This weekend could be a Hollywood moment for Formula One.
On the track, Lewis Hamilton hopes to clinch this year’s F1 championship in front of more than 100,000 American fans at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
In the stands will be Matthew Higgins, the chief executive of RSE Ventures, which is leading a consortium to buy F1, partly in the hope of cracking the elusive US market.
The timing would be perfect: the stuff of which movies are made.
But nothing is certain in F1, whose recent corporate history is full of twists as treacherous as the hairpin bends in Monaco. An $8.5bn deal could still unravel: they have done so repeatedly in the past.
Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s chief executive, is enigmatic. So too is Donald Mackenzie, the co-founder of CVC, which owns a controlling stake. The teams in the paddock have learnt to respond to questions about a change of ownership with weary caution, rather than rash optimism.
F1’s other reported admirers are media companies such as Liberty Global, which see growth opportunities in new media and digital, areas which Ecclestone has appeared reluctant to embrace as he protects his television rights holders.
As well as looking towards the US, RSE Ventures wants to create a market in China and is reported as having a Chinese investment partner.
The uncertainty over F1 has cast a shadow over this season. There are only five more years of the current so-called “Concorde” agreement— the contract between the teams and the sport — and several teams are in open revolt.
As this supplement went to press, Red Bull, whose success has re-energised F1 in recent years, was threatening to quit the competition at the end of the season because of the reluctance of its rivals, Mercedes and Ferrari, to sell it engines for the 2016 season. Its junior team, Toro Rosso, which is also owned by the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, would also leave.
A deal for Renault to save the Lotus team from bankruptcy still seems up in the air. At the recent Japanese Grand Prix, Lotus found itself locked out of its hospitality unit in the Suzuka paddock because of unpaid bills from the previous year’s event. But the show went on; the team competed and scored its second best result of the season, with both cars coming home in the points, in seventh and eighth places.
Two other small teams, Force India and Sauber, have lodged a complaint with the European Commission over how F1 is run and the payments awarded to the top teams that put them “at a perpetual sporting and economic disadvantage”.
The high fees levied by F1 on racetracks could see two of the sport’s most historic venues, Silverstone and Monza, homes of the British and Italian Grands Prix, respectively, dropping off the calendar. Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, F1’s television audience is in long-term decline, partly because younger viewers are switching to different viewing platforms and partly because of the sport moving behind a paywall in several key markets such as the UK, France, Italy and Japan.
In August, the uncertainty of the situation saw the German broadcaster RTL, one of F1’s longest-lasting partners and one that has covered the sport since 1991, renew its current deal only for two more years. The decline in its live TV audience has not yet caused panic among the sponsors and manufacturers involved in the sport, as it appears to be offset by the rise of social media and online engagement, driven by the teams, the drivers and the wider media.
But this is a positive trend that many believe must continue to grow to protect the sport’s commercial appeal. The viewership Ecclestone has built is impressive — Formula One Management, which markets media rights to the sport, claims annual numbers of 3m race attendees, half a billion viewers on TV and 67m fans online.
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes AMG Petronas team has more than 20m followers on Facebook, while he and other leading drivers have millions of Twitter followers. On track, the action has not been thrilling. Once again, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have dominated, leaving rivals in their wake and removing any element of unpredictability about the outcome. F1 has often been a parade rather than a competition in recent times.
If the drivers’ championship is not wrapped up in Texas, it is still likely to be concluded well before the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, the fifth time in seven years that has happened.
Hamilton’s superiority is partly due to the new rules brought in last season, which mandated a new type of power unit, based on 1.6-litre V6 hybrid turbo engines. Mercedes got the jump on the opposition with this technology, leaving Ferrari and Red Bull in their mirrors.
Meanwhile, another powerhouse team, McLaren, has been embarrassed by its partnership with Honda, which re-entered the sport this season and has been humiliated by an underperforming engine.
The predictability of the competition has not deterred fans from turning out for races. Montreal, Silverstone and Monza, in particular, have seen huge crowds this year. More than 120,000 people were at Silverstone to see to see Hamilton win his home grand prix.
But both Monza and Silverstone are under threat as Ecclestone and CVC target race venues willing to pay the $50m annual price tag to host F1.
Race hosting fees have generally accounted for about 35 per cent of F1’s commercial revenues and for 2016 Ecclestone is extending the calendar to feature 21 races, with Azerbaijan entering the field as a host.
The quest for new venues is also about adding television viewers. Some 60 per cent of F1’s TV audience is based in Europe, and the opportunity to put on grands prix in different time slots, with races in Montreal, Austin and Mexico later in the afternoon or evening helps boost their potential viewership. Night races in the Middle East and Singapore also help the scheduling.
But there are many who will rue the loss of famous tracks. Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion who now drives with Ferrari, has voiced fears that F1 is losing its heritage. The German said after an emotional podium in the Italian Grand Prix that if the race was lost for financial reasons “you are basically ripping our hearts out”.
If F1 does change hands in the near future, there will immediately be a question mark over the future of Ecclestone, 84, who has been involved in motor racing since the 1950s.
For years, he has run it as he has this season: as a sport mired in controversy. But the US executives watching this weekend in Austin may have a different strategy if they can get to the finishing line themselves with a deal.
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