EUROPE'S top football clubs are to set up their own motor-racing series, mimicking Formula One and worth almost Pounds 100 million a year. Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association, has been hired to carry out the delicate negotiations with about 20 clubs, understood to include Manchester United, Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Lazio, Real Madrid and Arsenal.
The appetising prospect for clubs is the possibility of huge amounts of revenue from a new stream of merchandising sales and terrestrial television channels anxious to make the crossover between the world's two richest sports.
But the move is likely to anger Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's autocratic ruler, who has fought fiercely to keep his the world's top motor-racing attraction, but he will not be able to oppose the innovative idea to give the clubs the chance to run their own cars, painted in their club liveries, at 12 leading race venues around Europe before eventually spreading into South America and Asia. He will be unwilling to retaliate or try to take part in the deal because an investigation into Formula One's alleged anti-competitive practices is pending.
Formula One would face an enormous challenge on a global scale by a race series boasting attractive household football names, who will undoubtedly be pushed into an advertising blitz when the series gets under way in April 2002.
The consortium is being put together by Colin Sullivan, a football and motor-racing enthusiast who put his proposition to Kelly when he left the FA almost two years ago. Kelly was hooked and believes fans will want to see races in which a red Manchester United car is head-to-head with the familiar black-and-white stripes of Juventus.
Clubs will not be asked to put in any start-up money, but will be given the chance to take an equity stake in the series, known as Premier 1 Grand Prix, and cash in on the various merchandising deals and television revenues.
Kelly admits he was "gobsmacked" when approached to head up the consortium, but has quickly become a convert to its huge possibilities. He has been touring Europe, laying the groundwork with clubs before the final financial details are put together by Nabarro Nathanson, a London law firm.
"I was amazed by the whole thing," he said yesterday, "but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it would work. We did a study that discovered four in ten season-ticket holders were Formula One fans, so there is an immediate link there before we even go on to any other aspect of this project.
"There is going to be a lot of interest among clubs who have reached a stage where the earnings from television seem almost at saturation point. They are all looking for new ways of making money to cover the enormous transfer fees they are all paying and they want to spread their brands into other areas. Their names are not just football any more. We are still in the process of getting things together, but we definitely want terrestrial broadcasters to take on what we think will be a very exciting race series, with different interests for both motor racing and football fans."
The 30 cars on the grid will be identical, all built by the Italian Dallara company, one of the world's best-known constructors, and powered by the same four-litre Judd V10 engines from Engine Developments, based in Rugby. That will, Kelly says, make races a contest of skill between the drivers and not a race between high-tech machines developed at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds as in Formula One.
Kelly does not expect to tempt Formula One drivers away from the top series in motor sport, but refugees such as Johnny Herbert, who is leaving the Jaguar team this season, might be interested in a new form of racing that promises salaries almost as high as Formula One and also the cachet of linking up with some of the world's top football teams.
Links between football and motor racing are already well established. Newcastle United have, for some years, sponsored a Lister GT car in the Le Mans 24-hour race and the British GT championship, while Jaguar has links with footballers such as Michael Owen, who was driven around Silverstone by Herbert before the British Grand Prix, and Alan Shearer.
The most high-profile link, though, is between two of the most glamorous names in sport, Ferrari and Juventus, who have shared a president in the form of Luca di Montezemolo. The director of the 1990 World Cup in Italy and former Juventus president is a passionate football supporter, as well as being head of Ferrari, and he would be an intriguing ingredient to add to a serious rival to Formula One.
Copyright (C) The Times, 2000