PARIS (AFP) – Bernie Ecclestone started out as a simple second-hand car salesman and went on to transform Formula One motor-racing into one of the most profitable sports the world.
German prosecutors on Wednesday indicted the British magnate on a bribery charge, but the 82-year-old has refused to resign as Formula One boss, despite facing a trial and a possible prison sentence.
However, the prospect of having to find a replacement for Ecclestone, on whose F1 decisions hang billion of dollars, sent shivers through the motor racing fraternity.
"F1 is what it is thanks to Bernie Ecclestone, to the way he has built this sport over the past 35 years," said his compatriot Christian Horner, team principal at world champions Red Bull, when asked about a possible succession.
"Everything we see here is based on what he did and succeeded in doing. I think that without him we would have big problems."
Despite his age, Ecclestone has brushed off suggestions that he is soon to retire and has insisted that his legal woes will not lead him to resign.
"I don't see why I should do that, I will do what I have always done: keep working and do my job," Ecclestone told German newspaper Bild.
Ecclestone has been charged by Munich prosecutors in relation to a $44 million (33.6 million euro) payment he made to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky which was linked to the sale of the Formula One rights in 2006.
Dubbed "Napoleon" due to his 1.63-metre (five foot, four inch) stature and firm control over Formula One, Ecclestone was valued by Forbes magazine at $3.8 billion in March 2013, making him one of the richest 500 people in the world.
He is no stranger to controversy.
He was in the spotlight in late 1997 owing to a donation of 1.5 million pounds ($2.3 million, 1.75 million euros) to the Labour Party of then prime minister Tony Blair, which subsequently authorised the continued use of tobacco advertising by the sport.
Holder of a degree from Woolwich Polytechnic in southeast London, Ecclestone, known for his trademark white shirt and black trousers, began his career selling cars and motorcycles in the capital, and also briefly drove race cars himself.
However, his career was cut short by an accident.
In the early 1970s, Ecclestone set up the Brabham team.
Then, with competitors, he established the Formula One Constructors Association, gathering around him the other chiefs of motor racing stables to defend their interests against what became the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
One of the first to recognise the potential in sponsorship, he became the exclusive manager of F1 rights, taking the helm of Formula One Management, negotiating with circuits, advertisers and television stations.
"The contracts he negotiated, the circuits and the countries to which he brought F1, are remarkable. As long as he has the passion and enthusiasm to continue it is in our interests that he does it as long as possible," Horner said.
"The day he is no longer there our sport will go much less well," said the man some see as a potential successor to Ecclestone.
Ecclestone's fortune has been little dented despite his having had to pay out one billion euros ($1.3 billion) to divorce his wife Slavica -- the mother of his two children Tamara and Petra -- and to remarry last year the 36-year old Brazilian Fabiana Flosi, whom he met at the South American country's Grand Prix.