As Red Bull team principal Horner waits in the wings
- Bernie Ecclestone to remain in post as Formula One chief executive unless he is found guilty of bribery at Criminal Court in Munich in April
- The 83-year-old has maintained the support of CVC chief Donald Mackenzie
- Christian Horner is the only plausible contender to replace Ecclestone
- Source tells Sportsmail that Horner, who’s close to Eccelstone, ‘fits the bill’
Bernie Ecclestone has again proved himself the great survivor by maintaining the support of the one person who can save him from the sack – publicity-shy businessman Donald Mackenzie.
Sportsmail understands that Mackenzie, the chairman of CVC, the private equity firm which owns the largest shareholding in Formula One, has withstood pressure from within the board to remove Ecclestone after he was called ‘untruthful and corrupt’ by a judge last week.
Although Mackenzie, 57, rarely speaks to reporters and declined to offer public backing for Ecclestone, unimpeachable sources have revealed that he remains loyal for two principal reasons.
Staying put: Bernie Ecclestone, pictured in London last week, is poised to remain at the helm of Formula One
The first is that Ecclestone, with his flair and experience, makes the business more money than anyone else possibly could, and the second that there is nobody lined up to take over.
Therefore, Ecclestone will stay in post as Formula One’s chief executive – and all-seeing impresario – unless he is found guilty of bribery in a criminal court case in Munich this April.
However, given that Ecclestone is 83, a replacement must be found some time soon. One board member told Sportsmail that the only plausible contender is Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, who was named by Ecclestone as his preferred successor last November.
Looking ahead: Christian Horner is seen as the only plausible contender to replace the 83-year-old
The two men are close, often dining together. Horner was one of only a handful of guests at Ecclestone’s 2012 marriage to Brazilian Fabiana Flosi.
But as well as being a confidant of Ecclestone, Horner is respected within the paddock for the astute manner in which he has harnessed Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s fortune to win eight titles, drivers’ and constructors’, in four seasons.
One well-placed source said: ‘There is no doubt Christian fits the bill. Bernie is unique and no one can do what he has been doing. Simple as that. We need someone with experience of Formula One, someone who can deal with television rights and commercial contracts. The fact that Bernie would train Christian up, in effect, looks like a solution to many of the directors.’
Surviving the axe: Ecclestone, pictured here earlier this year, faces trial in a Munich court in April
Ecclestone, who stores every contract in his office, and all the know-how in his head, holds a strong hand with regards to who replaces him and when. Imposing some corporate type on him would not work.
Justin King, the former Sainsbury’s chief executive, whose son Jordan is pursuing a career in motor racing, was interviewed by Mackenzie but has been categorically discounted as a possible replacement.
Sportsmail understands that, Horner apart, none of the handful of names linked with Ecclestone’s position is remotely under consideration. So it seems likely that only a jail sentence in Munich, where Ecclestone is accused of bribing German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to sell the sport to CVC at an undervalued price, will unseat the octogenarian billionaire in the immediate future.
Moving on: Horner has steered Red Bull to eight titles, drivers’ and constructors’, in four seasons
For as well as strong support from Mackenzie, Ecclestone has the backing of the Peter Brabeck-Lethmathe, chairman of Delta Topco, the F1 board that comprises CVC and the other shareholders.
It is understood that Brabeck-Lethmathe was won over by Ecclestone’s ‘genius’ in building palaces out of sand – namely, taking the sport to new venues, such as Bahrain and Abu Dhabi – and making huge profits in the process.
However, there remains a chance that Mackenzie could be swayed into acting sooner if the sport’s other investors, including Waddell and Reed, an American investment company who hold a 20.9 per cent stake, the US-based financial firm BlackRock, and Norges Bank, who control the Norwegian government’s pension fund, started to fret about Ecclestone’s probity.
Mercedes and Ferrari, who also sit on the board, are known to be exercised about the need for good corporate governance, citing the European compliance law, which acts as a kind of fit-and-proper-person test.
In the spotlight: Luca di Montezemolo is likely to oppose Horner taking over from Ecclestone
Ferrari, represented by their president and one of Formula One’s big beasts Luca di Montezemolo, have publicly called for a summit to plan a future for the sport in the post-Ecclestone.
Di Montezemolo has not been antagonistic towards Ecclestone in his pronouncements, but is likely to speak out against Horner taking over on the basis that he hails from a rival team.
Ecclestone is still stung by the findings of Mr Justice Newey last week. Despite ruling against Constantin Medien, a German media firm and former shareholders in F1 who believe they lost out because Ecclestone bribed Gribkowsky to sell the sport for less than its market value, Newey said Ecclestone had lied in evidence.
‘Tell me where I lied,’ said Ecclestone yesterday. ‘I can’t see where the evidence is for that.’