Friday May 18th, 2001
By Tim Hepher
Leading carmakers firmed up plans on Friday to launch a rival motor racing series to Formula One by 2008, saying they wanted to keep the hugely popular sport free to watch on television.
The Association of European Carmakers (ACEA) said in a statement issued through Italy's Fiat, which owns world champions Ferrari, that its members had agreed to set up a new company to run the new championship in the next few days.
ACEA groups the car firms involved in some of the biggest names in Formula One - Jaguar owners Ford, DaimlerChrysler which has Mercedes-McLaren, BMW with Williams, Renault with Benetton and Ferrari's Fiat, whose chief executive Paolo Cantarella currently chairs the automakers' club.
"The goal of the manufacturers is to promote the interest of the sport, to make sure that the races are made freely available to the broadest possible public worldwide," the statement said.
Car bosses signed the breakaway deal at an annual meeting in Rome shortly after meeting Pope John Paul at the Vatican.
The Pope, a keen sportsman in his youth, marked his 81st birthday on Friday with a full schedule of audiences including the meeting with 120 members of ACEA. The car giants first raised the prospect of challenging Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One series in April amid a row over broadcasting rights.
They fear the purchase by Germany's Kirch group and media company EM.TV of 75 percent of the Formula One supremo's holding company SLEC could eventually lead to coverage of the sport being restricted to pay television.
SLEC was recently granted a 100-year extension of Formula One commercial rights in a $309-million deal with the sport's ruling body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA).
SLEC has repeatedly tried to placate the carmakers by pledging to keep the sport on free-to-air television. Formula One races are beamed round the world to an audience estimated at 300 million on free-to-air television. This huge global reach helps to attract the sponsors who bankroll team running costs of up to $250 million per season.
The leading teams are thought to be tied in to competing in the existing Formula One Championship until 2007 under the so-called Concorde Agreement between the teams and the FIA.
There has also been speculation that the carmakers would like to buy a stake in SLEC to increase their influence over the sport. Ecclestone has said the chances of the car makers successfully going it alone are slim.
In Germany, a spokesman for media baron Leo Kirch said his company took the carmakers' latest initiative "very seriously".
"Over the next few days, the shareholders of SLEC and Mr Ecclestone will consider what it actually means. We are still prepared to hold talks with the automakers about their taking a stake and exercising influence within SLEC," he said.
Ferrari's world champion Michael Schumacher has also suggested a split would be damaging. Ecclestone, who built the sport into a huge business, continues to work on expanding Formula One and last week announced plans to expand the annual series of 17 Grand Prix races to Moscow as soon as a suitable circuit was built.