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February 17, 2005

By Kevin

February 17, 2005

By Kevin Eason

FORMULA ONE teams took their first significant step away from the 25-year rule of Bernie Ecclestone last night when they signed up with the rebel group threatening to set up a rival series. The emperor of Formula One may have Ferrari — the most famous and glamorous name in motor racing — on his side, but he will awake this morning to discover that he has lost the rest.

Six teams — Toyota, BAR Honda, Renault, McLaren Mercedes, BMW-Williams and Minardi — agreed a memorandum of understanding with the GPWC, the breakaway group that until today seemed more myth than fact. The surroundings at Cliveden House in Taplow, Berkshire, were opulent but the talk was of sedition and rebellion, with the skirmishes, which have seen shots fired at Ecclestone’s ruthless control of a sport that has yielded him a personal fortune calculated at more than £2 billion, turning into full-blown war.

Ecclestone has spent the past few weeks escalating the stakes, first persuading Ferrari to sign a unilateral extension of their contract with his companies and the FIA, the sport’s governing body, for an extra five years until 2012, and then offering the lure of an extra $500 million (about £265 million) to the other teams if they followed the lead of the famous Scuderia.

But Ecclestone might have shot himself in the foot with the Ferrari deal — clinched by a $100 million sweetener. The nine teams have become increasingly restless over what they see as special treatment for the Italian team and the secret deal simply deepened the animosity. The GPWC — owned by Renault, Mercedes and BMW — has promised an equal share for every team. Paul Stoddart, owner of Minardi and spokesman for the group of nine, said that the GPWC’s plans were so convincing that he put pen to paper immediately. He said: “It was incredibly professional from a credible group that looked like a ready-to-go organisation. The only way to avoid a split is for Bernie and the banks to get together with the GPWC soon or there will be a bloodbath. The thing that changed everything was the Ferrari deal.”

The pace of GPWC’s plans is now breakneck: technical experts from the teams will meet next week, before they fly off to Australia for the first race of 2005, to start devising new regulations under which the rebel series could run. They will also draw up specifications for cars that they want to be the most technologically advanced in the world.

Formula One’s teams are notoriously conservative and are desperate not to turn their backs on the man who turned their sport from a weekend meeting of disorganised enthusiasts into a multibillion-pound spectacle with a television audience measured in hundreds of millions. But the stark reality that they have been getting only 23 per cent of the total income while his companies got the rest has finally sunk in. The GPWC is understood to be offering around 80 per cent of the total take, with the rest used to invest in the series.

The memorandum signed by the six “unanimously agreed upon the establishment of a new framework for their participation in grand-prix motor racing post-2007”. The three others — Sauber, JordanMidland and Red Bull — welcomed the deal and will report back to their owners. It probably helped that the manufacturers turned up with a promise to the most impoverished teams, such as Minardi and Jordan, to provide them with cut-price engines if they signed up.

Formed with the threat of setting up a rival to Formula One at the end of 2007, when commercial contracts binding the teams to Ecclestone’s Formula One business come to an end, the organisation seemed to have run out of steam when first Ford and then Ferrari, spectacularly with its now infamous deal, walked out. But Toyota and Honda have now crucially given their backing and the GPWC has been able to convince circuit owners, sponsors and now the teams that a new series — starting afresh with the teams governing their own destiny — is not only viable, but that it is the future.
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