Columns - Big Al

Soccer Games


I'm really curious to know what Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley honestly think about Colin Sullivan's new Premier 1 Grand Prix operation. To start with, this novel marketing concept to merge top-line European soccer promotions with a new motor racing category has been developing for the past 18 months behind the scenes.

Yet despite the involvement of Dallara - who have been commissioned to design and build the Premier 1 Grand Prix cars for the 2002 season - and John Judd's Engine Developments company, which will provide the 4-liter V10 engines which power them, not a morsel of information has leaked out in advance.

Given that most motor racing secrets become public knowledge in about 18 minutes, it's been quite an achievement. Of course, what everybody now wants to know is just which football clubs will sign up for their new deal. And when?

The prospects of Warren Hughes driving for Newcastle United versus Alex Zanardi for Juventus and Marc Gene for Real Madrid could provide a fascinating new dimension for motorsport and soccer fans alike. Where precisely it will slot into the sport's existing infrastructure remains to be seen.

On the face of it, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is little more than the Indy Racing League-meets-Formula 3000. But there is more to it than that. In recruiting former British football association chief executive Graham Kelly, Sullivan and his co-directors have latched onto a crucially important link man to carry out the delicate negotiations with about 20 football clubs. These are understood to include Manchester United, Juventus - whose president used to be current Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo - Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Lazio, Real Madrid and Arsenal.

The tempting prospects for the clubs is the huge amount of potential revenue from a new stream of merchandising sales and terrestrial television channels seeking to make the crossover between the world's top most lucrative sports.

None of this will be lost on Ecclestone who guards F1's position of pre-eminence with some considerable jealousy. However, he is certainly clever enough not to challenge the innovative new plans - or indeed muscle in for a slice of the action - given that an investigation into F1's anti-competitive practices by the European Union has just been completed.

Yet the potential for Premier 1 Grand Prix is undeniable. Kelly freely admits that he was "gob-smacked" when approached to become involved in Sullivan's consortium.

"I was amazed by the whole thing," he said this week, "but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would work. We did a study that discovered four in ten season-ticket holders were F1 fans, so there is an immediate link there before we even go on to any other aspect of this project.

"There is going to be a lot of interest among clubs who have reached a stage where the earnings from television seem almost at saturation point. They are all looking for new ways of making money to cover the enormous transfer fees they are all paying and they want to spread their brands into other areas.

"Their names are not just football any more. We are still in the process of getting things together, but we definitely want terrestrial broadcasters to take on what we think will be a very exciting race series, with different interests for both motor racing and football fans."

On a technical note, I'm glad the proposed Premier 1 format doesn't involve refuelling - and my gut instinct is that they should ditch carbon brakes. That said, I well remember Jacques Villeneuve doing a back-to-back for Williams to try and sort out this very issue. There seemed to be very little in it. Apart from cost, of course.

And it all just might work. Brilliantly well.