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Could the FIA buy back Formula One?

NEWS STORY
15/05/2012

It looks like F1 is racing towards flotation on the Singapore stock market and the biggest question most people are likely to have about it is what does the business actually own. It only has around 250 staff and very few tangible assets but it certainly brings in plenty of hard cash as F1's annual revenues come to around £1bn. So where does it all come from?

Contrary to popular belief, the most valuable asset owned by F1 is not its chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. There is absolutely no doubt that Ecclestone is the most important person involved with the business of F1 but he most certainly isn't owned by the company which runs the sport - in contrast, he owns a 5.3% stake in it. Ecclestone most probably wouldn't take too kindly to being owned by anyone, and quite rightly too. He is simply employed as F1's chief executive and in 2010 had an annual salary of £4.9m.

In fact, literally the most valuable asset owned by F1 is its contract with the sport's governing body the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA). This grants F1 the commercial rights to the sport for another 98 years. Ecclestone signed the contract with the FIA in 2001 and it was widely seen as being a terrific deal for him. In total, the contract gave his business the rights to run F1 for 100 years for £195m. To see just how good a deal it was it is worth considering that F1 now makes in revenue every year more than five times the total fee it paid for the rights.

FIA president Jean Todt has said that there is no way the federation could extract more money from the contract. "It is what we have," he said in April last year. In addition to locking down the fee, the contract also prevents the federation from taking over the commercial rights to F1 but did the FIA really need to sign it? Some explanation needs to be given before this question can be answered.

The FIA ultimately owns the rights to the sport since it set it up in 1950 through writing the technical regulations which define what an F1 car is. As time went by the FIA passed the rights to the teams to manage and, in 1981 the teams handed this task to Ecclestone's company Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) in return for it taking a 23% cut. Using his sharp business skills Ecclestone became fabulously wealthy through this work.

Before Ecclestone's involvement F1 was run in a rather haphazard way as races could be cancelled at the last minute if not enough teams showed up. It made broadcasters reluctant to show F1 but Ecclestone changed that by getting the teams to sign the Concorde Agreement which commits them to race. He then took this to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which guaranteed coverage on its multiple member channels and then, after F1 had got a foothold, he unshackled the sport from the EBU by signing agreements with separate broadcasters. Ecclestone says it was the best business decision of his career but, in fact, he is being modest as that was yet to come.

By 1995 Ecclestone had become the world's highest paid executive when he received a salary of £54.9m from FOPA. However, he had his eye on even greater riches to be reaped from F1. By the late 1990s Ecclestone was in his 60s and suffered from heart problems which culminated in him having a triple bypass in 1999. His wife Slavica was 24 years his junior and together they had two young daughters.

Ecclestone wanted to leave them a substantial lump-sum of a legacy if he died and he was advised that he should cash in on F1's success by floating his business. The problem was that to do this his company needed to directly get the contract for the F1 rights, as it does now, whereas his contract was with the teams to manage the rights on their behalf.

This hurdle was swerved around on 19 December 1995 when the FIA agreed that another of Ecclestone's businesses, FOCA Administration, which is now known as Formula One Management (FOM), would get the contract for the F1 rights from 1997 to the end of 2010 for the annual fee of £6.3m. It led to McLaren's executive chairman Ron Dennis saying "Bernie effectively stole Formula 1 from us." Nevertheless, Ecclestone had what he needed to float F1 and it handed him the keys to the billionaire's club.

Over the 14 years of its contract with the FIA, the F1 rights generated over £5bn in revenue whereas the federation only received around £85m. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the close relationship between Ecclestone and the FIA fell under the gaze of the European Commission (EC) and in 1999 it opened an anti-competition investigation into F1. This put the brakes on Ecclestone's plans to float but it didn't stop him building up his legacy for his family. He transferred his shares in FOM to his family trust and in the decade following the signing of the contract with the FIA it made £2.4bn from selling stakes in the company and securing a loan on it.

The EC eventually closed its investigation into F1 after a number of changes were made by Ecclestone and the FIA. Crucially, the FIA said that to separate the commercial side of the sports it regulates from the governance aspect, it would sell the rights to them for a lengthy period. This is how F1 ended up with its current 100 year rights contract which began in 2011. So, the short answer to the question posed earlier is yes the FIA did indeed need to sign the 100-year rights contract as it was necessary to appease the EC. However, that doesn't mean to say that the FIA couldn't seize the F1 rights if the contract was broken and recent evidence demonstrates this.

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