• Protip: Profile posts are public! Use Conversations to message other members privately. Everyone can see the content of a profile post.

The Economist : Flagged down : Can Formula One succeed without Bernie Ecclestone?

9 September 2006
Orange County, CA, USA
July 28th, 2012


Last lap for Ecclestone?

BERNIE ECCLESTONE, the boss of the Formula One Group, rarely sticks around for the finish of a Grand Prix. This is meant to show what a serious businessman he is. Still, eyebrows lifted when he didn’t turn up at all to last weekend’s race at Hockenheim in Germany. An ongoing court case in Germany over a payment of $44m from Mr Ecclestone to a banker who was involved in the sale of Formula One to CVC Capital, a private-equity firm, in 2005 has put his future at the top of the sport in doubt. German media reported that, had Mr Ecclestone gone to Germany, he might have run into trouble.

For CVC Capital, the uncertainty over Mr Ecclestone, who is 81, is becoming a problem. CVC took a huge risk in buying into the sport, at a time when several teams were threatening to break away and form a new outfit, in the hope of extracting a larger share of profits. The breakaway never happened and CVC profited handsomely.

CVC had hoped to reduce its stake with an initial public offering (IPO) of Formula One on the Singapore stock exchange. However, in May it sold a total of 21% of the sport, for $1.6 billion, to three institutional investors: Waddell & Reid and BlackRock, both American asset managers, and Norges Bank Investment Management, Norway’s state money manager. Combined with cash from the business, the sale gave CVC a tasty 300% return on its original investment—though an IPO could have earned it more. In June CVC postponed the proposed IPO, blaming market conditions.

Private-equity firms do not often have to deal with chaps like Mr Ecclestone, who has dominated the sport for decades. In 2009 CVC had to join an apology made by Mr Ecclestone for seeming to praise Adolf Hitler. Also that year Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, an advertising giant, who sits on the Formula One Group’s board, protested when Mr Ecclestone complained that a life ban from Formula One given to Flavio Briatore, Renault’s team chief, for ordering a driver to crash, was excessive. (The ban was overturned in 2010.)

Now CVC is waiting to see whether Mr Ecclestone will be charged in connection with the case involving the German banker, Gerhard Gribkowsky. On June 27th Mr Gribkowsky was found guilty in Munich of receiving corrupt payments, and given a prison sentence, which he is now appealing. According to people close to the sport, if the German authorities charge Mr Ecclestone with a non-trivial offence in relation to the payment to Mr Gribkowsky, (which he has admitted making, though he says he was being blackmailed), he will be permanently removed as chief executive of Formula One Group.

CVC’s managing partner, Donald Mackenzie, is said to be worried about how his possible departure might affect the business. The Formula One Group depends on reaching agreement with a dozen racing teams and the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which regulates racing. In the past Mr Ecclestone has handled the teams brilliantly, using divide-and-rule tactics to prevent any serious rebellion and to keep a large share of revenues for his firm. He maintains close relations with circuit owners and governments, which together make up the sport’s largest source of revenue, in the form of hosting fees. It is not obvious who inside the business could succeed him; Mr Ecclestone reportedly jokes that a number two could send faxes and bring coffee, but nothing else.

Bernie’s blinkers

Mr Ecclestone is a skilled dealmaker; but he has missed out on two areas of opportunity for the sport. The first of these is the internet. Formula One has barely begun to develop its business online. Licensing Formula One brands and content to video-games firms could generate pots of money, as could online betting.

Second, Formula One has failed to establish itself in America, despite corporate sponsors’ need for exposure in the world’s biggest market. Partly because of the steep fees that Mr Ecclestone charges to host a Grand Prix, circuits often end up losing money and stop hosting the event; there has been no American race for the past five years. That will soon change, with Austin, Texas, hosting a race in November and plans for a Grand Prix in New Jersey in June 2013. Red Bull, a team owned by an Austrian energy-drinks firm, is said to be looking at launching a new “Stars and Stripes” Formula One team with American drivers. Local drivers boost audiences.

Although losing Mr Ecclestone may not be as big a car crash as some fear, there are other risks for the company that sits atop the sport. The biggest is that the teams will demand more money. Without them, after all, there is no show, and they are the sport’s biggest cost. Over time, the racers have claimed an ever larger slice of the cake. In 2003 the teams collectively commanded an estimated 27% of the profits that Formula One derived from its three main businesses (hosting fees from governments, selling television rights, and advertising and sponsorship). In a new deal that lasts until 2020, now signed by nearly all of the teams, they will get 63%.

And some people wonder if Formula One can carry on charging governments so much to host races. By expanding outside traditional markets in Europe, Formula One has been able to keep raising its fees; non-European governments such as Singapore’s or India’s pay two-fifths more on average to host Grands Prix than traditional markets. For now, demand from governments comfortably exceeds the number of racing slots available. Mr Ecclestone has no shortage of calls from countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Bulgaria seeking the prestige of hosting a race. Soon, however, they may be calling someone else.
F1 generates around 500 million in profits every year. Total revenue is projected to be 2.9 billion by 2015. Since buying F1, CVC has made the operation as "corporate" as possible (audits, appointing independant nonexecutive directors, remuneration committees). They're planning on taking a portion of F1 public and this will, in general terms, reduce any single executive's importance to the race series. Singapore will be it's new HQ in the market in which the shares will be offered.

Consequences will be far reaching. Public companies have to show financial statements and revenue/profit increases. This gives F1 more motivation to look for more revenue streams (hint: more markets, better internet revenue models, more merchandise, and PPV) than it has already.

Bernie will be around a while longer.