Motor racing: Ecclestone takes stock of future

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The Independent Online
Bernie Ecclestone says that 51 teams have come and gone since the World Championship was inaugurated in 1950, but there may never have been a better time to be running a Formula One team.

Ecclestone's much-discussed plans to float F1 on the Stock Exchange are once again the talk of the paddock. Though the share price has yet to be decided, the split apparently has. Ecclestone - the powerbroker behind F1's amazing rise and rise in the television viewership stakes these past 10 years, and the architect of its development since 1971 - will take 30 per cent; the sport's governing body, the FIA, will get 10 per cent, 50 per cent will go on public sale, with the intention to split the remainder among the teams.

This may amount to around $35m apiece, no small beer even in a sport used to telephone-number figures, but Williams and McLaren - who were in dispute with Ecclestone and threatened legal action over their argument concerning the Concorde Agreement by which the sport is run - believe they are worth more. More than a month ago, Ron Dennis of McLaren indicated that peace was imminent in this long-running saga of everyday F1 folk, but even if it isn't it is unlikely to disturb the flotation plans. Ecclestone made it clear on Friday that he is less than interested in suggestions that the men he has helped to make rich would welcome a larger cut.

The flotation is only part of F1's upbeat financial story. Since Ecclestone slackened the television income purse strings last year, even the small teams have a guaranteed annual income of around $15m - a useful injection at a time of increasing tension over tobacco advertising. For minnows such as Minardi the lifeline has been the difference between survival or following legends such as Lotus out of the ring: "It is like having a sponsor," Giancarlo Minardi said, "who doesn't want any stickers on the car. For Williams, $15m is just a starting point; think of $30m-plus and you'd be closer to the truth."

Then there is Ecclestone's digital television project. Though the German and Italian markets have been disappointing, France's Canal Plus is going like gangbusters. Further revenue is the corollary here.

And though F1's merchandising is at infant-school level, American sport has shown the potential. In 1995 it turned over an estimated $7.6bn, with the National Football League accounting for $2bn, college sports $1.8bn and major league baseball $1.2bn. The Nascar stock-car champion Dale Earnhardt made an estimated $12.5m from merchandising alone. It is, then, not surprising that a number of teams are claiming to have been approached by City institutions anxious to buy themselves a chunk of equity before Ecclestone's inflated balloon is released into the stratosphere.

All of this is a month or two into the future, and that was how far ahead Michael Schumacher was thinking yesterday, too. The World Championship leader admitted, even before qualifying in only seventh position, that he has mentally written-off Ferrari's chances in the Spanish GP: "For some reason the characteristics of this circuit make our car slower than [on] other circuits. Imola and Monaco were good for us, but we can only guess that in the long corners here we build up very high tyre temperatures which hurts us a lot.

"It's roughly the same as last year, when in the dry we hadn't been competitive enough to really look for a win. The problem now is that you have more competitive teams. Last year there was Williams and then us. This year it's going to be the Williams, Benettons, McLarens, Jordans and us fairly close together. You could either be in the second row or the fourth."

Predictably, it was the Williams-Renault duo of Jacques Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen who annexed the front row of the grid, the Canadian eventually out-foxing the German, who had been fastest for most of a dull qualifying session. "It took a while to sort the balance of the car," Villeneuve said, "but it came right in the end."

Behind them, the Melbourne winner David Coulthard once again showed well with the third fastest time for McLaren-Mercedes, backed by his team-mate Mika Hakkinen in fifth, sandwiched between the Benetton-Renaults of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Schumacher's cause was not helped when his Ferrari's engine failed, forcing him to use his back-up car.

Many years ago Ecclestone, the man who bothered to push the sport into the 20th century while his fellow teams owners were happy to concentrate on winning races on the tracks that he promoted, said: "What they don't always understand is that the richer I get, the richer they get." And rich indeed most of the team owners have become. It's a point that the City, while cautious, has not failed to notice. And, regardless of who wins the Spanish Grand Prix this afternoon, it is a point that will become more and more the focus of F1 racing for the next month or so.