F1 Business Diary 2017: The Austrian Grand Prix

A flying start sees Valteri Bottas claim his second victory of the season and Max Verstappen crashes out again.

After the fireworks of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix – and Lewis Hamilton’s public refusal to accept Sebastien Vettel’s handshake on Italian television – anticipation for Formula One’s Austrian race was at fever pitch. Capitalising on the two European stars’ increasingly vicious rivalry, Dietrich Mateschitz’s revived Spielberg circuit, the Red Bull Ring, pulled in 145,000 Formula One fans over the race weekend.

The Austrian Grand Prix was no less controversial than the previous instalment, with most of the debated incidents coming before the conclusion of the opening lap. The first confrontation once again involved Vettel and a Mercedes driver. Pole-sitter and eventual winner Valteri Bottas’ reaction time of 0.201 seconds gave the Mercedes man a jump on his rivals and led some to question its legality.  

A disgruntled Vettel called Bottas’ start “un-human” while the Finn declared it the “the start of my life”.

Vettel, who finished six tenths of a second behind Bottas, extended his drivers’ world championship lead to 20 points from Hamilton, who finished fourth. Nevertheless, the Ferrari driver, who escaped any sanction following his ‘road rage’ attack on Hamilton in Azerbaijan, took to his radio to vent spleen on Bottas’ electric start.

In his post-race interview the increasingly outspoken and publicly erratic German iterated his grievances over Bottas’ start, even going as far as to say that he didn’t believe the telemetry data of the fast start.

“From my point of view, he jumped the start – I was sure that he did,” said Vettel. “It looked like it from inside the car, but it's not for me to judge at the end of the day. I don't believe Valtteri was so much quicker.”

Following Bottas’ contentious start, Torro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat locked his brakes on the run down to turn one and speared into the back of Fernando Alonso's McLaren, which in turn clipped Max Verstappen, which led to the two drivers’ elimination. Kvyat’s vehicle remained unscathed but, following a drive-through penalty for causing the collision, the Russian limped home three laps behind race winner Bottas. 

This recent failure represents the fifth time in seven races that Verstappen’s Red Bull has failed to reach the chequered flag this season. It was a huge disappointment for his legions of Dutch fans, who in the absence of a Netherlands Grand Prix had made the short pilgrimage to Spielberg, and to the thousands of Red Bull supporters at their ‘home’ Grand Prix. 

The question remains: how long will Formula One’s hottest young property, named at 38th in SportPro’s list of the world’s most marketable athletes a few days ago, put up with a mediocre car?     

Hedge funds cash in

Whatever the health of Formula One may be on the track, it has seen significant enough financial growth over the past six months for several of the key investors into Liberty's takeover to decide to cash out already.

Liberty's initial US$4.4 billion purchase of Formula One from a group led by CVC Capital in January was partially funded by seven hedge funds, which between them took a 29.4 per cent stake at the discounted rate of US$25 per share.

The lock-up period on those shares expired on Friday, with all but one of the investors taking up the opportunity to divest its assets, with Formula One's stock price closing at US$34.71 on Friday.

Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb is the largest of the shareholders with eight per cent, of which it has put 80 per cent up for sale. 

Only SPO Advisory has refrained from releasing any of its shares at this stage, with the willingness of the other six to sell reflecting an immediate return on investment due to the almost 39 per cent rise in the share price.

The initial US$4.4 billion was made up of US$3 billion in cash with US$1.4 in shares, with CVC having been slowly divesting its shares ever since. Its remaining stake in Formula One is just over three per cent. 

Formula One's longstanding former chief executive Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, is selling shares worth US$4.1 million, leaving him with a less than one per cent stake in the sport he helped to build up over four decades in charge.

Cash-strapped Silverstone threatens future of the British Grand Prix… again

Next week’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone could be the penultimate race at the cash-strapped Northamptonshire venue. It is widely believed that the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC), owner of the historic circuit, is set to activate a break clause in its existing contract with Formula One Management (FOM).  

Under the terms of the current deal, which was drawn up by Formula One’s former boss and current chairman emeritus Ecclestone, BRDC pays FOM almost UK£17 million to host the race, which rises by five per cent each year, meaning the cost will sour to an eye-watering UK£26 million by 2026.

Despite attracting a three-day attendance of almost 400,000 each season and local hero Lewis Hamilton remaining the series’ most marketable star, British newspaper the Daily Mail reports that the circuit sustained losses of UK£2.8 million and UK£4.8million in 2015 and 2016 respectively.

That said, Ecclestone told news outlet Reuters he “would be surprised if eventually we lose Silverstone”.

“It's a good event, and it probably falls into line much more with the way Liberty want to see Formula One go,” he added.  

Another school of thought voiced by Zak Brown, executive director of McLaren Technology Group and founder of Just Marketing International (JMI), the world’s largest motorsport marketing agency, is that “Liberty should buy Silverstone”.

“I have voiced my views on that,” said Brown. “They [Liberty] listen and they will be quick to tell you if they disagree, and they didn't disagree with the logic. But I wouldn't want to put words in their mouths that mean they are going out and buying it now because I have no idea.”

McLaren will give Honda plenty of time 

The most fractious relationship in Formula One is surprisingly not the unruly one between Hamilton and Vettel but that of McLaren and their engine supplier Honda. 

Last month, Brown had warned the beleaguered Japanese manufacturer that the collaboration – which has only accrued two points in the 2017 season – was reaching a “fork in the road”.

However, with rival manufacturer Mercedes apparently waiting in the wings, the American told reporters over the weekend that there were signs of improvement from Honda – which brought an upgraded 'Spec Three' power unit to Austria – but time was still at a premium.

“It's still very much a work in progress,” said Brown. “We need to figure out our relationship with them moving forward, soon. You start getting into next year's car in the next few months and what we have to have is a competitive engine for next year.

“They're working hard on it and doing some things that are for them to speak about to make those improvements. So we want to give them as much runway as possible to get there.”

Although Brown acknowledged Honda’s “enthusiasm to address the issue”, he publicly reminded the carmaker that Formula One is “a results-oriented business”.

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