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F1 needs a float to get it out of the creek

NEWS STORY
17/06/2009

The current stand-off between the FIA and FOTA seems to show no signs of abating. If the teams are forced out of F1 and stop competing in motorsport they could sell off their assets to offset redundancy costs and will make a bigger saving than under any budget cap. Alternatively, they can sit tight and refuse to accept anything other than the 2009 regulations next year. They know that they can afford to compete under the 2009 regulations and they might even be able to improve their performance if they had another year to get used to the rules. It seems hard to imagine a way forward but Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt has come up with one.

One solution, says Sylt, would be for the powers that be to work towards a stock market flotation of F1. The wonderful thing with companies which sell shares to the public is that their value changes depending on public perception. The present circumstance would be a worst-case scenario since it would send the share price plummeting. This is the last thing the teams would want because they would be shareholders.

F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone tried to float F1 several times in the late 1990s but ultimately failed due to an investigation by the European Commission into the FIA's involvement with the commercial side of F1. Ecclestone's plan always involved giving the teams significant stakes in his business which makes its money from the sale of TV contracts, trackside advertising and fees from hosting races. There is little doubt that this would bring stability now.

If the teams had shares in F1 they would also rightly be reluctant to want to increase their share of the profits from the sport. There would be little point in them doing this because the more the teams took in prize money, the lower profit the company would make and so the lower the sum which would be paid to the shareholders as a dividend. Likewise, as the dividend decreased, the value of the shares would also probably go down - yet another reason for the teams to accept status quo.

Of course, floating F1 could raise a considerable sum of money for its current majority owner CVC and the proceeds could also be used to bring down the sport's $2.3bn debt pile. It would give CVC a good exit strategy and one which it has used in many of its investments.

The European Commission paved the way for a flotation when it closed its investigation into F1 many years ago. The main obstacle comes from F1 itself.

True, the economy is far from ideal at the moment for fresh flotations however, the bigger problem would probably be that so many of F1's companies are located offshore with little public information available. As the recent disputes have shown, the sport also has a huge number of significant contracts which are kept under lock and key.

There are other thorny issues such as a succession plan for Bernie but, to its credit, CVC has institutionalised F1 somewhat since it took over ownership in 2006. It has introduced remuneration and audit committees to the rightsholder and also appointed to it highly credible independent directors who also run the global firms Nestlé and WPP.

Sylt has very close contact to both Ecclestone and CVC but he stresses that neither side has tipped him off that a flotation is on the cards. However, he adds that he knows it hasn't been ruled out. The question is whether this move, or any other possible solution, will come in time to save the sport from destroying itself.

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