Ecclestone threatens to quit F1 as EU investigation looms

BERNIE ECCLESTONE, Formula One's commercial boss
BERNIE ECCLESTONE, Formula One's commercial boss

LONDON • Bernie Ecclestone has threatened to walk out of Formula One after 40 years in charge as a takeover of the sport by an American media group faces an EU investigation.

The 85-year-old Formula One billionaire chief executive said that he would not be dictated to by new management from Liberty Global, part of the empire owned by the media mogul John Malone.

Malone is thought to want to bring in Chase Carey, vice-chairman of 21st Century Fox, to be Formula One's executive chairman. Carey is a key lieutenant of Rupert Murdoch at News Corporation and a non-executive director of Sky.

PROBLEM OF AN UNEQUAL PURSE

We gave the teams almost US$1 billion last year and the complaint is that the money wasn't distributed equally. We don't care who gets what, but the EU has obviously decided to take an interest.

BERNIE ECCLESTONE, Formula One's commercial boss, arguing that the EU could cause "two years of aggravation".

Ecclestone was candid when asked if he would abandon the sport that has been his life and made him one of the richest men in Britain.

"I guess the new man will want to come in and make some noises," he said. "If I don't like those noises, I will say adios."

One source said that Malone would turn to Sacha Woodward-Hill, Ecclestone's chief legal officer, to help run the business.

Liberty Global is widely expected to pay US$800 million (S$1.07 billion) to CVC Capital Partners, Formula One's controlling shareholder, for a 10 per cent stake, paving the way for a full takeover within six months.

The media outfit is scheduled to make the payment today, although Donald Mackenzie, the CVC chairman, said that the agreement was not yet final.

However, the entire deal could be jeopardised by EU competition investigators, who are ready to open an inquiry into allegations that the sport is run as a cartel for the benefit of the four leading teams, Mercedes, McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari.

Last year, Force India and Sauber complained to the EU about how Formula One's prize money is unevenly distributed and how decisions are made on new regulations, technology and car design that are tilted in favour of the bigger teams.

It is understood that letters have gone out to Ecclestone, CVC, the 11 Formula One teams and the FIA, the sport's governing body, with a "request for information" - formal language that signals that an investigation is under way.

Ecclestone was briefed on the EU inquiry at the Italian Grand Prix last weekend and warned that it could disrupt Formula One for years.

"It will be two years of aggravation," Ecclestone said. "We gave the teams almost US$1 billion last year and the complaint is that the money wasn't distributed equally.

"We don't care who gets what, but the EU has obviously decided to take an interest."

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner for competition, has the power to force Formula One to tear up contracts and even fine the sport's teams millions of pounds if she believes they received unfair or illegal payments.

She is in an aggressive mood, underlined by her recent decision to hand Apple a €13 billion (S$19.7 billion) tax bill.

The feeling is growing in Formula One that the sport faces the biggest potential shake-up since Ecclestone took the wheel and turned Grand Prix racing into one of the richest sports in the world.

THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Ecclestone threatens to quit F1 as EU investigation looms'. Print Edition | Subscribe