BUDAPEST // The BBC announced on Friday it will from next year share transmission rights for Formula One with Sky.
The deal is restricted to the United Kingdom - Abu Dhabi Sports will continue to broadcast the world championship in the Middle East - but the impact of the new BBC-Sky deal could have a far greater reach than simply within the confines of the British Isles.
The government-funded BBC has held exclusive rights to broadcast F1 in the UK since 2009 and announced earlier this year that not only are viewing figures at a 10-year high, but the most recent Canadian Grand Prix, despite being aired at 8pm on a Sunday night, was watched by more than eight million people and attracted a greater audience than the Uefa Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona.
Such exposure is fundamental to the sport: without high viewing figures, sponsors would be reluctant to spend increasingly large sums of money to be involved and the trickle-down effect would result in the teams having less financial muscle in which to develop the cars.
Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's commercial rights chief, is well aware of this and it is one of the principle points of the Concorde Agreement, a contract between Ecclestone's Formula One Management (FOM), the F1 Teams Associations (Fota) and the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, motorsports global governing body.
The 80-year-old Englishman has always maintained the F1 world championship would remain on free-to-air television for this reason.
As recently as May, Ecclestone said of subscription provider Sky: "They have been trying to buy the TV rights from us for a long time, but we won't because they are not free-to-air television broadcasters. With their [audience] figures it would be almost impossible for teams to find sponsors. That would be suicidal."
And yet the new deal revealed that, from 2012 to 2018, Sky will broadcast all 20 race weekends in their entirety, while the BBC will show only 10 races live.
It is little wonder then that for much of the afternoon at the Hungaroring yesterday Ecclestone, dressed in a pink shirt and blue jacket, evaded the media by flitting between his FOM motorhome, the FIA motorhome and the offices of Allsports Management, the company charged with managing F1's commercial rights.
Several of the F1 fraternity spoke of their concern regarding a possible drop in viewers and the affect it could have on sponsorship deals.
Graeme Lowdon, Virgin Racing's technical director, said that although his team "get very little of our revenue from TV rights", maximising the global fan base is "very, very important for our entire commercial strategy".
Paul Hembery, the director for motorsports for official tyre supplier Pirelli, questioned whether the new deal could have a knock-on effect in other countries.
"Is this the future TV model in Europe?" Hembery said. "If that's the case, then we know from being involved in other sports that it can create problems because you end up with having less visibility, so it is a concern. Other people might be looking at income streams, but our prime concern is viewing figures."
Ecclestone, after meeting with Lowdon and the rest of the 12 teams' personnel, emerged in confident mood. "It's good for Formula One," he said. "I've been finalising this all night long and one or two things might change a little.
"For sure there are going to be a lot more people viewing, and a lot more opportunities for people to view, so from that point, I'm very happy."
Concern also exists that Formula One is now a bedfellow of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Sky. The Australian media magnate has been strongly linked with a takeover of the sport. News Corp also own News International, which is the UK publishing house at the centre of the continuing phone-hacking scandal.
Such links were downplayed yesterday, however, and Ecclestone said he has the best intentions at heart for the sport he has ruled since 1978.
"We do have to do the best we can, and I'm interested in getting the maximum coverage because we have to invest in the future for the good of the teams and for Formula One," he said.
Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook were filled with angry and frustrated race enthusiasts, but Ecclestone remained unperturbed.
"I think in the end people will be more happy with this than they are at the moment," he said.
Asked for a response to fans who could not afford a Sky subscription, Ecclestone answered: "That's where the problem is, I know, but from what I understand Sky has enormous coverage, 10 million homes.
"For those who can't watch Sky, they can still watch on a Sunday night [on the BBC], which will probably be better than watching the whole race live half the time."