Ecclestone challenged over Formula One stake

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Moves by Bernie Ecclestone, the guru behind Grand Prix motor racing, to float his Formula One promotional empire on the stock market have become embroilled in further disagreements over the stake in the business he is likely to emerge with.

Top teams involved in the sport are understood to be deeply unhappy that Mr Ecclestone, who manages lucrative global television rights through his Formula One Promotions company, could become a billionaire from the deal. Salomon Brothers, the US investment bank, has been appointed to prepare a float this summer which could value the business at up to $4bn (pounds 2.5bn).

The dispute has arisen despite moves to settle another barrier to the flotation in the shape of an argument over the so-called Concorde Agreement, which divides up revenues from television coverage. Three teams, including the star constructor Williams run by Frank Williams, had refused to comply with the agreement, details of which have never been made public.

The rift over Concorde was recently repaired after weeks of haggling, according to industry sources. "The suggestion is that Bernie put his hand in his pocket and offered some more money, without putting the other teams at a disadvantage," a source close to the sport said.

The latest disagreement is thought to be more serious. Though a formal announcement confirming the plans has been expected, the teams are still concerned at Mr Ecclestone's role and rewards. Constructors are thought to be insisting they should emerge with the bulk of the share after the float.

"They are unhappy with the set-up full stop. They just think the balance is all wrong here. No one is disputing Bernie's contribution to raising Formula One's public image, but that does not give him the right to to come away with most of the spoils," said one observer.

Inadvertently, the planned flotation has put a spotlight on the vexed issue of precisely who owns Formula One, which could ultimately see Mr Ecclestone's control reduced. During the 1980s his grip tightened on the television rights for the 16 yearly races, each watched by an estimated 400 million people around the world. In 1994 he became Britain's highest paid individual, with a salary of pounds 29.4m, though this fell to pounds 600,000 in the year to March 1995 for reasons which have never been explained.

One advantage of a flotation for the teams was that it would dilute the Ecclestone influence, particularly because Mr Ecclestone is 65 and has no obvious heirs to his business interests. But some teams are still not thought to be reconciled to a flotation at all. The source explained: "The problem here is that most teams are not run by businessmen, they're run by enthusiasts. The money-making side of the sport has always been secondary."

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