Qatar could be F1's new driver

Gulf state and US tycoon said to be eyeing takeover, with Bernie retained

LONDON - Qatar, embroiled in football's biggest corruption investigation, could be behind a £5 billion (S$10.6 billion) deal to buy Formula One.

Stephen Ross, a property tycoon who owns American football team Miami Dolphins, is said to be spearheading a bid along with Qatar Sports Investments.

The latter owns Paris Saint-Germain, the French Ligue 1 champion football club.

The deal would involve Bernie Ecclestone, F1's chief executive and ringmaster for the past 40 years, selling his 5 per cent shareholding in the sport.

Remarkably, at 84, he would likely be kept on to handle the transition to new ownership. He said on Tuesday that "three or four" potential bidders had emerged to talk to Donald Mackenzie, chairman of CVC Capital Partners, the controlling shareholder that bought F1 in 2006.

"I have no idea whether any of these people have got closer with this but CVC is in the business of buying and selling companies," Ecclestone said. "It is very happy with F1 and Donald is not an enthusiastic seller but its business is selling and everything has a price."

CVC has moved several times to oust Ecclestone.

Most recently, it was to install Paul Walsh, the former chief executive of the Diageo drinks business, but Ecclestone has seen off every challenge and it now seems that he is an asset to be sold along with the F1 business.

No formal bid has been tabled but the news of a takeover by the Qataris could cause dismay throughout the sports world, with an investigation continuing into the allegations of corruption around the 2022 World Cup.

It seems that the fear of losing the football tournament may have strengthened the resolve of the Qataris to acquire a world-class sporting property.

No vote would be needed to buy F1 although the International Automobile Federation, the governing body, would need to give its consent as the owner of a so-called golden share in the business.

Qatar and RSE Ventures, Ross' company, are tipped to make an initial offer for the 35.5 per cent stake owned by CVC, plus Ecclestone's 5 per cent.

Such a deal would mean a new grand prix in Qatar.

An already destabilised sport now faces weeks of uncertainty.

Any potential owners have to go through the process of due diligence but a firm offer may also flush out other suitors.

John C. Malone's Liberty Global and Discovery Communications television group tried for a 49 per cent stake but gave up.

Lawrence Stroll, the American fashion tycoon, was also said to be ready to make an offer.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Qatar could be F1's new driver'. Print Edition | Subscribe