Football takes fast track to future

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Life in football's fast lane is to become somewhat more literal for Europe's top clubs following the announcement of a new motor racing competition that could rival Formula One when it begins in two years' time.

Life in football's fast lane is to become somewhat more literal for Europe's top clubs following the announcement of a new motor racing competition that could rival Formula One when it begins in two years' time.

While the likes of the go-karting enthusiast David Ginola are not part of the plans, Premier 1 Grand Prix will involve 26 cars bearing the logos and colours of the continent's biggest teams thrashing it out on the great circuits of the world. The clubs, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea from England, have been asked to license the use of their names for the venture. They will be under no obligation to finance the running of the cars but are likely to profit, through advertising, via association with the project.

"When we get the licences from the clubs we're off the ground and running," said Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association who is now a director of Premier 1. "What this offers clubs is the chance to widen their sphere of activity and open up new streams of revenue. Our research shows that something like 50 per cent of football fans consider themselves to be motor racing fans as well. There is a ready cross-over market there." Plans for the new competition, which was conceived by an Essex-based property developer, Colin Sullivan, will be submitted to the FIA, motor racing's world governing body, in the autumn. If approved, the project will begin in 2002.

Apart from the four English clubs, there will be four clubs involved from each of Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands, plus one club from Portugal and one from Greece. It is understood that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Lazio are among the participating clubs, which Kelly said have been chosen on footballing form in the past six years.

The clubs' cars will compete in a series of 24 races, on established grand prix circuits, over 12 Sundays between April and October. Eleven of the meetings will be in Europe and one in South America. There will be two races on each Sunday, and each race will last for either 100 miles or for one hour, half the length of a Formula One grand prix. All the cars will be made by Dallara, the well-respected Italian constructor, so that the emphasis will be on driving skills rather than mechanical superiority. The meetings will be scheduled to avoid clashing with Formula One race weekends.

"We do not see Premier 1 as being in competition with Formula One, but as complementary to it," Kelly said. "There's certainly room for another grand prix each year in each country." He added that Premier 1's race rules (which will allow pit stops but prohibit refuelling) have been designed to add excitement to motor sport. "It's going to be about pure driving skill, there'll be lots of overtaking." The issue of who will run the 26 cars on behalf of the clubs will be decided through an open bidding process. Established racing teams are among those expected to bid, as are established sponsors of the clubs, which could lead to the likes of Team Benetton-Lazio or Team Manchester United-Vodafone.

It is estimated that the Premier 1 series will cost £100m a year to run, or about £3.8m per car per season. Income from TV rights, advertising, sponsorship and merchandising will finance the competition and contribute to a prize pot for distribution among the competing clubs.

Premier 1 hopes to find a broadcasting partner, preferably terrestrial, in each country. The BBC is reportedly interested in the project but will wait to see how it develops.

The racing teams will be responsible for the hiring of mechanics and drivers, although the football clubs might want to exercise some influence in trying to tempt big-name drivers.

"There are a lot of good drivers throughout Europe who cannot get Formula One drives at the moment and Premier 1 could make them into household names," Kelly said. He added that he does not anticipate many defections from Formula One, not least because there will be a wage limit for Premier 1 drivers. "Wages will be capped to avoid the kind of ridiculous situation we've seen in football," he said.

None the less, the top driver in Premier 1 is forecast to make £3.4m a season in prize-money alone, with the average driver's prize earnings being £1.9m a season and the lowest being £600,000. A salary, albeit capped (at a level yet to be decided) will come on top.

As a bench mark, Michael Schumacher is estimated to earn £25m a year from Ferrari plus another £25m a year from commercial activities. Jenson Button, in his first year, is thought to earn £350,000-a-year basic, while David Coulthard is thought to earn around £3m a year plus win bonuses.