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Norwegians could look to offload F1 stake

The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund could decide to sell on its F1 stake if the sport cannot free itself from accusations of corruption.

Norway's sovereign wealth fund has confirmed that it will look to sell its stake in F1 should both its own problems and those affecting the sport in general not be addressed.

Questions were raised in the national parliament last week asking whether the fund had violated its remit by joining US-based investors BlackRock and Waddell & Reed in acquiring a $1.6bn stake in F1 last May. Although the purchase appeared to be in good faith at the time, F1's decision to cancel its proposed stock market flotation put the fund's holding in jeopardy as it is only permitted to acquire a stake in an unlisted company if it plans an initial public offering.

While Norges Bank Investment Management admits that it may have made a mistake in buying into F1 when it did, it insists that the deal remains within mandate as the sport still plans to float. However, bigger concerns appear to lie with having links to a sport currently being dragged through the courts on corruption charges. Norwegian business newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv quotes chief executive Yngve Slyngstad confirming that the fund may have no option but to try and offload its stake if Bernie Ecclestone is found guilty on bribery charges.

“In retrospect, what is most unfortunate is what eventually has ended up in corruption charges," Slyngstad conceded, "We have zero tolerance for corruption and we have full confidence that the board is dealing with this. It is clear that if this case is not handled properly, then we would not want to be an owner. In this case, we would not sit on these shares."

While Ecclestone was cleared of accusation that he and others had conspired to keep the price of shares low when BayernLB was looking to sell its stake, he was found guilty of paying a bribe to since-disgraced banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to ensure that the sale was concluded in favour of equity company CVC. Ecclestone now faces a bribery trial in Germany over the same deal, while BayernLB and Swiss authorities are both thought to considering legal options. Meanwhile, Constantin Medien, which believes it was frozen out of a possible windfall from the sale to CVC, is considering whether to appeal the decision of the High Court in London.

No date has been set for the German trial, but speculation suggests that it could run from late April through to September, effectively taking up much of the F1 season. Ecclestone, however, insists that he will not let proceedings deflect him from looking after the championship's commercial interests.

"We will attend as and when we have to, a couple of days a week," he told Reuters, "We'll be able to deal with that internally."

The Ecclestone family lawyer, Stephen Mullens, was yesterday revealed as a co-defendant in the case [ see separate story].




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