Rumors re forced takeover of Sauber F1 team

There are rumors and speculation that the underlying motive behind the attempts by Giedo van der Garde and his lawyers to claim his seat in the Sauber team at the Australian Grand Prix is that it is part of an attempt to force the Sauber F1 team, either into bankruptcy, or to a point where the team has no choice but to accept an offer for it to be bought, or it will go bankrupt.

The theory behind this is that van der Garde’s father in law is the Dutch businessman Marcel Boekhoorn. He is estimated to be worth $1.5bn. If those estimates are anywhere close to true, he could probably buy the entire Sauber team out of pocket change.

One thing I have learned over the years, from reading biographies and news articles, is that highly successful wealthy business people seldom frivolously invest their own money in projects with a low chance of success. Wherever possible, they try to invest other peoples’ money, and limit their own personal exposure. They know the value of money and what it can do, and they are experts at making it work for them.

It is therefore far from obvious to me why Marcel Boekhoorn (or anybody else for that matter) would want to buy the Sauber F1 team. Based on what has been happening to the team over the last 3 years, it appears that the team is struggling to survive. It’s sponsorship revenues have declined as external sponsors depart. The most recent departure was NEC, which sponsored the team last year. NEC left Sauber at the end of 2014, and is now a sponsor for Force India. The only current visually significant sponsor on the car not brought to the team by drivers is Oerlikon, whose name adorns the top of the dorsum next to the engine air intakes.

Rumors in the F1 journalist community have Felipe Nasr’s sponsors providing around $25m this season, and Marcus Ericsson’s sponsors providing another $15m. Let’s add $10m for Oerlikon, and $10m for other smaller deals. That gives a total sponsorship revenue stream of $60m. Now we have to add revenues from FOM. In 2014 this estimate was published about the revenue distribution in 2013. This showed that Sauber may have been paid over $70m in 2013. However, that number will have reduced significantly this year since the team failed to score a point in 2014. Let’s say it is $40m.

This gives total team income in 2015 as $100m. That sounds a lot, but in reality, according to recent stories, to run a properly functioning team takes at least $125-150m a year. That does not include further investment in people and facilities to move the team up the grid over time.

There is also the matter of what debts Sauber has accumulated over the years. If the team owes money to banks or other financial institutions, it will have to fund interest and principal payments on the debt, which will eat into its free cash flow. The fact that Sauber spent a lot of time and effort  in 2013 and 2014 trying to find investors from Russia, prior to finding it’s current drivers, suggests that they were trying to find external investors to stay solvent. It is almost impossible to know what debts the team currently has.

So if Marcel Boekhoorn was to dip into his pocket and buy the team, his committments would be the money to buy the team itself (believed to be owned 66% by Peter Sauber and 33% by Monisha Kaltenborn), and money to pay off the debts. Then there is the ongoing funding of the team. The economic model of F1 currently requires buyers to stump up seriously big money every month just to keep back of the grid teams afloat, since those smaller teams all get low payouts from FOM. The payouts are skewed heavily towards the historically successful teams.

There is also a severe lack of new sponsors in F1. The sponsor changes in 2015 seem to mainly comprise sponsors changing teams (two examples visible are Rexona moving from Lotus to Williams, and NEC moving from Sauber to Force India). There are no new big-money sponsors visible on most cars, and many of the visible sponsors are either brought by drivers, or are companies owned by the team owners.

If Marcel Boekhoorn is serious about buying any F1 team, he had better have a very good business development plan…

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