The F1 formula is failing

Mark Kleinman
Mark Kleinman

The global sport is losing sponsors of all shapes and sizes, despite its many attractive attributes

Of all the images that encapsulate the hubris of Sir Fred Goodwin's tenure at the helm of Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the sight of him lording it in the Formula One pit lane, kitted out in headphones and shirt adorned with the bank's logo, probably does it best.

Sadly for F1, the prospects for the world's highest-octane sport are looking almost as shaky as those of the former RBS chief's pension pot. The
20 cars gathering on the starting grid in Melbourne this weekend for the first race of the 2009 season will look much like those that finished the last campaign, but do not be surprised if you detect a sickly note in the engines Down Under. For F1, 2009 may turn out to be a year of truth. As the recession deepens, major companies have been rushing for the exit faster than a Lewis Hamilton qualifying lap.

Worryingly for the sport's commercial kingpins, the departing backers, soon to include RBS, are not confined to the financial services industry.
An even bigger crisis for the sport is that it no longer has the unequivocal backing of the world's most important motor manufacturers. Honda's withdrawal was just the tip of the iceberg, as Renault is also understood to be contemplating its future in F1. Even a vastly reduced team budget can still seem profligate when set against the global cataclysm confronting the automotive industry.

True, F1 still attracts an international TV audience that few other sporting events can match, and a string of proposed rule changes should improve it as a spectacle. The sport also has another priceless asset in the form of Hamilton - nothing helps sports marketers more than the presence of a young, talismanic figure.

However, Hamilton alone cannot rescue F1. Evidence from the Paddock Club, the focal point for corporate entertainment at Grand Prix, suggests that revenues in 2009 will be down sharply, as sponsors invite fewer guests to enjoy less lavish hospitality.

There is no longer a competitive queue of governments anxious to stage races. Existing hosts, including Melbourne, find themselves rent by debate about the economic merits of bringing the F1 circus to town, and in Britain, the ability of Donington Park to finance the work needed to satisfy F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone is being called into serious question.

F1's principal shareholder, the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, has other pressing concerns, too, such as how it eventually cashes in on its investment.

Private equity groups have typically exited from the companies they own
by either floating them on the stock market or selling them on to another financial buyer or another company in their industry. There is no suggestion that CVC is trying to find a buyer at the moment, but each of those routes looks more challenging than a high-speed lap of the Melbourne circuit in a blindfold. A year ago, it would have been easy to imagine sovereign wealth funds from the oil-rich Gulf states fighting to take the F1 commercial franchise from CVC's hands at a huge premium. Not any more.

It is not a coincidence that two of the banks that led the financing of the CVC takeover were RBS and Lehman Brothers. Since last autumn, one has collapsed entirely and the other only avoided that fate by securing tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money.

F1 is discovering that the collapse of the world's financial bubble is rendering it more a luxury than a necessity for many of its traditional supporters.

Mark Kleinman is City editor of The Sunday Telegraph

30 seconds on Lewis Hamilton

  • Hamilton, 24, was born in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
  • When he was 10 years old, Hamilton introduced himself to McLaren team principal Ron Dennis and told him he planned to race for McLaren someday. Dennis rang Hamilton five years later, in 1998, to offer him a space in the McLaren driver development programme.
  • In his first year as an F1 driver, in 2007, Hamilton became the youngest driver to ever lead the world championship.
  • Hamilton said of the championship: 'It will show that not only white people can do it, but also black people, Indians, Japanese and Chinese. It will be good to mean something.'
  • Hamilton moved to Switzerland in 2007, saying he was doing so to avoid the media scrutiny he faced in the UK. Several other F1 drivers live in the tax haven, including Hamilton's former McLaren teammate and rival, Fernando Alonso.
  • According to his website, Hamilton's favourite hobbies include playing the guitar, reading, and 'chilling with family and friends'.

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