times Rich List - thanks to the money he has made from F1's television rights over his two-and-a-half decade rule of the sport - having to battle his soon-to-be ex-wife to be able to hold onto it.

During that period, The Times reports, the 78-year-old has on six occasions sold down his stake without ever relinquishing overall control.

Now, however, he looks set to be in for the fight of his life, with his wife having enlisted the legal services of top divorce lawyer Liz Vernon from London firm Clintons, who gained notoriety when she won a landmark ruling in the Court of Appeal that earned Karen Parlour a third of Arsenal and England footballer husband Ray Parlour's earnings for four years.

The assets that look set to be disputed in the Ecclestone case include the Chelsea house as well as a hotel in the Swiss Alpine resort of Gstaad, a yacht and a Falcon jet. Alex Carruthers, a partner at the family law firm Hughes Fowler Carruthers, is convinced there is no reason why Ecclestone could not argue for the return of assets signed over to his wife for estate planning or any other reason - even if the F1 supremo is unlikely to be rewarded more than 65 per cent of the joint matrimonial fortune.

"Those assets should be divided equally unless there is a good reason for departing from that," Carruthers stated. "He will argue that he has made a stellar contribution to those assets, done something that nobody else has done before - ie. built up the sport - and that should be reflected in the award."