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BMW, Ford et al May Bolt Formula One

by Larry Roberts

April 16, 2001

I have a couple of friends who live for international Formula One racing. They'll either get up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the Grand Prix of Japan or preset their VCRs to record the Grand Prix of Hungary if they're going to be away from home when it runs. And when the Grand Prix of the U.S. is held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September, they'll cloister themselves away from the world for the day and remain glued to the TV until every last driver interview is done and every race analysis is completed.

But it's possible that in the immediate future, my friends will find it difficult, if not impossible, to watch their favorite form of auto racing. The television rights for Formula One racing, formerly totally owned by Formula One Corporation impresario Bernie Ecclestone, have been pretty much sold to Kirch, a German media company whose forte is to put events like Grand Prix races on a pay-per-view basis and that probably won't include our country. The other bad part of this is that while Kirch will no doubt profit greatly by the program, a great majority of Grand Prix enthusiasts live in South Africa, Malaysia and the other parts of the world and will be shut out of viewing the races along with my American friends.

So the question is, who will give a darn besides those lightweight viewers who watch the races on TV? For starters, there's a few very heavy hitters by the names of Ferrari/Fiat, Jaguar/Ford, BMW, Renault and Daimler/Chrysler, all of whom have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Formula One teams in order to receive the worldwide exposure their brand names get on worldwide television. Now there's a threat to the number of viewers these manufacturers will be exposed to and if that number goes down, the per capita cost of their investment skyrockets.

The final question is, just how upset are these multi-billion dollar international corporations over their lack of control over their investments? They're angry enough to direct their industry organization, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, to investigate the possibility of withdrawing from the Formula One Grand Prix program and set up a parallel series for their cars and contract drivers. We can only imagine the chaos that would follow this action.

Kirch has promised to not switch Formula One racing over to pay-per-view, at least not entirely, but the auto giants are aware of the Kirch reputation for strong-arm media tactics. Ecclestone has retained 25-percent of the rights to Grand Prix broadcasting and has offered to sell half of it to the auto maker's coalition.

In any event, nothing is going to happen until 2007, at which time the current agreement between the racing teams and the sanctioning bodies will expire.

Nothing will happen, that is, unless the auto makers decide to flex their considerable legal muscles and throw the whole thing into some international court of law.

Formula One fans, get ready for some fireworks.