Could this possibly be the beginning of the end for Bernie Ecclestone?

After more than 40 years, where he has survived more social clangers than Alan Partridge and had more stakes aimed at his heart than Dracula, might the 83-year-old panjandrum be relinquishing his grip on Formula One?

At face value, the news that Ecclestone has stepped down from the board which runs the sport, following his indictment on bribery charges in Germany, may appear to herald the changing of the guard and many would argue not before time. Yet we are dealing here with a real life C Montgomery Burns. Sometimes, he seems on the brink of the precipice. But usually, he is capable of last-gasp reprieves and Lazarus-style recoveries.

Loading article content

The question lies in whether the bold Bernie can survive damaging allegations that he made illegal payments to a German banker, Gerhard Bribkowsky, to help facilitate the sale of F1. On the face of it, Ecclestone's hopes of wriggling off the hook are bleak - after all, he admits having made the payments, but denies they were bribes.

However, this is a more serious matter than the affair of his £1m donation to the Labour Party which dented his reputation in the 1990s. In that particular case, there was merely widespread cynicism about the tactics employed by grand prix's puppet-master, whereas now one suspects many influential figures in the pit and paddock would love to hand the Englishman his P45.

Indeed, as one observer commented yesterday: "In the normal business world, any chief executive who found himself the subject of such serious criminal charges could not hope to cling on to his position. But there again, any chief executive who had referred to women as 'domestic appliances' or praised Adolf Hitler for being 'able to get things done' would have been shown the door with a haste to match the indecency of his remarks."

But, despite all the spats and global controversies, all the machinations to take races to one country and remove them from another, and the feeling that Ecclestone has overstayed his welcome by at least a decade, they fail to recognise the Teflon qualities of this individual. He is a man who has transformed Formula One into a licence to print money during his tenure.

Eccleston says he will fight the charges vehemently, and he can afford the best legal team in the business, so it would be folly for anybody to celebrate his exit from the F1 ranks just yet. We have been here before and, on a remarkable number of occasions, the former used-car salesman has bounced back from the brink.

None the less, there are two reasons why this might be a different matter from previous scandals. For starters, the Gribkowsky case is not something which can be laughed off: after all, the banker was jailed for more than eight years for taking $44m (£28m) from Ecclestone, relating to the sale of the latter's family shareholding in F1 to CVC Capital Partners in 2006.

In essence, and regardless of the widespread perception, Bernie is no longer the emperor of all he surveys. He has a boss - Donald McKenzie, the CVC chairman - who told the High Court last year that Ecclestone would have to be sacked if he was convicted of a criminal offence. Then there is the fact there is another pending legal imbroglio in the United States - where financiers, Bluewaters, have sued him - which he will have to confront once he has dealt with the Gribkowsky situation. Eventually, even for somebody like Ecclestone, these long and tiresome bouts of litigation take their toll and impose their strain. And that is even before we consider his age, or examine the thorny issue of when he will be replaced at the helm of F1.

Ultimately, his powers of survival are legendary. But this might be the last straw for the team owners whom he has presided over with a rod of iron for decades. Monty Burns always had Waylon Smithers to aid his escape. Ecclestone, though, is in the middle of a minefield.