Michael Bailey: No time for F1 to lose its free appetite

Few people would argue against the suggestion the BBC's re-invigorated coverage of Formula One over the last couple of years has been a success.

Having won back the rights from ITV from 2008 – with the idea of races being free from television advertising breaks – the Beeb has done a grand job of bringing together digital television, live web coverage and insightful radio.

It coincided with a 2010 season that got off to a slow start but soon exploded – lighting up the sport until the very last race. And despite only being three races in, 2011 seemingly has the potential to top it.

But there was a reminder last week that maybe we should not all take our easy access to F1 for granted over the coming years.

The suggestion was made that News Corp – Rupert Murdoch's corporate baby and parents to BSkyB – had held 'preliminary discussions' with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the world's richest man and a key funder for Sauber driver Sergio Perez.

The idea was for the pair to join forces in a consortium that could bid for a significant share of Formula One ownership – if not the lot.

Now as you can imagine, trying to figure out F1's movers and shakers is a tough job. Clearly Bernie Ecclestone holds a lot of sway, but even he has his paymasters – in this case, private equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

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The natural conclusion to draw from the News Corp speculation, of course, is over television rights.

The current Concorde Agreement, which binds all F1's teams and parties together, currently protects free-to-air racing in the UK.

However, the agreement is up for renewal at the end of 2012. That in turn will give Formula One's teams – already under a fair amount of financial pressure – the chance to work out ways of increasing their slice from 50pc of the sport's profits to something a little more palatable.

There is no doubt the involvement of Sky and satellite broadcasters in the likes of football and rugby has raised the bar – in terms of competition, finances and in some cases enhancing the coverage.

And the possibility for a similar result in F1 will obviously tempt those who stand to gain the most.

But taking the access away from licence fee payers, people who have supported and enjoyed superb coverage of Formula One in recent seasons, would be a disaster for any sports fan who feels shelling out �50 every month is rinsing the public.

Of course, we may get nowhere near that scenario. Ecclestone has been keen to play down the idea News Corp could succeed with their bid, for the very reason it would make his task of getting the best television deal for his sport a real pain.

'I know Rupert and (News Corp international boss) James Murdoch, and Carlos Slim, and if they wanted to do anything they would contact me direct – and they haven't,' Ecclestone told – you've guessed it – the BBC.

'We wouldn't sell to a media company because it would restrict the ability to negotiate with other broadcasters.'

Here's hoping that is the case, because with a rare success story – seeing a terrestrial broadcaster providing brilliant, full coverage of a marquee sport – it would be another hammer blow to fans if it disappeared behind the pay per view curtain.

• It has taken patience and plenty of rescheduling, but finally it is here – Richard Branson is set to pay up on his big 2010 bet.

The Virgin Racing owner laid his integrity and image on the line last season when he entered into an F1 wager with the team principal of fellow new boys Team Lotus last season – then known as Lotus Racing.

Whoever's team finished lower in the 2010 pecking order would have to pay the price – dressing as an air stewardess, tights and all, before serving passengers on a flight: be it for Branson's Virgin Atlantic carrier or Fernandes' Air Asia budget liner.

It goes without saying, Lotus took the honours – leaving Branson to take the plunge.

Clearly the two men are smart operators. They have made a lot of money and been phenomenally successful in almost every project they have taken on.

And this bet will follow suit. The pair have already turned the wager into a special charity Air Asia flight from Stansted to Kuala Lumpur that sets out on Sunday, after a VIP afternoon of events at the Radisson Hotel.

Apparently Branson's Air Asia uniform will be 'sexy'; he has already shaved his legs. No doubt the sight will be worth every penny – leaving a total you can guarantee will be impressive, shared between causes.

Judging by their respective starts to 2011, at least Branson can breathe a sigh of relief he did not challenge Fernandes to double or quits. Well, not in public at least…