ITV takes pole position in Formula One

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The Independent Online
ITV has left BBC on the starting grid by purchasing the rights to broadcast all Formula One Grand Prix races from 1997.

BBC reacted with outward disappointment but private fury to news of the five-year deal, under which ITV will broadcast all 16 Grands Prix live on Sundays each season, together with a highlights programme. A new show will feature the build-up to each race, including coverage of the qualifying sessions.

ITV has struck the deal with the Formula One Constructors' Association. It will help fill a gap left on Sunday afternoons by its loss to BSkyB of the Endsleigh League soccer coverage. "This is another major sporting coup for ITV, following hot on the heels of our recent acquisition of the FA Cup Final," said Marcus Plantin, ITV Network director. "When we are offered events of this calibre, we have no hesitation in snapping them up."

Bernie Ecclestone, president of the Formula One Constructors Association, said: "The agreement reached with ITV assures more motorsport coverage in the UK."

But BBC insiders felt betrayed by the deal, which was agreed behind its back in four weeks. "The Grand Prix season is a very important part of our sports coverage. To lose it is a very big blow," said one.

Despite the recent raids by its rivals, the corporation retains the rights to Wimbledon, the Open Golf Championship and the University Boat Race. But the deal that the BBC has to show the Five Nations rugby union championship - central to its Grandstand programme - runs out in March 1997, and the predators are circling.

The BBC's current deal is worth pounds 27m over three years. But BBC executives already know that they will have to bid a great deal more to renew it: BSkyB has offered pounds 175m for a five-year deal, and the Rugby Football Union has refused to rule out dealing with them.

The battle over sports rights is becoming increasingly frenzied in the light of Sky's sustained poaching, which began with the acquisition of the FA Premiership in 1992. This latest deal illustrates ITV's policy of cherry-picking big events. It is thought to have paid about pounds 60m - almost 10 times more than the BBC paid in 1993.

The loss marks the end of an era for the BBC. It has covered the races in its Grand Prix programme since 1977, but has featured Grands Prix since 1953.

Yesterday, the BBC was attempting to contact the commentator Murray Walker but it said it was not clear whether he will go to ITV when it gains the coverage. Mr Walker and the BBC have been synonymous with Grand Prix motor racing coverage since the Sixties.

The emergence of the satellite channel Eurosport highlighted some of the format's shortcomings. In particular, the BBC has been under pressure from the sport's governing body to devote more coverage to the qualifying sessions.

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