F1: why is Donington still silent on debenture scheme?

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarThursday, July 24th, 2008

 
 

As few British Formula One fans will need reminding, Bernie Ecclestone announced on the eve of the British Grand Prix that he had signed a deal with Donington Park to host the race from 2010.

This move, requiring as it does a massive investment to secure infrastructure and access improvements at the East Midlands track, has caused considerable unease among everyone keen to see Formula One stay in this country – from F1 insiders to occasional fans.

Many senior figures in the sport, including Sir Frank Williams and Sir Stirling Moss, have admitted to being sceptical that the Donington Park track can be readied for grand prix racing in less than two years – as highly-regarded as it is.

And, as Ecclestone has already pointed out with absolute frankness, if it isn’t ready then the race will go abroad.

This has led a great many people to express fears that the deal is effectively a means of clearing the British race off the F1 calendar to make way for a government-subsidised event elsewhere – India and Russia are obvious candidates.

So the stakes for Donington Park are extremely high, and not just in terms of a business venture for the circuit’s owners and investors.

British motorsport fans are being asked to trust joint CEOs Simon Gillett and Lee Gill with nothing less than the future of their home F1 race.

For this reason it seems fair to pose them a question at this point.

Two days after Ecclestone’s announcement, circuit CEO Simon Gillett was interviewed during the ITV F1 pre-race broadcast by journalist Louise Goodman. Here’s what he told her:

“You’re going to hear a lot more about this over the next couple of weeks. Unfortunately there’s not a mystery fairy godfather with a £100 million cheque out there.

“I wish there was, and if there are any out there, please call! But we’ll be announcing a fan-powered debenture scheme in the next couple of weeks.”

For our analysis of what a debenture scheme might consist of, click here >>

By our reckoning, “over the next couple of weeks” should have been the period between the Silverstone and Hockenheim races. Here we are, some days past Hockenheim, and none the wiser.

Why is that?

To be fair to Mr Gillett, it’s easy to see how he might have had to think on his feet a bit when a camera appeared at his shoulder and a mike was shoved in his face.

On the other hand, this is a man who has presumably conducted face-to-face negotiations involving stellar sums of money with no less a businessman than Bernie Ecclestone.

We’d very much like to believe that the ability to stick to his guns under pressure and not to say what his audience wants to hear would be talents that Mr Gillett possesses.

We also think he would have been able to predict that the media would take an interest in him at Silverstone, and that the questions posed by Ms Goodman might not have been entirely unexpected.

Let’s examine what happens when the circuit management has a bit more time to reflect on its public statements. Here’s a quote from the original circuit press release announcing the Donington deal, which was released on Friday July 4:

“Today’s signing of the contract with Formula One Management Limited brings to an end a period of commercial negotiations, none of which would have been possible without the support of Mr Ecclestone and FOM.

“However, Donington Ventures are still engaged in negotiations with other important third parties that should be concluded in a matter of days. Only when this is done, will they release further information to the media.”

A matter of days? OK, let’s review what have we learned since July 4.

  • There has been no further news from the circuit on the subject of the British Grand Prix published on its website. Visit the news section here.
  • On Wednesday July 9 a spokesman for North West Leicestershire District Council confirmed that no formal planning application had been received for the circuit, although informal discussions had been held. Full story here.
  • On Thursday July 10 Simon Gillett outlined planned changes to Autosport, including alterations to the circuit, and plans for a new pit and paddock complex. But his comments included no details on the planning process, how the changes would be paid for or how any fan-powered debenture scheme would work. Full story here.
  • On Friday July 18 Kevin Garside, The Telegraph’s Formula One correspondent, reported that “Donington have yet to submit any plans to the relevant authorities, though they claim this process is under way.” Full story here.

There are other inconsistencies – the fact the press release mentioned above talks about “a private investor who is also a large shareholder.” while the ITV quotes included this: “Unfortunately there’s not a mystery fairy godfather with a £100 million cheque out there.”

And, while the circuit needs to be ready in two years, the Donington revamp plan is slated to take five years to complete.

There are, in fact, quite a few questions we’d like answers to in addition to the ones mentioned above. Answers that we were told would be forthcoming within days, or possibly a couple of weeks, and which haven’t been forthcoming.

It’s probably very easy to dismiss us as just another set of armchair experts whipping up sound and fury on the internet without any understanding of the immense pressure that the Donington management team is under.

To which we’d say this. This is a site for and by fans. The people who regard the British Grand Prix as the highlight as the summer. The ones who turn up at Silverstone for obscure test days, get quite excited about the idea of owning a McLaren rocket red winners’ shirt and even contemplate assembling their own Lewis Hamilton MP4-23 Airfix kit.

Our readers are the fans who you’re hoping will buy tickets to your race in future. The people who must trust you enough to consider investing in your debenture scheme. The people who you will soon appeal to for support on the grounds that we all have to pull together if this country is to continue to host F1 racing.

In short – the people who you have asked to trust you with the future of the British Grand Prix.

Doesn’t that mean we all deserve the answers we’ve been promised?

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