Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Qadbak: How the deal went wrong // Untangling the mystery of BMW and their failed partnership

Published by Stuart Codling

As Richard Nixon once said to Dwight Eisenhower, with admirable directness but a certain lack of politesse, “There comes a time when you have to s**t or get off the pot.” Similarly, if you’re planning on buying a Formula 1 team, then at some point you’re going to have to convince the seller that you’ve got the money to buy it.

It’s over this crucial point that the BMW board, after weeks of curious dithering, finally changed tack and decided to halt the sale of its team to Qadbak Investments Ltd, an offshore investment vehicle about which very little is known.

Formula 1 has made many of its participants very rich. But it’s also a sport in which, over the years, a motley procession of rogues, charlatans and mountebanks have spent vast swathes of other people’s money before disappearing into the ether. To identify potential dangers you need to ask questions; and the harder you dig for details about the people behind Qadbak, the more elusive they become. The trail takes us from the British Virgin Islands to Pyongyang via Zurich, Dubai, and, er, Nottingham.

It was Somerset Maugham who described Monaco as “a sunny place for shady people.” Most tax havens are like that. Individuals who create networks of which-shell-is-the-peanut-under offshore companies are usually doing so in order to mask their wealth (or, indeed, the lack of it) from the scrutiny of tax inspectors, alimony lawyers, intelligence organisations, and auditors doing due diligence. If you’re registered ‘on shore’ – in the UK, for instance – then your accounts are open for public scrutiny. A talented accountant can work wonders with the figures, but for real financial acrobatics you have to look offshore, where with the right advice you can really make your balance sheet stand on its head and sing Jerusalem.

On the other hand, F1’s undisputed king of the offshore tax haven is Bernard Charles Ecclestone. He has never scurried off with the goods, even though for those of us on the outside, trying to ascertain which mattress Formula 1’s cash is stuffed under is like playing that fairground game where you have to whack the gophers over the head with a padded stick.

Consider also the reclusive Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, whose business empire includes London’s Ritz hotel and the Daily Telegraph newspaper group. Although former Telegraph editor Bill Deedes famously described them as a “stinking mob”, and questions have been tabled in the House of Lords (most recently by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, this June) regarding their tax avoidance activities, they have never been accused of any crime.

So there are many reasons why one would wish to conceal one’s paper trail offshore, and not all of them relate to outright criminality. We merely assume that because someone is hiding something, it follows that they have something to hide. But that something isn’t necessarily fraud. I need to point this out because, like my phone, my copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists is set to both ring and vibrate, and the ‘F’ word sets it off.

Announcing the €80million deal on September 15, BMW described Qadbak as a Swiss company that represents “the interests of certain Middle East and European-based families.” This June it acquired Notts County football club via a specially created subsidiary, Munto Finance, persuading the supporters’ trust to sign over its controlling stake for the nominal sum of £1. It subsequently acquired former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson as director of football, who reportedly accepted a salary of much less than the going rate in exchange for equity in a company called Swiss Commodity Holding, which shares at least two directors (Nathan and Peter Willett) with Qadbak.

So we’ve got a Swiss foundation representing Middle East and European-based families, but registered in the British Virgin Islands. And we have a football team who, when called upon to reveal its anonymous benefactors, either complains about a media “vendetta” or names people who subsequently deny any involvement (Anwar Shafi and Dr Moeen Qureshi). Are you still with me?

Let’s introduce Russell King. ‘Dubai-based businessman’ would no doubt be his preferred appellation, although my favourite is the delightfully Germanic collision of nouns used by the Zurich weekly Sonntagszeitung: ‘Finanzjongleur’ (literally ‘financial juggler’). My former boss, in the pages of F1 Racing, perhaps unkindly described him as ‘disconcertingly obese’. Or we could, owing to the business of an insurance claim for a car that was never actually stolen, say ‘convicted fraudster’ without a tremor from the bookshelf.

He has also been connected with the failed company Belgravia, which had £1.9million of assets frozen by a court in Jersey. Although King has denied any connection, the court acknowledged an affidavit that showed a company bearing King’s initials (RK Holdings Ltd) owned 50 per cent of BG International Holdings Ltd, which owned 90 per cent of Belgravia.

King first appeared in F1 as an associate of Essentially Sport, the agency that mismanaged Jenson Button’s career so disastrously that Jenson had to buy himself out of a contract he’d signed with Williams. Together with Essentially Sport’s John Byfield and, ahem, Belgravia, he tried to set up a Dubai-based F1 team in 2004 – through Grand Prix Investments, a company registered in Gibraltar (yes! Another tax haven). “I have to say,” McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh told reporters at Suzuka this year, “I started being concerned for BMW Sauber when I heard his [King’s] name.”

King’s name also rang alarm bells in the football world. Qadbak passed the Football League’s ‘fit and proper person’ test on October 20 after giving assurances that King’s sole involvement had been to provide strategic and media consultancy, and that he had relinquished that role and was no longer part of the set-up. Indeed, Notts County hired former Sky Sports presenter Matt Lorenzo to be head of communications – but he quit two weeks later.

On October 22 a delegation from Swiss Commodity Holding visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, to present a gift to Kim Yong Nam, the country’s second in command. North Korea has mineral reserves worth between $3.7trillion and $6trillion, depending on which figures you believe. This is entirely consistent with Swiss Commodity Holding’s claim to be involved in the mining industry – although it also claims to be the world’s biggest mining group by asset value, according to figures it has produced to support a proposed stock market flotation. This came as news to established mining giants such as Rio Tinto and Anglo American, who told the Daily Telegraph that they’d never heard of them.

In an official photograph produced by the state media service, Kim Yong Nam is pictured with SCH delegates Shanti Sen, Nathan Willett (who also sits on Notts County’s board) and… Russell King. Although SCH’s logo now appears on the club’s badge, Notts County pointed out that neither King nor anyone else were in North Korea on club business.

Earlier, on October 15, Swiss Commodity Holding agreed to buy First London Asset Management, part of a group that includes the company that signed the £5million guarantee of funds for Munto Finance to back the acquisition of Notts County. This guarantee has also recently been called into question.

Over the past month, a number of national newspapers have been investigating the complex structure of the deals to acquire Notts County and BMW Sauber. Whenever lawyers and large sums of money are involved, the threat of injunctions always looms large, so the papers have to be sure of their facts before they go to press.

Today the Guardian broke the story that the Football League is to reopen enquiries into the sale of Notts County. “Guardian investigations into the companies that own County have revealed that they are part of a complex and confusing structure with many connections between individuals associated with the project,” it said.

The story in Sonntagszeitung last weekend made much of the claim that Qadbak intended to finance the continued operation of BMW Sauber through the team’s share of the 2009 TV money. This isn’t unusual; it’s how Brawn GP survived and ultimately prospered, making its partners a healthy profit thanks to the Mercedes buy-out. But you also need to know and trust who you’re dealing with. Ultimately it was this uncertainty that convinced BMW to reconsider who it was selling its team to; having a smaller sum in the bank is better than having a bigger sum on a promise.

And selling the team back to the person whose name is still partially above the door is preferable to selling it to – who are they, anyway?