Back to the Future - Atlas F1 Special Project
by Roger Horton, England 

When news came in early 1997 that Bernie Ecclestone was planning the floatation of his Formula One interests, many observers saw more positives than negatives in these developments. Reports on the amount of money this would raise varied, but US$3 Billion was the smallest amount mentioned. If the amounts of money were enormous, so too were the ramifications for the long-term future of a "sport" that now spans the globe and is rated only behind the Olympics and the Football World Cup in terms of advertising revenues raised and TV ratings.

The floatation, which has now been temporarily replaced by an issuing of bonds, will hopefully bring to the administration of Formula One a transparency that it has singularly lacked ever since Bernie Ecclestone effectively took control of it in the eighties. It is this lack of transparency, and the suggestion of "back door deals" and intrigue, that adds an extra dimension to just about every controversy in the administration of Formula One racing. The current wrangling over the future of the British Grand Prix, as to whether it should continue at its current home, Silverstone, or move to Brands Hatch, is just the latest in a long line of such disputes.

In print, Bernie Ecclestone is usually referred to as Formula One Supremo, Formula One's Ringmaster, or more simply, as Formula One Boss. All the titles are correct. Put simply Ecclestone runs Formula One and nothing of any consequence happens without his authority or approval.

Bernie Ecclestone though has three main official titles through which he exercises this control. He is Vice President of the FIA, with special responsibility for commercial affairs. President of the Formula One Constructors' Association (the teams) and owner of Formula One Promotions, the holder of the commercial rights of Formula One. These rights were granted to Ecclestone by the FIA for a reported duration of fifteen years and are therefore its main asset.

He is in effect the poacher, the gamekeeper, and the local magistrate!

The current arguments over the future of the British Grand Prix are in a way both very simple and yet also very complicated. Put simply it is about money. The way of the market is that the spoils go to the highest bidder. In essence there is nothing wrong with this, it repays the financially strong and weeds out the financially weak. But most markets have various safeguards to protect the minority interest, or to guard consumers against the actions of companies with monopolistic intentions. In this dispute where is the "magistrate" to look out for them interest of the minority interest (the spectators amongst others). Where is the FIA looking out for 'the good of the sport'?

Clearly, it is in everyone's interest that Britain, which is after all home to the majority of the teams, has a Grand Prix worthy of the name held at a circuit where facilities are world class. Clearly the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC) have utterly failed in this respect. Anyone who has attended any of the Australian Grand Prix events can't help but be impressed with the facilities on show at these temporary venues. When the Grand Prix circus arrives in Malaysia for their first ever race in October, it will put to shame the progress Silverstone has achieved in its nearly fifty years.

That the "old boys" at the BRDC needed a shaking up there is no doubt. Whether, though, it is in the sport's best interest that they be sidelined by Nicola Foulston, boss of Brands Hatch Leisure, in obvious co-operation with Bernie Ecclestone, is more of a moot point. Foulston first tried to buy-out Silverstone, her bid greatly enhanced by the revelation from Ecclestone, that he had awarded the rights to the race to her company, and that the race would only take place at Silverstone if Foulston either owned the circuit or ran the race.

Effectively Ecclestone was trying to use his various arbitrary powers to assist one circuit owner take over another, having first financially benefited from the bidding war that initially ensued as the two opponents bid for the rights to hold the race.

It would appear that Nicola Foulston has won the battle, but will she win the war? She has now withdrawn her bid to buy Silverstone and is on record as stating that she will now devote all her energies to preparing to hold the race at Brands Hatch in 2002. This will require planning permission for the major changes required to meet the FIA standards and the capital expenditure of over US$30 Million. Given that Brands Hatch is located in a part of Britain that requires the government to hold an inquiry into the environmental impact of the proposed changes and the timetable starts to look extremely tight as well.

Additionally, the fee she must pay to Ecclestone to hold the race is reportedly some US$18 Million per year with a built in escalation clause of six percent! Given that her contract to hold the race is for only six years then the sums regarding how she intends to recoup this outlay would make interesting reading. Essentially her main source of income will depend on bums on seats, or in Brands Hatch's case, muddy feet through the turnstiles. Fans with families looking for a bargain day out will not be flocking to Brands Hatch on Grand Prix day.

The question of whose interest all these manoeuvres best serves never seems to get asked in the administration of Formula One. Clearly the BRDC will be a loser, certainly the long-suffering fans will not win if they are forced to pay yet higher prices for basically the same product. It is hard to see how Brands Hatch Leisure will gain if they spend a fortune upgrading their track and in six years time the politics of Formula One takes another turn and the contract is awarded elsewhere. Only Bernie Ecclestone is a sure winner and there is no surprises there.

Whilst this battle has ranged in Britain, another minor coup has been taking place across the channel. A company "associated" with Ecclestone, Exelcis, has reportedly paid some US$10 Million to buy the Paul Ricard circuit near Le Castellet, in southern France. This circuit last hosted a Grand Prix back in 1990 and is now in need of a major face-lift. This move is unlikely to raise much of an issue with anybody, as the current host of the French race, Magny-Cours, is popular with no one. A bland track in the middle of nowhere is a common comment.

One can only wonder, however, whether there would have been higher bids for Paul Ricard had the new owners been able to guarantee, like presumable Exelcis can, that after spending another US$13 Million on track improvements, that they will secure the all-important rights for the French Grand Prix. In truth everyone here is a winner, The FIA get a nice new race track, the teams a more popular place to race on and to entertain their corporate sponsors, and Bernie Ecclestone gets... well no one knows for sure and surely that is half of the problem.

The Brands Hatch/Silverstone saga is not over by a long shot and is certain play in front of packed houses for a while yet. Amidst all the clamour and argument there are some who wonder why they haven't heard a mention of two little words that surely might solve everything:

Donington Park!

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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