By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said on Thursday that paying a German banker, who admitted in court to taking bribes during the sale of a stake in the motor-racing business, had been a "bit stupid".
Ecclestone's role has come under the spotlight after BayernLB's former chief risk officer Gerhard Gribkowsky told a Munich court on Wednesday he had allowed himself to be bribed during the sale of the bank's 48 percent shareholding in 2006.
Ecclestone, 81, told Reuters that Gribkowsky had been putting him under pressure over his tax affairs. He paid some 10 million pounds ($16 million) to the banker to "keep him quiet" and not as alleged to smooth the sale of the Formula One stake to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.
Gribkowsky is on trial for breach of trust and tax evasion over a payment of 45 million euros ($57 million) he received and a judge has said he could face nine years in prison.
"I have always said that we gave him money but it was not for what he said," said Ecclestone, who appeared as a witness at the trial last November.
"He was shaking me down a bit and saying I had control of a family trust which was not true," said Ecclestone, speaking by telephone from the Spanish city of Valencia ahead of this weekend's European Grand Prix.
"He was doing the best he could. I was a little bit stupid - normally I would have told him to get lost," he said.
FLOAT ON HOLD
The billionaire said his tax arrangements had been cleared by the British authorities two years later but at the time he had not wanted to get drawn into a potentially hugely expensive legal fight. The comments echo testimony Ecclestone gave to the trial.
"The downside was it could have cost 2 billion (pounds), so I paid him. My payment was just over 10 million pounds. As a business guy, I thought that was the better deal," said Ecclestone.
CVC retained Ecclestone as head of the business after the deal. Despite his age, the diminutive Briton remains the central figure in running a sport which is expected to generate revenue of $2 billion this year and there is no obvious successor.
CVC had had a majority stake in Formula One, the high-speed motor racing series, since 2006 but has been whittling that down in deals in recent months and now has around 35 percent.
U.S. asset management company Waddell & Reed has built up a 20.9-percent stake for an investment of around $1.6 billion.
Formula One put plans for a flotation in Singapore this month on hold because of market volatility, but Ecclestone said the intention was still to proceed.
"It was just simply that the market is a bit turbulent. Why go into the market and battle against something? It wasn't necessary," he said.
"Everything is being prepared. When markets look a bit more stable, they will push the button and go."
($1 = 0.7873 euro = 0.6354 pound)
(Editing by Clare Fallon)