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What a difference a race makes

NEWS STORY
08/09/2008

You can hardly escape the column inches about the worsening economy at the moment but with billions sloshing around in F1 from sponsors, car manufacturers and benevolent Austrians it's easy to imagine that the sport is immune from it. It's not and a report in today's Telegraph newspaper shows that even Bernie Ecclestone and his company's financial backers CVC are just as at risk as the rest of us.

The article, written by Pitpass' business reporters Christian Sylt and Caroline Reid, reveals that F1's revenues seem to be stuck in a rut. The figures in the article come from the 2007 accounts for the sport's UK parent company and they show that its revenues, which are mainly comprised of broadcasting rights and race hosting fees, hit £530 million last year. However, this is only a small boost on the previous year when the business brought in £410 million over the nine-month period after CVC bought it.

Revenues dropped a gear after the San Marino Grand Prix was ditched for 2007. It was the second year running that a race had been dropped without being replaced and it hit the finances of Formula One Administration (FOA), which directly owns F1's commercial rights.

FOA's revenues grew by 8% year-on-year which was a small increase on its 6% growth in 2006 and way off the 25% rise seen in its heyday between 2003 and 2004. FOA still manages to grow despite dropping Grands Prix from the calendar because the hosting fees for many circuits are believed to increase by 10% annually. They range from £2 million for Italy to £20 million for Malaysia according to F1 industry monitor Formula Money. It estimates that the fees brought in a total of £185 million to FOA in 2007 with the company getting £215 million from media rights.

The other arm to F1's business is Paddock Club corporate hospitality outfit which makes £80 million annually and is ultimately owned by CVC's company Beta Holdings. It is run by the Swiss firm Allsport Management and its revenues were down by 3% in 2007 due to the reduced number of races. However, Allsport has huge costs, with 5,500 magnums of champagne, 10,000 cut flowers and 200 tonnes of tent material transported to each race. Dropping an event cut these costs and slightly accelerated the profits.

Allsport's after-tax profit increased by 2.6% in 2007 giving Beta Holdings £3.2 million compared to the previous year when it made a £1.7 million loss over a seven-month period. FOA's underlying profits rose 7% to £247 million in 2007 but F1 overall burned through much of this with debt repayments.

F1's ultimate UK holding company is called Delta 3 and it is sitting on £1.4 billion of debt believed to have been provided by RBS and Lehman Brothers to fund CVC's F1 acquisition. During 2007 the company paid off just £47.4 million of the loan and made a whopping £130 million in interest payments on it. The debt isn't due to be fully repaid until the end of 2014 which is likely to put the brakes on F1 making any significant profits before then. However, the revenues should still grow and the next set of financial results are likely to be a big improvement.

Not only are there 18 races on the calendar this year but two are big bucks new signings in the form of Valencia and Singapore. Together these are estimated to be paying FOA £42 million. Next year a 20-race calendar is being mooted with this year's new additions joined by Abu Dhabi, which it is thought alone will pay an annual fee of £25 million.

Ultimately the debt may not be such a bad thing for the man down the pub. CVC has owned the rights to F1 since 2006 and it usually looks to exit investments after three to five years. However, by not making much profit F1 doesn't look like a tasty target. With the gloomy economy, it would take a buyer with very deep pockets to give CVC the 50% return it is looking for on the £960 million it paid for F1. The Middle East wealth funds, which seem to be on the spend at the moment, certainly have enough money but may well have been put off by the recent sex scandal involving FIA President Max Mosley.

Without a buyer, the upshot could be a period of stable ownership for F1 - something that it hasn't had for a long time. So although F1's owners may not be impressed with the sport not making millions in profits, the people who really count - the fans - could end up quids in.

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