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Mosley speaks out, this time about News Corp

NEWS STORY
10/06/2011

Former FIA president Max Mosley has been speaking out a lot recently and it makes a nice contrast to the silence from within the governing body itself. In addition to telling the world that the Bahrain Grand Prix could not return to the calendar without the agreement of F1's teams, Mosley has indicated to Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt that he would use the power he still has within the FIA to block a takeover of F1 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation media empire. If anyone connected to the FIA has first-hand experience of how News Corp really operates it is Mosley.

Mosley was the FIA president until 2009 - one year after one of News Corp's newspapers printed a lurid exposé about him. Last month he failed in a bid to tighten privacy laws across Europe but it is likely that he would have greater success stopping a News Corp bid for F1.

News Corp has been linked with many other firms in its dream of acquiring F1. These include the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, and the Exor investment fund which ultimately owns a stake in Ferrari. Testimony to the uncertainty of News Corp's plan, it released a statement with Exor last month confirming that "there can be no certainty that this will lead to an approach to Formula One's current owners." Indeed, News Corp hasn't even made a bid and it has been told by F1's majority owner, private equity firm CVC, that the sport isn't for sale. Nevertheless, News Corp's own media outlet Sky News has fiercely promoted the phantom bid.

Current FIA president Jean Todt said last month that "CVC has not the intention to sell." However, he added that "if one day CVC is deciding that they want to sell the rights... I need to speak with my people in the FIA to give an agreement about whether they are happy with the people who take over or whether we are not happy." This is where Mosley would come in.

Any takeover of F1 has to be approved by the FIA and its senate has the power to veto the deal. Mosley still holds one of the 10 seats on the senate and is believed to carry considerable sway within the body as a result of having been the FIA's longest-serving president.

In a report in the Express written by Sylt, Mosley says he "would only be involved in the decision if it went to the FIA Senate (of which Carlos Slim's son is also a member). My personal view is that News Corp would not satisfy a 'fit and proper person' test. There might also be competition law questions. However I am very out of touch and have not attended a Senate meeting since 2009."

F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone has said that CVC may never sell F1 but Sky News was quick to ridicule this idea saying that "the idea of it holding onto F1 in perpetuity is not credible." Whilst it is obviously tough to imagine CVC retaining F1 literally forever that isn't the important point to draw from Ecclestone's comment.

The key question is whether CVC is likely to sell F1 any time in the near future because if it isn't then News Corp's hopes of buying F1 any time soon are laughable regardless of whether it musters the courage to actually make a bid. If CVC doesn't sell F1 to News Corp then Sky News' coverage of the phantom bid will have been much more than a little bit pointless.

As Pitpass has reported CVC held on to its previous motorsport investment, MotoGP's rights-holder Dorna, for eight years before selling up. It didn't even offload Dorna because it wanted to sell up, instead, the European Commission forced CVC to sell Dorna when it bought F1.

F1 was one of CVC's biggest ever deals requiring an equity investment of €798m. In contrast, CVC invested just €17.9m to buy Dorna. With much more at stake, it is likely that CVC would wait at least as long (if not longer) than it did with Dorna before selling F1 and maximising its return.

If News Corp ever were to try and buy F1 it would face huge regulatory hurdles as Pitpass has reported. However if we were writing this in three years time Sky News' reports about a takeover wouldn't look so much like premature wishful thinking because at least CVC's window is more likely to be open. There is another good reason why talk of CVC selling F1 would not be so silly in several years time.

It was no accident that CVC bought F1 in 2006. The business was coming close to paying off its previous loan - a £855m ($1.4bn) bond taken out in 1999 - and this was the catalyst for CVC's acquisition. The reason why CVC bought F1 when the bond was nearly paid off is that until this debt was clear no further loans could be secured against the key assets of the business - the commercial rights to the sport.

As soon as the bond was paid off CVC took out a £1.8bn ($2.9bn) loan secured on F1's commercial rights and used it to buy the sport. If F1's holding company Delta Topco fails to repay the loan the lenders, RBS and Lehman Brothers, could take over the rights to the sport but there isn't much chance of this happening.

As Pitpass recently reported, even after making the repayments and interest on the loan, CVC has made an £470 ($800m) profit on F1 since buying it. This makes an attractive model for future owners to follow.

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