Donington: Behind-the-scenes battle for a circuit’s future

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, January 20th, 2010

 
 

A glimpse of the behind-the-scenes battle for control of Donington Park that took place in the final weeks of 2009 has emerged from the release of the administrators’ report into the fall of its leaseholders.

As staff appointed by Begbies Traynor investigated whether they could sell the Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd business as a going concern, an option they were legally obliged to explore, the Wheatcrofts were taking action to secure the return of the circuit lease and the future of the Grand Prix Collection.

The report shows that DVLL had technically forfeited the lease for non-payment of rent in April 2009 but had been granted breathing space to try to bring their plans to fruition. They were still in breach of the lease at the time the administrators were appointed, but recovery action was not in progress.

However by late November the Wheatcrofts were renewing their legal bid, previously shelved in June, to seek leave to repossess the circuit – while, at the same time, the administrators were attempting to find someone new to take the lease on.

They comment that they had to devote “significant time” to attend court hearings, provide evidence and submit statements connected with the matter.

The report says that the Wheatcrofts also instructed the administrators, via their solicitors, to close the Grand Prix Exhibition and conference suite as the agreement under which the leaseholders had been running it had been breached by non-payment. The report says: “Accordingly the museum was closed and secured.”

The museum collection, built up personally by Tom Wheatcroft, consists of more than 130 exhibits and is the largest exhibition of Grand Prix cars in the world with a value to enthusiasts that is incalculable.

It includes the world’s only complete collection of Vanwall cars, a practically complete collection of McLaren Formula One cars, extensive collections of Williams and BRM cars as well as an unraced Cosworth, Stirling Moss’s Lotus 18 with which he won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1961 and Jim Clark’s World Championship-winning Lotus 25.

When the administrators took over control of the circuit, their first plan was to reduce staff numbers to a skeleton and keep the Sunday market and the museum open while trying to find a buyer for the lease.

Several would-be buyers came forward, some interested in running F1 at the circuit and some merely wanting to restore it to national standard. However no agreement could be reached because of the short time period available for any buyer to assess the numbers involved in the deal and, in some cases, because of the loss of the British Grand Prix contract.

At the same time, going into administration had saved the companies from losing control of the circuit back to the Wheatcrofts and the administrators were able to apply to prevent forfeiture. It was during this period that the family forced the closure of the museum.

On December 7 the return of the British Grand Prix contract to Silverstone was announced, and this ended discussions with three bidders who had been serious about staging the race. Six more staff were lost, all of them working on the F1 contract or related track operations.

Attention switched to finding a buyer willing to run the venue as a national circuit, but most were scared off by the £3.1m rent arrears, the £300,000 estimated cost of restoration, the ongoing rent costs, and what the report described as “the landlord’s restrictions upon the use of the Donington Park name”.

Two remained sufficiently interested to make offers, but needed until January for their due diligence. With money at the circuit running out and the Christmas trading period to pay for, the administrators were forced to ask for non-refundable deposits – and neither bidder was willing to provide them.

At this point, the administrators were left with no choice but to hand the lease back to the Wheatcrofts, which they did on December 23.

The Grand Prix Exhibition, café and race control building have since re-opened with the family presently considering options for the circuit’s restoration and future operation.

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