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Motoring through the downturn - F1 and the credit crunch

NEWS STORY
02/10/2008

With plaudits pouring in following Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix it's clear that the race was a resounding success. But as Pitpass' business reporter Chris Sylt explains, what's not so clear to see is how it is the cornerstone of a plan which is ensuring that F1 doesn't join a host of other big businesses and end up a casualty of the economic crash.

F1 is one of the world's best-sponsored sports with its ten teams each getting an average of 44.9m from corporate partners this year. But as purse strings are pulled tighter sponsorship and marketing becomes tougher for companies to justify in general and the level of expenditure required for F1 could become unaffordable. To make matters worse, financial services has been the most badly battered sector in the recent economic crisis and, after telecoms and technology, it provides the greatest amount of sponsorship to F1 teams this year at an estimated 74m. Likewise the soaring cost of fuel is sure to ramp up the cots of the globe-trotting teams. They don't have to look far to see what damage a downturn can do.

F1's closest brush so far with the credit crunch came last month when Lehman Brothers, the US investment bank, went bankrupt. Lehman owns a 16.8% stake in Delta Topco, the Jersey-based company which ultimately owns F1's commercial rights.

The sport's boss Bernie Ecclestone owns just 0.00001% of Delta's shares with the majority in the hands of finance firm CVC which may now be able to buy Lehman's shares for a discount since the bank will be welcome for revenue to pay off its debts. CVC is believed to have spent over 1bn to buy F1 in 2006 and will eventually want to offload its investment for a profit. An F1 co-owner going bankrupt is not the ideal image which CVC wants to give to prospective purchasers.

When CVC bought its stake in F1 it didn't pay for it with cash. Instead it funded it with a loan of 1.4bn from Royal Bank of Scotland and Lehman Brothers and this has made managing debt just as important to the F1 Group as managing motorsport.

In 2007 F1's UK parent company Delta 3 made a loss of 235 million partly down to a staggering 130 million in interest payments it made on the loan. It could be so different.

Roughly 220m of Delta 3's revenues come from race hosting fees with around 207m brought in by television rights fees. Neither incur high overheads except for staff and so the company has a huge profit margin of 54%. This gets burned up by the interest payments but it shows that boosting revenues would increase profits meaning that the debt could be paid off quicker. However, it isn't possible to do this by adding more races to the calendar since the F1 teams are unwilling to accept more than 20 Grands Prix each year. Instead, Ecclestone's strategy has been to take F1 to countries which are prepared to pay top dollar.

Governments of emerging countries, such as Singapore, South Korea and India, want to bankroll F1's huge hosting fees for promotional purposes. Few sports put countries on the global map like F1. There's the prestige of being on the calendar alongside alluring locations like Monaco, Malaysia and Bahrain. Then there's the exposure to F1's 597m annual viewers as well as the huge spending by tens of thousands of fans staying in the local area over the race weekend.

So whilst Silverstone is paying an estimated 9.4m per year for the British Grand Prix, Abu Dhabi and South Korea have reportedly agreed to pay 25m each for their races which join the calendar in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Such is the interest in using the races to promote the local country, the Abu Dhabi GP has even already agreed a title sponsorship deal with the airline Etihad and each of the five races this year in Asia has a title sponsor based in the host nation. This brings more money to F1's trackside advertising division and could even introduce local manufacturers to the sport. In contrast, the French and Canadian Grands Prix don't even have any company paying for their naming rights.

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