BBC prepares to snatch F1 from ITV in £175m deal

LONDON - The BBC is understood to be ready to pay up to £175m to win back the rights to Formula 1 motor racing when ITV's contract expires at the end of the 2004 season.

The BBC lost the rights to the sport in 1997 when ITV signed a five-year deal with F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone for £70m, 10 times what the BBC had previously paid. ITV won the rights for a further three years when that deal expired in 2001.

According to reports, BBC bosses are hoping that the return of Formula 1 will boost its sports coverage after losing Test cricket to Channel 4 and Premiership football highlights to ITV. The corporation lost out again recently when ITV retained the rights to Champions League football.

Formula 1, which used to pull in up to 6m viewers when the UK's Damon Hill and German Michael Schumacher were battling for the world championship in the late 90s, has hit a ratings trough recently.

Sunday's season finale in Japan only attracted 600,000 viewers when it was broadcast live at 6am, while the afternoon as-live repeat pulled in 2m viewers, less than the 3.5m peak that watched Paula Radcliffe break the world record at the Chicago marathon on BBC.

Industry commentators blame the slump in the ratings for F1 on the dominance this year by Schumacher, who has won 11 out of 17 races, and Ferrari, which has won all but two of the races. Manipulation of the results by the Ferrari team, which issued team orders during the Austrian Grand Prix telling Rubens Barrichello to allow Schumacher to win, has also hurt viewing figures.

Max Mosley, president of Formula governing body the FIA, has warned F1 teams of the dangers facing the sport. He told The Sun: "We just can't afford to have another season like this one next year. If any one team enjoys the same dominance as Ferrari have, people will stop watching."

Former world champion Damon Hill said: "Most of the money in F1 has come through the marketing of the sport, creating a massive viewership. No one would be there -- BMW, the sponsors, whatever -- if no one was watching."

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