Gentlemen, please start your bidding

This year’s Formula One season has come alive, particularly off the track. All it needs now is for Rupert Murdoch or Bernie Ecclestone to put their foot down in a battle for control
The Formula One race from Shams Tower, Yas Marina Circuit. ( Ryan Carter / The National )
The Formula One race from Shams Tower, Yas Marina Circuit. ( Ryan Carter / The National )

It was on May 3 that a short item on Sky News sent a frisson through the paddocks of Formula One. It was in the gap between the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai and the Turkish Grand Prix in Istanbul, but wherever they were, people in overalls put down their spanners and grease guns; team managers paused from studying the telemetry results on their laptops, while agents stopped talking on their mobile phones.

Then commentators and the assorted hangers on that follow the F1 circus from city to city began to post on Twitter and even talk to each other for a rumour so compelling had just emerged: Rupert Murdoch and a high-powered cast including John Elkann, chairman and chief executive of Fiat, were considering a bid to threaten the hegemony of Bernie Ecclestone. Would they manage to unseat the ringmaster who has held the whip for more than 40 years?

The news flash was followed by a short press release issued jointly by Exor, the Agnelli holding company of its stake in Fiat and Ferrari, and News Corporation that confirmed their mutual interest and concluded: "Over the coming weeks and months, Exor and News Corp will approach potential minority partners and key stakeholders in the sport. There can be no certainty that this will lead to an approach to Formula One's current owners."

That at least was prescient. Because just a few weeks later and Rupert Murdoch was embroiled in the biggest and most damaging scandal ever to hit his group of companies. He was forced to close the News of the World, his 168-year-old best-selling tabloid and appear before a British parliamentary select committee, an experience he said was the "most humble day" of his life.

Not the best platform from which to be launching an audacious bid for an aggressive rival. However, a few days later and Mr Ecclestone himself was under fire. A court in Germany charged Gerhard Gribkowsky, a banker, with allegedly accepting a US$44 million (Dh161.6m) bribe in relation to the sale of F1 by Bayerische Landesbank. Mr Ecclestone admitted he paid money to Mr Gribkowsy, but told TheDaily Telegraphhe had been "threatened" over other financial matters. Even so, he insisted his lawyer travel with him to the German Grand Prix just in case.

It has often been said that if only events on the F1 race track were as compelling as they are off it, there would be 6 billion viewers rather than the 600 million that race organisers claim. Formula 1 has made Bernie Ecclestone one of the richest men in Britain, and it has also been a great investment for CVC Partners. But now a whole cast of extras may be seeking a larger slice of the pie, including Luca di Montezemolo, the charismatic chairman of Ferrari, who helped set up the Formula One Team Association (FOTA), in part to balance the power of Mr Ecclestone.

Marco Piccinini is another person potentially involved in the Exor and News Corp approach. His father Arnaldo was an electrical goods billionaire who sold his empire and went into banking. Marco is a former sporting director of Ferrari, said to have been given the job in reward for Piccinini money financing Ferrari's expanding car business. He remained in charge of the F1 team until Enzo Ferrari's death in 1988, and has been close to both Mr Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the former head of the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA), motorsport's governing body. Mr Piccini is also the finance minister of Monaco.

For its part, CVC Capital Partners, which owns 75 per cent of F1, has welcomed the approach, or at least, has not discouraged it. "CVC can confirm that it has recently received an approach from the Exor-News Corp consortium. James Murdoch has informed us that the approach is friendly, at a very preliminary stage, and that they acknowledge that Formula 1 is privately owned by CVC and not currently for sale." But is there any more to this than just a pair of octogenarians locking horns in one last struggle to see who is the biggest beast in the jungle? Would Mr Murdoch be a better custodian for the sport? Seasoned observers of F1 say this bears all the hallmarks of a classic Ecclestone manoeuvre, feinting to go one way then nipping down the inside. Indeed the paddock is split on whether this is a plan organised by Bernie or by other parties.

Martin Whitmarsh, the chief executive of McLaren Racing, thinks it vital that the sport looks at fresh revenue streams.

"Media is much more complex these days," he says. "The sport has to change because none of us will be here in 20 years' time - or not most of us - so I think we owe it to the sport that we find a positive and good way to move forward."

Most people think that wherever it goes, Mr Ecclestone will be involved. "We've looked at the issues and the figures," says Toby Syfret, the head of TV at Enders Analysis, a financial media consultancy in London, "and it comes down to this: unless Bernie gives the deal the green light, it isn't going to happen."

This has certainly been one of the most exciting seasons in Formula 1 history - both on and off the race tracks.

Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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