Munich: Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone rejected accusations of bribery when he went on trial on Thursday in a case that could threaten his grip on the sport, telling a Munich court that a German banker who received a disputed $44 million payment didn't tell the truth.
Ecclestone said in a personal statement read out in German by his lawyers that he was "grateful" to be able to give his side of the story - though he told judges that he would answer questions from the Munich state court through his lawyers, rather than personally.
The 83-year-old Ecclestone is charged with bribery and incitement to breach of trust, and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The charges involve a $44 million payment to banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving an 8-year sentence for taking the money.
Prosecutors allege the payment was meant to facilitate the sale of Munich-based bank Bayern LB's stake in Formula One to a buyer of Ecclestone's liking. Gribkowsky was in charge of selling that 47 percent stake in F1 in 2005.
Ecclestone testified during Gribkowsky's trial in 2011 and Gribkowsky is expected to be the main witness during Ecclestone's trial, which is scheduled to last until September 16.
Gribkowsky was found guilty of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust in a trial led by the same judge who is hearing Ecclestone's case, Peter Noll.
The defense made clear that it will attack Gribkowsky's credibility, and Ecclestone said in his statement that the banker didn't tell the truth.
Ecclestone has said in the past that he was "shaken down."
In Thursday's statement, Ecclestone reiterated testimony he gave at Gribkowsky's trial that he gave the banker the money because he was worried Gribkowsky would falsely accuse of him of being in charge of a trust fund set up for the Formula One boss's former wife and their children - possibly incurring a huge British tax bill.
Ecclestone's lawyers also insisted anew that their client is innocent, saying in a written statement that "the alleged bribe has not occurred."
They argued that the indictment is based on statements by Gribkowsky that are "incorrect, misleading and incoherent."
"They do not take account of the real course of events in 2005 and 2006 regarding Formula 1 and the life of Mr. Ecclestone," the lawyers said, adding they would produce new documents at the trial to dispute Gribkowsky's statements.
Ecclestone has stepped down temporarily as a director of F1's holding company pending the outcome of the trial, though he continues to manage the sport's commercial operations on behalf of investment fund CVC Capital Partners, which has a controlling stake in the web of companies which run the commercial side of the sport.
Ecclestone, who built his powerbase in F1 starting in the 1970s, likely would be unable to remain in charge if convicted - even if he avoids a prison sentence.