Although Force India has done well this year on the race tracks, there are still very serious worries about the team’s future funding because of difficulties that its two owners – Vijay Mallya and Roy Subrata Sahara – have run into.
Mallya’s deeply-indebted Kingfisher Airlines – which owes an estimated $1.4 billion – is now facing ever-deeper trouble. This morning a number of Kingfisher pilots in Mumbai decided to join the strike called by the company’s engineers, who are complaining that their salaries have not been paid in seven months. The Indian Directorate General of Civil Aviation says it is “examining the situation” and will decide whether it is safe for the airline to continue to operate flights. Almost all the shares in Kingfisher Airlines have been pledged to guarantee loans, many of them to other companies in the Mallya empire, but also to banks. Some of the debts have been sold on to other financial institutions. It has been clear for some time that Mallya has been running out people willing to loan him money. No-one appears to want to buy into the airline and thus there is strain on other companies in the empire. The local offshoot of the credit rating agency Moody’s has in recent days reduced the rating on the loans to Mallya’s United Spirits to junk status. This will increase the pressure on Mallya to sell the profitable liquor business to Diageo. The British firm is playing a canny game at the moment and says it wants control of the Indian business, or at least to be able to have a way to gain control in the future. Mallya is baulking at that but he seems to be running out of options. Even if he sells some of his stake in United Spirits, Mallya will not have enough money to pay Kingfisher’s debts, although it might allow him to find banks willing to keep the airline afloat.
In the meantime Sahara is also in significant trouble. At the end of August the Supreme Court of India ordered the company to pay a thumping $5 billion to the Securities and Exchange Board of India within three months, in order for the Sahara investor to be refunded. In addition the court ruled that investors should be paid 15 percent interest for each year. This means that the full extent of the repayment should be in the region of $10 billion. That money will be deposited in a nationalized bank that offers the maximum rate of interest and will then be repaid to investors. If this money is not paid the regulator has the right to seize and sell property and freeze all Sahara bank accounts. The firm was ordered to furnish the regulator with all the appropriate records by September 10, which it failed to do.
It is not clear where all this leaves the F1 team. It will need a solid budget to continue its activities and to fund its technology deals with Mercedes-Benz and with McLaren, not to mention the operational costs. There have been rumours for some time that the team is up for sale, but it seems that Mallya wants to remain involved so as to retain his image of being the leader of Indian motorsport. Whether the team can find someone who is willing to pay for that is another matter.