Serious Fraud Office asked to investigate 2013 deal between Formula 1 and FIA

The Serious Fraud Office has been asked to consider opening a criminal investigation after a confidential document seen by ITV News revealed the details of a deal between Formula One and its regulator which one QC says could amount to bribery.

ITV News has been shown a confidential copy of the Concorde Implementation Agreement in July 2013 between Formula One Group (the commercial rights holders of the sport) and the Federation Internationale d'Automobile (FIA), the governing body.

The deal proved controversial when it was announced because it reorganised the way the sport was governed in a way that greatly increased the power of both Formula 1 and the FIA while reducing the influence of the sport's four smallest racing teams, two of which have since gone bust.

The financial details of the deal were never made public but at the heart of the agreement were two arrangements that look highly questionable: the FIA was granted and chose to accept a $5 million (£3.9m) lump sum for entering into the agreement as well as a 1% stake in Formula 1 for $460,000 (£358,800) - a tiny fraction of the market value.

As the governing body of motor sport, the FIA is supposed to act independently and in the sport's best interests. Some believe there is a strong argument that the Concorde Implementation Agreement between F1 and the FIA may have broken the law.

Jonathan Fisher QC, a barrister who specialises in corporate and financial crime, told ITV News that the deal have potentially breached sections 1, 2 and 7 of The Bribery Act.

We showed the agreement to Damian Collins, the MP who chairs the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

He has written to the Serious Fraud Office to ask it to assess whether the agreement amounted to a bribe.

The Concorde Implementation Agreement is almost four years old but the terms and conditions run until 2020. Last year Liberty Media bought Formula One for $8 billion. Interestingly, the FIA's stake in F1 was not disclosed until after the takeover had been given the go ahead by the FIA in January.

In theory the FIA had the power to block the deal, by approving it the regulator simultaneously cashed in its shares for a cool $80 million.

The FIA says the Concorde Implementation Agreement ensured that it is "properly remunerated for its regulatory role". The FIA said the $5 million was "properly accounted for" and that "no individual received any payment out of this sum".

Bernie Ecclestone was the CEO who signed the agreement on behalf of Formula One but he told ITV News that he was not involved with the negotiation of the deal and recommended we contact Donald MacKenzie, chairman of CVC Capital Partners.

Donald Mackenzie (left) pictured with Bernie Ecclestone. Credit: PA

CVC was the controlling shareholder of Formula One for more than ten years and made several billion pounds from the sport which, for much of that time, thrived under its ownership.

Donald MacKenzie is understood to have led the talks with the FIA. Mr MacKenzie declined our offer of an interview. A spokesman for CVC told ITV News: "The agreement does not breach the Bribery Act, and any suggestion to the contrary can only be based on a misunderstanding of the facts and is false. We have recently confirmed this with our outside legal advisers.

"Any suggestion that CVC or Mr MacKenzie was involved in bribery, whether through these arrangements between F1 and the FIA or otherwise, would be baseless and wrong."

Neither the FIA nor CVC have offered a detailed explanation for why the FIA was granted the $5 million (£3.9m) or the 1% share option at such a discounted rate.

In a statement Formula One Group, now owned by Liberty Media, said: “The figures quoted, including the equity stake, were negotiated to ensure that the FIA could continue to provide and enforce a long-term regulatory framework, which provides safety and stability for the benefit for all key F1 stakeholders including teams, drivers, other partners and, of course, the F1 commercial rights holder itself”.

Bernie Ecclestone (left) pictured with FIA President Jean Todt. Credit: PA

Part of the problem here is the lack of transparency. The FIA is incorporated in Switzerland, CVC Partners is in Luxembourg, Delta Topco (the holding company that owned Formula One) is based in Jersey - all parts of the world where only limited public disclosure by companies is required.

The Serious Fraud Office may have more luck. Tonight the SFO told ITV News that it has received Damian Collins' letter and that its Intelligence Unit is "reviewing material in its possession". A pre-investigation process is underway although the SFO added that it "does not comment on the progress of such assessments".

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1987 the SFO has Section 2 powers to compel companies to hand over emails, bank records and other documents it deems necessary.

The Intelligence Unit then assesses the evidence before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation.