Aston boss Stroll dragged into Force India court action  

Lawrence Stroll has denied the allegations, saying 'these claims are untrue'

Lawrence Stroll
Lawrence Stroll Credit: James Moy Photography

A business associate of Russian fertiliser billionaire Dmitry Mazepin, who lost out in the bidding for Force India, has told the High Court that he understood from beer tycoon Vijay Mallya that a payment had been offered or agreed by the billionaire chairman of Aston Martin to secure a takeover of his bust Formula 1 team.

Lawrence Stroll, who acquired the team in 2018 for £90m, renamed it Racing Point and installed his son Lance in one of its drivers’ seats, last night denied the allegations saying “these claims are untrue”.

They were made under oath by a business associate of the Russian fertiliser billionaire Dmitry Mazepin, who lost out in the bidding for Force India. He is suing the team’s administrators, two senior figures at FRP Advisory including chief executive Geoff Rowley, over claims of negligence and breach of confidence in the sale process. Mr Mazepin’s son is also a racing driver, but competes in the lesser Formula 2 championship.

Dr Mallya, chairman of the brewer behind Kingfisher lager, is fighting extradition from the UK to India on fraud charges, which he denies. In 2018 as his legal troubles mounted Force India hit financial trouble and called in insolvency specialists from FRP to help  secure a rescue deal.

In a written witness statement, Paul Ostling, the senior independent director of Mr Mazepin’s fertiliser company Uralkali, claimed that Dr Mallya told him Mr Stroll had agreed to provide him with an “honourable exit” as part of his bid.

Mr Ostling told the High Court about a “disturbing” Saturday evening phone call from Dr Mallya in August 2018 in which he said he had reached a deal with Mr Stroll at a “substantially” higher price than Uralkali had offered.

“I understood him, because of the weird and evasive manner in which he was speaking, to be inferring that Mr Lawrence Stroll had offered or agreed to provide him with a payment of some kind... he was describing this, in a colloquial manner, as ‘an honourable exit’.”

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

In the early hours of Sunday morning Mr Ostling said Dr Mallya sent him a WhatsApp message detailing the outline of his agreement with Mr Stroll including an “honourable exit”.

He told the High Court: “The clear implication that I perceived from my calls with Dr Mallya and this message was that Dr Mallya was looking for a ‘backhander’, and that Mr Lawrence Stroll was willing to do such a deal.”

Mr Ostling said Dr Mallya subsequently deleted his messages but he had preserved them using his phone’s screenshot function. However no other evidence of bribery or attempts to solicit bribes was heard by the court.

Mr Stroll, a Canadian entrepreneur, who made a fortune on fashion brands including Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors, became the biggest shareholder and chairman of Aston Martin this year after he led a £500m cash call to save the manufacturer. He plans to rename Racing Point as Aston Martin F1.

Dr Mallya said: “Neither me nor any shareholder of Force India received any inducement nor did we ever seek this. It was my key concern to protect the fantastic people at Force India and I intended to ensure that there was a smooth handover of the team. This, together with my hope to retain a shareholding in what was my team for years, is what was referred to by me as an ‘honourable exit’. Therefore the inference that my reference to an ‘honourable exit’ being some form of inducement  is complete nonsense.”

Final submissions in Uralkali’s claim against FRP, which denies wrongdoing in the administration, are due this week.

 

UPDATE - 22 Nov

Following publication of this report a spokesman for Mr Stroll said: "This lawsuit is between Uralkali and the former court appointed administrators of Force India who oversaw the sale of the team in mid-2018. Mr Stroll is not involved in the case at all.

"The unfounded allegations that have been made about Mr Stroll in court are not only untrue, they are based solely on what Mr Ostling, a director of Uralkali, claimed to have inferred from his own communications with Dr Vijay Mallya that there had been some form of bribe. Dr Mallya has also described the allegations as "nonsense" .

 "Furthermore, Uralkali did not raise these allegations at the time of the sale of Force India, and only recently included them in its lawsuit against the former administrators, 18 months after Uralkali first filed its complaint and almost two and half years after it lost its bid to acquire the team in the bidding process. Finally, the Judge in the case asked Uralkali's barrister why, if Uralkali had such concerns, it did not say anything to the administrators at the time."