Now there are three F1 bidders

Ecclestone's future uncertain as fresh claims surface of contenders competing for a stake

LONDON • John Malone, the billionaire head of Liberty Media, faces a fight for control of Formula One after it emerged that two more potential bidders had expressed an interest in owning the motor racing business.

The Monza paddock at the Italian Grand Prix was awash with speculation on Sunday that this week Liberty will launch a £1 billion (S$1.8 billion) bid for 20 per cent of the sport and that Bernie Ecclestone, who has ruled Formula One for four decades, was at his last race in control.

However, Donald Mackenzie, chairman of CVC Capital Partners, the controlling shareholder, told The Times of London that no deal had been done and that "he would be surprised" if there were an announcement in the next few days.

He is talking to three bidders, although he would not name them.

Aside from Malone's Liberty Global group, which owns the Eurosport and Discovery television channels, a bid is thought to have come from a Qatari consortium and a private equity group.

  • US$8-9b

    Estimated value of the Formula One empire. Liberty Media is one of the companies eyeing a stake in F1's parent company.

Insiders at Monza were insisting that a deal with Liberty had been completed, with one source close to the negotiations saying that the initial bid would be for 20 per cent of the business followed by further investments.

The Financial Times reported that Liberty is close to sealing the deal which would value the F1 series at between US$8 billion and US$9 billion (S$10.8-12.2 billion).

It said the deal is being driven by Liberty's chief executive Greg Maffei and that, if it goes through, Chase Carey, the executive vice-chairman of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox, would become chairman of F1, replacing Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who is also the chairman of Nestle.

That could end the role of F1's long-standing chief executive Ecclestone, whose share stands at 5.3 per cent and whose Bambino Trust has another 8.5 per cent.

But Mackenzie said: "I would be very surprised if there were any announcement this week. As far as I am aware, Bernie is going nowhere. Nothing has changed."

Ecclestone followed up by describing widespread reports of a deal as "bulls**t".

CVC Partners has controlled F1 for nearly 10 years, but reduced its stake in 2012 when it sold US$1.6 billion of equity to BlackRock, Norges Bank and Waddell & Reed. Now CVC has a 35.5 per cent stake, with the US fund manager Waddell & Reed holding 20.9 per cent.

However, no sport changes as quickly as Formula One and there could be shocks ahead as CVC, the private equity group based in London, decides whether to sell and to whom.

Formula One is waiting for a decision and the Monza paddock was full of some of the sport's biggest hitters on Sunday, including Jean Todt, president of the FIA governing body, who will be key to a deal because his organisation has a veto over any new owners.

The possible takeover was welcomed by Toto Wolff, the head of motorsport at Mercedes and one of the most powerful figures in F1.

He said: "If there is an investor that wants to buy the shares it is good news for F1. It was unbelievable out there (at the Italian GP) - full grandstands - so, maybe it is good news that an American media company buys Formula One."

Regarding Ecclestone, Wolff said: "I don't know what happens in terms of management. Bernie has done an awesome job for 50 years. He has built an empire and we are all benefiting from that empire."

Even if Liberty takes over, removing Ecclestone from F1 could involve difficult negotiations.

Even though some of his control has been dissipated by the deals he has made with individual teams, he remains the most important single figure in the sport.

"For a new group to come in without him (Ecclestone) being there would be very difficult, so I'd assume he'll be around for some time," said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, who is close to Ecclestone.

Niki Lauda, the retired triple world champion and non-executive chairman of the dominant Mercedes, said the Briton would be at the next race: "This I can tell you. He will be in Singapore (on Sept 18).

THE TIMES, LONDON, THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'Now there are three F1 bidders'. Print Edition | Subscribe