Formula One - On And Off Track Week 32

Formula One - On And Off Track Week 32

Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Bernie Ecclestone, F1 and the “Beeb’
  • Teams not happy with 2012 calendar
  • Ecclestone, Briatore and Gribkowsky

Bernie Ecclestone, F1 and the Beeb

Bad news for British Formula fans emerged last weekend during the Hungarian Grand Prix, although FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone just hours before had said Formula One races would remain free-to-air in Great Britain, he nevertheless revealed he had struck a shared deal with the BBC and Sky Sports, which means only half of the races can be watched on a free-to-air channel, the BBC.

Bernie Ecclestone made a U-turn on F1’s free-to-air principle
Bernie Ecclestone made a U-turn on F1’s free-to-air principle

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Although this means British fans will have to pay to see the other half of the races as Sky isn’t included in the standard channel package and therefore have to buy a new and more expensive subscription which does include Sky, Ecclestone, the BBC and Sky presented the news as if it was the best thing that ever happened since the invention of the wheel. The deal, which involves £375 million, means Sky will show every race, qualifying session and practice live, while the BBC have been granted to air only 10 of the 20 events live on next year’s calendar, which of those 10 events the Beeb, as the nick name of the public BBC TV is, will show remains a mystery, the BBC only mentioned the races at Monaco and Silverstone.

Ecclestone about the new deal, “It's super for Formula One. It will mean a lot more coverage for the sport. There'll be highlights as well as live coverage on two different networks now, so we get the best of both worlds.” Barney Francis, managing director of Sky Sports, was of course also thrilled about the new deal, as it of course means another private TV station has hijacked the live TV rights once again from the BBC. “This is fantastic news for Formula One fans and Sky Sports will be the only place to follow every race live and in HD.” And added, “We will give Formula One the full Sky Sports treatment with a commitment to each race never seen before on UK television.”

British fans were outraged about Ecclestone’s U-turn, also because he initially didn’t tell the truth and pretended the remaining 10 races not covered by the BBC live would be aired later on the day, but as it turned out, the Beeb only is allowed to show a 60 minute highlight version of those races. Ecclestone also said, “But I think this is all positive, and having spoken to the teams, they think it's positive too.” Which was again not true, as teams later wanted a meeting with the 80-year old FOM boss, to seek clarification about the new deal.

And after that meeting on Sunday morning it looks like Ecclestone had once more triumphed, as teams were all of a sudden a lot more positive about the deal, and also accepted it was an already ‘done deal’, and went back to the garage to prepare for the race.

Bernie Ecclestone with the BBC
Bernie Ecclestone with the BBC

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Arguments teams had before, like the Concorde Agreement included a clause that Formula One coverage should always remain free-to-air, are off the table now, and the reason for that is simple, Ecclestone has also told the teams the deal would mean more money for them, so why bother with the arguments of the fans?

One of the most often heard arguments is that the BBC was no longer able to pay the fees, and therefore this solution was better than no Formula One at all on the BBC. There is only one reason why the BBC, and other TV stations around the world can no longer afford Formula One, the fees are ridiculously high. According the UK Express the BBC paid £40 million per year for the TV rights, £2 million per race, and on top of that the costs for the TV and production crews. Current BBC presenter Martin Brundle tweeted he was certainly ‘not impressed’, but if there is one man who’s opinion is worth listening to, it must be good old Murray Walker.

In his column for the Mail Online he pinpointed the problem, “The tragedy of it is that the BBC on a free-to-air basis are doing an absolutely fabulous job and are not only providing the best Formula One coverage that Britain has ever had, but are also providing the best coverage in the world in my view.” So, it is all about money says Walker, “Somebody said once 'Follow the money' and that is what it is all about. Bernie has got to maximize income for CVC, who own the commercial rights, and the BBC have got to make savings.”

Somebody said once 'Follow the money' and that is what it is all about

Murray Walker

And that’s what it is, money makes the Formula wheels turn round, and if FOM and FOTA don’t care about the results of the surveys they conducted, in which the majority of fans indicated they do not wish to pay to view a Grand Prix, they might as well just ignore the fans altogether and go for the money, and not for the sport. And with this new deal, the door is now open for similar deals in the future.

But there is another party that plays an important role: the sponsors. Ecclestone’s latest plans in turning Formula One into an even bigger money making machine could certainly backfire, as sponsors are not interested how much money FOM or teams make, but they are interested in the number of viewers, and if those figures go down, they will lose interest in Formula One, which certainly for the smaller teams, could turn out to be a disaster.

Teams not happy with 2012 calendar

Ecclestone this weekend also presented the 2012 calendar with 20 races, albeit the US Grand Prix is still subject to the official FIA homologation. Ecclestone has completed the yearly puzzle to squeeze 20 races in one season, but teams have objected to especially the last part of the season, which includes from the German Grand Prix onwards, a record of five back-to-back race weekends: the German and Hungarian GP, Belgium and Italian GP, Japenese and Korean GP, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain GP, and the US and Brazilian GP.

Not only will this calendar put enormous pressure on teams’ personnel, teams also face a logistical nightmare. FOTA Deputy Chairman and Lotus Renault team principal Eric Boullier voiced his concerns. ”We want to stimulate thinking about it [the calendar] again. We can certainly find an easier solution to cope logistically and maybe even a little cheaper. We have already exchanged some suggestions with other teams,” the Frenchman said. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh had a different opinion, “The calendar is tough, but I understand it is going to change again. So, until we have the final calendar, there is no point complaining about a provisional one.”

Teams and FOTA have no say in 2012 calendar, says Ecclestone
Teams and FOTA have no say in 2012 calendar, says Ecclestone

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Wrong again, as Ecclestone told the German media yesterday, “It is not the teams who make the calendar, it's me. They cannot come to me now with their proposals, it's my decision. If someone's going to do something, it's going to be me.” Yes of course it is Ecclestone’s decision, he just forgot about the FIA and the WMSC, who ultimately have to approve the calendar, which was according to Ecclesone’s own words, a ‘proposal’. And the calendar again shows he hasn’t given up on the Bahrain Grand Prix, which is now in November instead of March, and he also gave the US Grand Prix a little help by giving it the penultimate slot, which fuels the suspicion the Circuit of the Americas will not be finished in June as originally was announced.

The provisional 2012 calendar can be found at the bottom of the page.

Ecclestone, Briatore and Gribkowsky

The first two names sound familiar, the last one probably not, but Gerhard Gribowsky is, or better was, a German banker who has been arrested in January under suspicion of receiving money from an ‘unknown source’. Gribkowsky was chief risk-manager for the German BayernLB, a state-owned bank which had a stake in Formula One until they sold it to CVC in 2006. German prosecutors say Gribkowsky intentionally undervalued the stake BayernLB had in Formula One, which meant CVC bought the stake for considerably less than it was worth, and Gribkowsky was rewarded with ‘consultancy contract’ worth around $50 million.

Gribkowsky is still in prison to date, an indication this is a serious case, and also an indication German prosecutors do have evidence that is difficult to refute, as it is not possible for German authorities to arrest and jail a high profiled person like Gribkowsky without a shred of evidence. The ex-banker claims he received the money from Ecclestone, the latter initially denied it and claimed he had nothing to do with it. “I have been cooperating with the investigation of the affairs of Dr Gribkowsky since the outset, I am confident that when the full facts have been established, I will be exonerated of blame for any wrongdoing,” Ecclestone said at the time.

Bernie Ecclestone
Bernie Ecclestone

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CVC also denied they were involved or knew about the bribery, but it is very hard to believe an investment company like CVC had no idea about the true value of the BayernLB’s stake in Formula One, the low price should have rung the alarm bells, but apparently they didn’t suspect something fishy was going on. Since then they have maintained silent about the case.

Recently the UK Telegraph revealed Gribkowsky will also be indicted of tax evasion, and Ecclestone apparently has been offered a lighter sentence if he would cooperate and supply evidence against Gribkowsky. In April Ecclestone completely changed his tune, and hinted he did pay the German, but indicated he had been blackmailed and Gribkowsky had threatened Ecclestone with the ‘divulgence of sensitive information regarding the structure of his businesses’, more specifically about the Ecclestone Bambino Holdings family trust fund..

In July, just ahead of the German Grand Prix, German prosecutors in official documents named a certain “Bernard E.” as the source of the $50 million bribe, and that ‘charges of embezzlement, tax evasion and receipt of corrupt payments have now been laid against Gribkowsky’.

Ecclestone now has again admitted publicly he paid Gribkowsky, and again said he was blackmailed. “He [Gribkowsky] was shaking me down and I didn't want to take a risk,” Ecclestone said last week. “They said 'I tell you what would happen, the [inland] Revenue would assess you and you would have to defend it, because you could defend it, and you would be three years in court and it would cost you a fortune. Better pay',” Ecclestone explained, and also said his lawyers had advised him to pay.

 Briatore made a payment for me but only because I asked him, says Ecclestone
Briatore made a payment for me but only because I asked him, says Ecclestone

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On the other hand, it is very hard to believe a man like Ecclestone gave in to blackmail, and would without further ado say goodbye to $50. It is just not the man’s style at all. Yesterday the case took another turn when it was suggested long time friend and business partner Flavio Briatore was also involved. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported Briatore ‘helped Ecclestone get the money to Gribkowsky via a web of shell companies and fake consultancy contracts’. Allegedly two mailbox companies in Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands were involved, which does ring a bell, as Briatore has fled and spent a number of years on the Virgin Islands after he was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months in prison after being convicted by Italian authorities on various counts of fraud in the 1970s.

And today the FOM boss granted the UK Daily Express an interview in which he stated Briatore was not involved, “In no shape or form is Briatore involved in this. He did make a payment for me but only because I asked him after this man Gribkowsky threatened to make trouble for me and said he did not want the money paid direct from the UK.” So Briatore isn’t involved, but he is involved? “Briatore did me a favor and, far from being dragged into this, I told the German prosecutor about it. That is how his name has appeared,” Ecclestone explained.

Ecclestone also believes the whole bribery case is not the end of his Formula One involvement, “The end [for me]? Of course not! I will be doing what I do best for a while yet -- making good deals to keep a lot of people happy and well off in Formula One. Some might not want me to continue but I enjoy what I do. That is what I'll be judged on.”

Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and off track”

Date: Event:
18 March Australian GP
25 March Malaysian GP
8 April Chinese GP
22 April Indian GP
13 May Spanish GP
27 May Monaco GP
10 June Canada GP
24 June European GP
8 July British GP
22 July German GP
29 July Hungarian GP
2 September Belgian GP
9 September Italian GP
23 September Singapore GP
7 October Japanese GP
14 October Korean GP
28 October Abu Dhabi
4 November Bahrain GP
18 November US GP [1]
25 November Brazilian GP

[1] Subject to FIA homologation

Formula One - On and Off Track week 31

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About this article
Series General , Formula 1
Drivers Martin Brundle , Flavio Briatore , Bernie Ecclestone , Martin Whitmarsh
Tags bbc, bouman, briatore, ecclestone, fia, fota, gribkowsky, walker