Ecclestone back in F1's hot seat in a race against time

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The Independent Online

The Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone has been re-appointed to the board of Formula One Holdings (FOH), the company controlling the billion-dollar sport, only days after it was taken over by venture capitalists CVC Capital Partners.

However, the diminutive tycoon, who resigned from the company last year, now faces a race against time.

Mr Ecclestone has three weeks to head off five car manufacturers threatening a rival series, which would be a huge blow to CVC.

Documents filed this month with Companies House show that Mr Ecclestone returned to FOH on 22 November, three days before CVC began building up a majority holding in F1. CVC's investment vehicle Alpha Prema has agreed to buy the stakes in the Formula One Group held by the Ecclestone family trust and two investment banks, JP Morgan and BayernLB. Another bank, Lehman Brothers, owns the remaining 14 per cent and is reported to be negotiating a sale to Alpha Prema, in which Ecclestone family entities have taken a stake.

The banks' exit closes one of the most troubled chapters in Mr Ecclestone's 40-year career in F1. In 2004 the banks successfully sued his family trust's company, Bambino Holdings, because they did not have control of FOH despite being its majority shareholders. The High Court ruled that Bambino had four nominated directors on FOH's board instead of its allocated two.

To explain the extra directors, Bambino argued that it had not nominated the two others, its legal adviser and Mr Ecclestone. But the judge rejected Bambino's defence and the two extra directors were removed from FOH's register.

Mr Ecclestone resigned from its board just over a week after the court ruling and settled out of court when the banks sued him and Bambino a month later for control of FOH's operating subsidiary, Formula One Administration (FOA). He remained FOA's chief executive but now, in F1's hour of need, Mr Ecclestone is returning to FOH.

The contract binding F1's 10 teams to the F1 group expires at the end of 2007 and only four have extended. BMW, Mercedes, Renault, Toyota and Honda, the five car manufacturers behind the other teams, are threatening to set up a rival series in 2008. They want F1's financial transparency to improve and a greater share of its $1bn (£570m) annual revenues to go to the teams.

The manufacturers have set an end-of-year deadline, after which they will proceed with the rival series if there is no resolution. "Then there is no going back," says Burkhard Göschel, a director of BMW and boss of the rebel group. "It only lacks the final decision - the preparations are already well advanced."

* Vodafone is set to end its £30m-a-year sponsorship of the Ferrari F1 team. The mobile phone group has admitted that the agreement, which runs out next year, is under review.

Vodafone has announced that it is prematurely terminating its sponsorship of the English Premier League team Manchester United and has dropped its backing of the Australian rugby team. A spokesman denied that the group was tiring of large sports sponsorship deals and said it would continue its backing of the England cricket team.