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F1 team finances go into reverse

NEWS STORY
30/03/2009

The cars may have looked a little bit different and the racing may have been a bit more frenetic than usual but, other than that, you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the 2009 Australian Grand Prix and the race in previous years. But behind the scenes things couldn't have been more different.

The economic downturn has put more pressure than ever before on the teams' budgets with speculation running rife about which ones may decide to pull the plug on their involvement in F1. The teams' accounts give a good indication of their health but the accounts are usually released in the following year that they cover. Weaknesses identified in the accounts can result in a resounding statement of the team's stability by its management who don't want negative coverage to compound its problems.

A running measure of whether a team has a healthy business has never been made public. Until now.

A report in the Independent newspaper by Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt reveals that the business intelligence firm Dun&Bradstreet has carried out an investigation into the teams' creditworthiness and this shows that they have been paying their bills 30% later in 2009 than last year. The data (see box below) gives a good indication of which outfits are running healthy businesses and which may reverse out of the sport due to financial problems.

Remarkably, Toro Rosso is the only F1 team which pays its bills on time. According to the data, the teams are paying their bills on average 17.8 days late this year, compared to 13.8 days late in 2008, and Williams had the biggest increase in late payment. Dun&Bradstreet's data shows that so far in 2009, Williams has been paying its bills 19 days late on average compared to 11 days late last season. Its finances are far from pole position.

Over 2006 and 2007 Williams burnt up after-tax losses of 50m and its owners, Frank Williams and Patrick Head took two consecutive pay cuts of 800,000. In 2007 the team trebled its net debt in order to stay on-track and, according to another article written by Sylt in the Sunday Express, Williams lost more sponsorship than any other team. The departures of Baugur, IT-firm Lenovo and Brazilian oil company Petrobras alone cost Williams $45m in sponsorship.

A handful of Williams' sponsors, such as recruitment firm Randstad and Philips, have upgraded their involvement and the team has been advanced prize money by F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone. Yet there are still dark clouds on the horizon. Beleaguered bank RBS is believed to be Williams' biggest backer through the $20m it pays for huge logos on the car but it has announced that it too will be pulling out of F1 at the end of next year.

However, Williams is not the slowest team to pay its bills. This dubious honour goes to Force India, which settles its bills 72 days late. But given the very public troubles which Williams and Force India have faced, their payment records perhaps aren't so surprising. What is even more eye-popping is how slowly the teams owned by car manufacturers pay their bills.

Last year the only team which paid its bills early was Toyota but now even it is settling payment one day late. According to Dun&Bradstreet, Renault pays 6 days late, Ferrari pays 11 days late and, most surprisingly, McLaren takes an average of 26 days after the due date to settle payment. For a team which prides itself on a spotless reputation it comes as a huge shock to discover that, after Force India, McLaren pays its bills slower than any other F1 team.

"Despite the global economic downturn, Formula 1's sponsorship situation remains remarkably robust," said McLaren chairman Ron Dennis on Saturday. To support his point Dennis listed new team sponsorship deals signed in F1: Virgin, Akzo Nobel, FxPro, Gauteng, Casio, Nautilus and Trust. However, what Dennis neglected to mention is that these new deals in total only come to around two thirds of the estimated $30.5m which has been lost by Baugur ceasing its Williams sponsorship this year.

In addition to losing Baugur, F1 has also said goodbye to 18 other brands in 2009 ranging from Credit Suisse and Dell to Martini and Ray-Ban. In total the teams have lost $97m in sponsorship which is a massive nine times greater than the amount they lost in 2008.

Fewer sponsors have joined F1 in 2009 than in any of the past five years with only just over $20m of new deals done. In contrast, $183m of new sponsorships were signed in 2007 when the ban on tobacco advertising saw a wave of new brands enter the sport including banking giants Santander and ING.

What F1 needs to get used to is that, like many governments around the world, it didn't put enough money aside when the going was good. This point is adequately demonstrated by the fact that Williams saw a massive 382m flow into its account over the five years between 2003 and 2007 yet it ended up with just 13,218 in the bank.

Maybe Ecclestone should levy a tax on the teams' prize money, the proceeds of which could be put into an emergency fund to be used by teams facing financial difficulties. It isn't too late for them but it soon could be.

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