Do carmakers have message in F-1 plan?

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

April 08, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

It may not be the way it sounds.

When five major auto manufacturers said last week that in the best interests of motor sports they had agreed to set up a new series to rival the current Formula One World Championship, they didn't mean there would soon be a competing series.

Not tomorrow, next month or even next year.

In fact, the earliest would probably be 2008 - if at all. The manufacturers may simply have been making it clear that they want their very expensive interests protected.

For decades, Bernie Ecclestone and his company, SLEC, have been in control. The manufacturers trust Ecclestone. But in his 70s now, Ecclestone seems to be moving to protect his family's wealth and, perhaps, lessen his workload.

It is his move to sell 75 percent of his commercial rights in F-1 to the German media companies Kirch and EM.TV that concerns the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA).

Kirch's deal is not yet finalized, but FIA president Max Mosley has called for a deadline on negotiations.

"If the deal is not done by April 11, then other possibilities will be looked at," Mosley said. "It's been going on for eight months. ... I would have thought people would find a compromise because it is the most sensible thing to do, but it hasn't happened yet."

The manufacturers group, which includes Ford/Jaguar, Fiat/Ferrari, Benetton/Renault, DaimlerChrysler and Williams/BMW, invests hundreds of millions of dollars in the very healthy business of F-1 every year.

What worries them is that Leo Kirch's money-losing, pay-per-view outlets are in need of a major sport to attract more subscribers and that he might eventually move the F-1 series to pay-per-view, with no free TV broadcasts.

Currently, 400 million viewers watch F-1 races in more than 120 countries. Over the 17-race season, that adds up to viewership in excess of 8 billion, making it the largest worldwide television audience for any sport.

A Kirch spokesman has denied it will move the sport to pay-per-view and Ecclestone has issued a statement saying he has guarantees for five years that the sport will remain on free TV. But with SLEC holding the F-1 TV rights for the next 100 years, who knows about the long term?

At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where there is great familiarity with series splitting - CART, IRL - and where the F-1 series has a multi-year contract for its only race in the United States, no one is jumping to any conclusions, nor do they seem worried.

"This is F-1 politics," said track spokesman Fred Nation. "It's, first of all, something we don't understand and second, don't really concern ourselves with because we have confidence in Bernie Ecclestone and his management. ... When the dust settles, they'll have worked it out."

That seems to be the way the race teams are approaching it, too. On an off weekend in England, Williams team spokesperson Ann Bradshaw said it's business as usual.

"I don't think suddenly tomorrow the world championship is dead," she said. "From our point of view, we're just working on getting ready to go to the next race."

Toyota expands

The CART series is in Long Beach today, competing in the Toyota Grand Prix. But last week, the rival Indy Racing League announced Toyota Motorsports will manufacture engines for its series, beginning in 2003.

The addition of Toyota gives the IRL, which split from CART in 1996, three engine manufacturers - Toyota, General Motors and Infiniti. It also gives the IRL a major player from CART. Toyota is one of the most successful manufacturers in CART, having won five races and seven poles last season. Among Toyota's CART teams are Target Chip Ganassi, Newman/Haas and Patrick Racing.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Jim Aust, president of Toyota Racing Development said, "There's a great deal of interest from the five teams we're providing engines for in CART as to the possibilities for what this might provide for them in regard to getting involved with the IRL." ... We're hopeful we'll be able to convert some of the teams over and be firm competitors within this series, as well."

Sad statement

The most disgusting occurrence of the past 10 days has been the action taken by a DeLand, Fla., Web site operator. Michael Uribe, who is pursuing the Dale Earnhardt autopsy photos in court, posted the autopsy photos of Rodney Orr and Neil Bonnett, who both died at Daytona International Speedway in 1994, on his site.

Perhaps just as repugnant, so many people rushed to look at them that they crashed the site.

Uribe refuses to say whether he would post the Earnhardt photos if he gains access to them.

Is there really any doubt? And isn't this exactly what the law recently passed by the Florida Legislature is about?

Meanwhile, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, based in Fort Lauderdale, have sued in Broward County to overturn the new law that has sealed the photos. The papers, both owned by Tribune Co. (which also owns The Sun), claim the restrictions violate the Florida and U.S. constitutions.

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