By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Bernie Ecclestone risks losing his decades-old grip on Formula One motor racing this year, when legal action stemming from the sale of a stake in the sport eight years ago reaches a climax.
Ecclestone, 83, is awaiting the outcome of a $100 million damages claim brought by German company Constantin Medien in the London High Court over his involvement in a deal that brought in CVC Capital Partners as the largest shareholder in Formula One.
That decision should come in January or February. Win or lose, it won't be the last that the Formula One CEO hears of the matter because he faces a further damages claim in London and a possible criminal trial in Germany.
CVC has stood by Ecclestone but its co-founder Donald Mackenzie told the High Court in London in November that it would fire him if he was ever found guilty of wrongdoing.
The uncertainty about Ecclestone's fate has helped make it impossible to restart stalled plans to list the business on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
Ecclestone, who has built Formula One into one of the world's most lucrative sports over four decades, still works long hours and travels to races around the globe, accompanied by his Brazilian third wife, who is 46 years his junior.
He has long dismissed talk of retirement but the question won't go away.
He suggested to British reporters in November that Red Bull team boss Christian Horner could one day replace him but has since dismissed the idea as little more than a joke with one of his closest friends in the sport.
There is no obvious heir apparent within the Formula One business itself, a lean organization with only around 300 staff.
"In the event of me deciding to leave, they would look for someone from outside the industry," Ecclestone told Reuters.
Richard Scudamore, chief executive of English soccer's Premier League, and Sainsbury's supermarket CEO Justin King are two men tipped as potential outside candidates.
"ONE MAN SHOW"
Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo plans to invite team heads to a meeting in Italy in January to start discussing the future of a sport in which many of the smaller teams are struggling to make ends meet.
Montezemolo said it would be time to move away from the "one man show" when Ecclestone leaves and spread responsibility among a wider group of managers.
"We have to create a group of governance in which you have a CEO, and then you have one in charge of motor racing," he said.
The Constantin case, which lasted for seven weeks and at which Ecclestone gave evidence, centers on the sale by German bank BayernLB of a 47 percent stake in Formula One to CVC for about $830 million in 2005-2006.
Ecclestone is accused of a "corrupt bargain" with jailed former BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to undervalue the stake and ensure a deal with CVC, which wanted to keep him on as chief executive.
Constantin is arguing it missed out on a share of the proceeds it would have got had the price topped $1 billion.
State-backed BayernLB is threatening to file its own suit for $400 million damages in London in January. It was one of a group of banks left in control of the sport after the Kirch media empire collapsed in 2002.
A Munich court will decide in the new year whether to order Ecclestone to stand trial over $44 million of payments he and a family trust made to Gribkowsky after the CVC deal. The German authorities jailed Gribkowsky in 2012 for 8-1/2 years for bribery and tax evasion.
Ecclestone says he paid Gribkowsky 10 million pounds ($16.4million) but denies wrongdoing and said the payment had nothing to do with the CVC deal. He argues he was the victim of coercion by Gribkowsky, accusing the German of threatening to make false claims about his tax status.
($1 = 0.6111 British pounds)
(Additional reporting by Alan Baldwin; writing by Keith Weir; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)