MUNICH (AFP) - Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone went on trial in Germany on Thursday, denying bribery charges that threaten to land the British billionaire in jail.
Ecclestone, 83, is accused of paying a German banker tens of millions of dollars to ensure his continued grip on the motor sports empire he had built up over four decades.
The mop-topped, diminutive F1 magnate entered the packed Munich courtroom in his trademark black suit and white shirt, saying "I'm confident, the sun is shining".
With a translator by his side, he followed as the prosecution made its case, alleging serious corruption charges that carry a maximum jail term of 10 years.
The case centres on a US$44-million (S$55 million) payment Ecclestone made eight years ago to a German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky, who has since been jailed.
The question is whether the money was a bribe or - as the defence claims - hush money after a blackmail attempt.
Ecclestone's lawyer Sven Thomas dismissed the allegations as "inaccurate, misleading and unsubstantiated" and said "the alleged bribery did not take place".
The cash changed hands at a time when a German corporate bankruptcy had left several banks in charge of major stakes of the Formula One enterprise.
Gribkowsky was then risk manager of one of the banks, Germany's BayernLB.
Prosecutors charge that the money was a bribe meant to ensure that BayernLB sold its shares to Ecclestone's preferred bidder, CVC Capital Partners of Britain, now the sport's majority shareholder.
They charge that Ecclestone, long the "virtually uncontested leader of Formula One", saw the banks' involvement as a "nuisance" and wanted a takeover by CVC, which had made clear it would keep him on as CEO.
'CHARM AND SOPHISTICATION'
Ecclestone claims the millions were not a bribe but hush money after Gribkowsky had threatened to make trouble for him with Britain's tax authorities.
"It was clear he wanted money," Ecclestone's statement said.
Ecclestone also denied having known that Gribkowsky, as a manager of what was then a semi-state-run bank, was a public official - a crucial element for the prosecution as it seeks to prove the criminal case of bribery.
The defence painted a picture of a deteriorating relationship between Ecclestone and Gribkowsky during the lengthy sale of Formula One rights.
In his statement, Ecclestone claimed Gribkowsky had indicated he wanted a role in Formula One, but that it became clear "there was no area of the business where Mr Gribkowsky could have helped".
The F1 boss does not intend to speak for now in the trial, which is set to run until September, but has said he will reply when Gribkowsky gives evidence against him, which is scheduled for May 9.
The presiding judge in Ecclestone's case is the same man who in 2012 sentenced Gribkowsky to eight-and-a-half years' jail.
At the time, Peter Noll said he saw Ecclestone as the driving force in the case, who had used his "charm and sophistication" to lead the banker into crime.
Ecclestone is set to be in court two days a week, a schedule designed to allow him to attend races, although he missed last Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai.
Donald Mackenzie, co-founder of CVC, said last year that Ecclestone would be fired if he was found to have committed a criminal offence.
Ecclestone began his career selling cars and motorcycles and also briefly drove race cars himself before an accident cut short his career.
He bought the Brabham team in 1972, and his control of the sport grew from his pioneering the sale of television rights in the late 1970s.
Dubbed "Napoleon" due to his 1.63m stature and firm control over F1, Ecclestone was valued by Forbes magazine at US$3.8 billion last year, one of the world's 500 richest people.
An outspoken figure, he had to apologise in recent years after saying women should be "dressed in white like all the other domestic appliances" and after voicing admiration for Adolf Hitler for being "able to get things done".