The financial hawks gather

THE delays over the flotation of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Holdings company has created more interest in F1 in financial circles than might have been the case if it had gone ahead without drama. One of the results of this is that rival investment banks have been suggesting to their clients that buying a slice of the Formula 1 pie might be a wise investment move. In recent weeks there have been a string of different "mystery buyers" who have been looking at F1. These include Rupert Murdoch's British Sky Broadcasting which is likely to be one of the major bidders for the digital TV rights from the British market, which have yet to be sold. Reports in British financial papers last week suggested that investment bank Barclays de Zoet Widd has suggested that BSkyB spend $300m for a 10% share in the F1 business. There have been similar stories suggesting that investment house Goldman Sachs has been pushing for a deal involving the boss of Italy's Telepiu TV company Robert Hersov. The Italian company is now 90% owned by France's Canal Plus - sponsor of Prost Grand Prix - and the major player in F1's digital TV. It is worth noting that 20% of Canal Plus is owned by the Richemont investment company, a holding operation for Johan Rupert's empire which includes Rothmans International, gold mining interests and a string of luxury goods companies.

We have also heard suggestions in recent days that British American Tobacco - which is to sponsor a brand new F1 team in 1999 - may also be willing to buy into F1. This coincides with rumors in F1 circles that there is a consortium of big F1 sponsors getting together to offer Ecclestone a substantial sum of money for a share of the company - as a way of protecting their investment in F1. This makes particular sense for the cigarette companies which are becoming more and more controlled by government restrictions. The big players in F1 may decide to club together and try to use F1 as a tobacco promotional tool. This makes particular sense when one considers that most tobacco companies share brands around the world: Philip Morris, Gallahers and BAT, for example, all own rights to Benson & Hedges.

FIA President Max Mosley said at Silverstone that he had no objection to tobacco companies buying into the sport as the governing body of the sport has the right to cancel any of its contracts if it does not agree with the promoter appointed. Such a deal would undermine team influence as the majority depend on the sponsors for their income. In all probability a tobacco buy-out would only involve 50% of the company and Bernie Ecclestone would stay in charge.

Other big players who have been mentioned in connection to possible deals are the Agnelli Family - which control Ferrari - and British billionaire Joe Lewis. While all this is going on, negotiations with the teams are continuing over a new Concorde Agreement which will then enable the original idea of a float to go ahead. This is now moving along sensibly but the deal is not yet done.

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