The surprise appearance of James Murdoch on the opening day of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has sent a wave of speculation coursing through the F1 paddock.
According to Britain's Daily Mirror
newspaper, the media mogul was in town to hold top-secret talks with senior members of the McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull teams, suggesting that the family could again be interested in securing the rights to F1, after an earlier bid was scuppered by the 'phone-hacking scandal that hit its News International operation in 2011 [see separate story
With the Murdoch-owned Sky Sports
having invested heavily in its first season of coverage of the sport this year, becoming more involved in the running of F1 would be a logical step, particularly if it would simultaneously allow the broadcaster to expand into new areas globally. The quality of its coverage has also led F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone to suggest that terrestrial television's hold on the sport could be coming to an end, especially as the BBC
was forced to reduce its involvement due to budget constraints this season [see separate story
However, News International's plans for F1 hit an unexpected bump in the road last month when the company's US sports cable channel SPEED TV lost the rights to show F1 in the US. (See separate story
.) The channel was outbid by NBC, which will split 2013 coverage of the series between its main broadcast network and its recently relaunched NBCSports cable channel.
Murdoch's appearance coincides with that of current FIA president Jean Todt, but many in the paddock were unaware of the visit.
"One thing is for sure: Murdoch is not here just to take in the F1 scenery or glad-hand over Sky
's F1 channel," the Mirror
's veteran F1 journalist Byron Young tweeted on Saturday morning, "What was interesting [however] was how many didn't know he was coming - about 99 per cent of teams and paddock. That, itself, is curious...."
Two years ago, Rupert Murdoch determined that Abu Dhabi should become a key location from which to base efforts to expand across the Middle East, with plans to open offices in the capital. News Corp subsidiary Fox International Channels made Abu Dhabi its regional hub for online advertising sales, documentary production and satellite television broadcast and a partnership between Fox and Abu Dhabi's media zone was announced