If I had a dollar for every rumour of a deal that was about to be announced involving money from Qatar, I would be almost as rich as the average Qatari. There seems to be a default belief in the motorsport media that Qataris will fund anything – on the grounds that they live in a place where money comes out of the ground. It is not really like that.
The number of large-scale international Qatari sponsorships is very limited. The Qataris are not gamblers and they want a return on any investment and sponsorship value is all too often rather too fluffy a concept for a hard-nosed businessman. The country’s investment policy is similarly conservative. In recent years, as Europe has been gripped by economic problems, the Qataris have been buying into businesses that look like they will give them a good return. The aim is not only to generate money from a diversified portfolio, but also to acquire a little more influence in economic and political circles. Thus the country’s wealth funds have invested in solid companies such as oil giants Shell and Total, banking firms such as Barclays and Credit Suisse, utility and infrastructure businesses like Vinci, Suez Environnement, Veolia, Siemens and Spain’s Iberdrola. There has been industrial investment with Volkswagen, the mining company Xstrata, the entertainment/telecommunication firm Vivendi and media/aerospace group Lagardère. They have acquired a great deal of real estate, notably the Shard tower in London, while also putting money into luxury goods and hotel companies, such as LVMH, the jeweller Tiffany and Harrods, not to mention the Paris Saint-Germain football club.
They have not spent a lot in motor racing, outside Qatar, but that has not stopped the rumours such as the sale of Silverstone. Nothing came of it. Several F1 teams have also been mentioned as possible acquisitions for Qatar, but there is no sign of that becoming a reality.
The latest rumours are that the deep-pocketed Qataris are going to buy the Excelis company, which owns the Paul Ricard complex in the south of France. This facility is a nice little business, with the circuit being booked for around 300 days a year, with its various tracks and function rooms being used by all manner of companies, in addition to racing folk. The business includes the airport, which can take Airbus A320s, and three hotels: the Résidence des Équipages; the Best Western Grand Prix Hotel and the Hotel du Castellet. Between them they offer nearly 200 rooms and various quality restaurants.
Contrary to the rumours that fly around Excelis is not owned by Bernie Ecclestone, nor by his ex-wife Slavica. It belongs to Castelet Investment Holdings Ltd, which is registered in the tax haven of Mauritius. This firm is represented by Luc Argand, the 64-year-old Swiss lawyer who is also the trustee of the Bambino Trust, the Ecclestone Family trust company. This looks after the assets that will one day belong to Bernie Ecclestone’s two daughters. Under usual trust terms, the trustees are required to deal with assets “as any prudent person of business” would do, so the decision as to whether the company should be sold would be taken by Argand, whether or not the Ecclestones agree or not.
The French media have “spun” the Qatar rumour into the idea that such a new owner would immediately agree to fund a French GP at the venue. In reality, this would only be done if it were seen as being a good investment.
At the same time, the circuit director Stéphane Clair has been saying that the track has the €30 million that it needs to host a race in 2013. That is not the story that one hears from other sources, who reckon that Ricard has only €10 million guaranteed. This comes from the various local authorities, collectives and chambers of commerce, in a consortium headed by Jacques Bianchi.There may be more cash available, as Clair claims, but the Formula One group will not be doing any deal unless there are massive guarantees.
A meeting is planned to discuss a deal this weekend in Abu Dhabi and the French will need to have all their ducks in a row if they want a race in 2013. Time is short and while they might gain a few weeks by agreeing to a race in late August, the gap on the F1 calendar that needs to be filled is in June.
If the money is there, then a race can go ahead in 2013, but if the whole project is relying on a Qatari investor leaping in at the last moment, the likelihood of a French GP is significantly reduced.