Motor Sport: A formula for financial clout

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EVER WONDERED what a paddockful of Formula One cars is really worth? Since the powerbroker Bernie Ecclestone first voiced his intention to float F1 on the stock market back in 1997, it has become something of a pastime among regulars killing time during free practice sessions. Ponder no more. Ecclestone is in particularly benign mood here and well he might be, having just pocketed $1.4bn [pounds 854m] of West Deutsche Landesbank Girozentrale's money following a successful Eurobond issue on Luxembourg's Stock Exchange.

That development, while incidental to events on the track in Barcelona, has bestowed financial respectability on the sport at a time when its future has been much under discussion.

Both Eddie Irvine, fastest on Friday, and David Coulthard, fastest yesterday morning, survived lurid off-course moments on Saturday's free running, but the issue of the money paid to Ecclestone's F1 Finance BV firm - significantly more than was expected after his plans for a floatation stalled last year - consistently hogged the limelight.

The figure does not, of course, take into account the individual values of the 11 teams currently operating. But it does explain why there is so much interest in becoming the 12th team on the grid. With a global viewing figure in excess of 55,000,000,000 claimed for the 1998 season, F1 is seriously big business.

Not long ago, a special agreement among the teams enabled the FIA, the governing body, to create and reserve 12th place for Honda, who had announced their intention to field a team in 2000. Honda recently reversed their decision, however, and will continue to supply Jordan while also making engines available to the controversial BAR outfit.

This sent other aspirants scurrying to find finance to jump on the gravy train. Toyota signalled their interest in coming into F1 in 2001, so those who don't get to the platform soon may find the train has left without them.

Among these are European Aviation chief Paul Stoddart, who already runs an F3000 team for British drivers Jamie Davies and Oliver Gavin; and David Hunt, younger brother of ex-champion James, who is still pursuing his dream of resurrecting the famous Lotus team.

In anticipation of his fresh injection of wealth, Ecclestone has invited team principals to a summit meeting to discuss the future of F1. The intention is to create a relaxed atmosphere, but how much attention Ecclestone and the FIA president, Max Mosley, will pay to any suggestions remains to be seen, particularly as few team owners are happy with the prevailing technical regulations. The latest breed of F1 car is an unforgiving, tail- heavy animal that is reluctant to turn into corners without a lot of finesse from the drivers, most of whom would desperately love to see a return to wider slick tyres and a reduction of aerodynamic downforce.

Mosley is adamant that current cars have slower accidents because their initial speed is slower. Rubens Barrichello, who crashed recently in Monaco when the suspension of his Stewart-Ford broke, disagrees and said yesterday: "The car gave me no warning, and when I spun the tyres just didn't slow me down the way that the old wide slicks would have. I scrubbed off hardly any speed before I hit the wall."

"First of all, Grand Prix racing must be an entertainment, but without any suspicion that it has been 'fixed' or allowed to develop into a farce," Patrick Head, technical director of Williams, said. "You only have to look at NASCAR [America's top motorsports category for heavily modified road cars] to see the potential that it has.

"The problem facing anybody who has to provide an entertain-ment like F1 is that most viewers now have the choice of as many as 50 channels. If those viewers are not purists they will cruise on to the next channel as soon as the motor racing ceases to be entertaining." Critics, who prefer to see overtaking moves carried out on the track rather than in the pits during refuelling stops, might be tempted to suggest that it already has.

In the end attention focused back on the racing cars, and it was only in the dying moments of an electrifying qualifying session that Mika Hakkinen was able to assert himself to steal his 15th pole position from Eddie Irvine.

Earlier on, Jean Alesi took advantage of a lower track temperature and soft compound tyres to grab the initial advantage in the Sauber Petronas. This he held onto as the temperature rose while Schumacher and Co made their first attempts.

For more than half the session Alesi remained dominant before Schumacher finally squeezed ahead by a 10th of a second. But, like the McLarens, the German's car has not looked at its best all weekend on harder tyres, and Schumacher succumbed to an in-form Coulthard before Irvine, who was impressive throughout on soft rubber, pushed Ferrari back in front.

This was only the fourth time the Ulsterman has outqualified Schumacher, but he was philosophical when Hakkinen finally usurped him, sipping a Red Bull and giving a wry shrug. C'est la vie. But this afternoon, c'est la guerre. Much will depend on track temperature but, if Irvine gets the cool weather to preserve his tyres, his gamble might do the trick. After all, the last time he went his own way was in Melbourne. Where he won.