MUNICH, Germany May 9 Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone came face to face in court on Friday with a jailed German banker who is the key prosecution witness in a bribery case where the Briton faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Ecclestone, 83, is accused of bribing banker Gerhard Gribkowsky by channelling $44 million to him in return for smoothing the sale of a stake in Formula One held by bank BayernLB to the private equity firm CVC eight years ago.
Gribkowsky, jailed for 8-1/2 years in 2012 over the payments, nodded to Ecclestone and smiled at him as he took the witness stand. Ecclestone returned the smile.
The relationship between Ecclestone and former BayernLB chief risk officer Gribkowsky is the central issue in a case that threatens to cost the Formula One boss his job and his reputation.
Prosecutors allege that Ecclestone favoured CVC as the new owner because it was committed to keeping him on as chief executive of a business he had built into a global money spinner over the previous three decades.
Ecclestone admits making multi-million dollar payments to Gribkowsky but says this was to silence the German who he said was threatening to make false claims about his tax status that could have jeopardised his fortune.
In the opening exchanges, Gribkowsky explained how he and Ecclestone had clashed after BayernLB acquired a 47 percent stake in Formula One following the collapse of the Kirch media group in 2002.
As the largest shareholder, the bank wanted to reduce Ecclestone's control of the business and tensions soon developed between the two men.
"It was a case of building up pressure to resolve the situation as quickly as possible," said Gribkowsky of tactics BayernLB employed with Ecclestone. "Being unpleasant to reach your goal."
However, Gribkowsky said the two tried to ensure that they could maintain a civil working relationship.
"We put our differences to one side in a professional way. I went with him to races," he said. (Reporting by Joern Poltz; writing by Keith Weir; editing by Stephen Brown and Tom Pfeiffer)