Opinion: could this possibly be the saving of Donington?
By LJ Hutchins
Friday, September 5th, 2008
There are occasions when you really don’t want to be proved right.
And today was one of them, after news broke that at least one senior manager and possibly a top-drawer PR company have resigned from the Donington Park team, raising new questions about its ability to host the British Grand Prix in 2010.
It’s fair to say that we’ve been pretty sceptical of the idea that the circuit could possibly be in a state to stage a F1 event in less than two years’ time.
But we’re dying to be proved wrong – the very last thing we want is to see Britain lose its Grand Prix, for however many years Bernie Ecclestone chooses to take it off the calendar.
Certainly he’d made it quite clear that it is Donington or bust, most recently in this BBC interview published on August 31 when he was revealed as suffering from no second thoughts whatsoever.
When Sporting Life contacted him today regarding the latest events, he confirmed that the failure of Donington to honour its contract will mean the race is simply moved to another country.
Mr Ecclestone told that publication: “We’ve a contract with them, which I hope they honour. I’m not even considering there won’t be a race there.”
Asked about potential contingency plans, he added: “We’ve plenty of things to plug the holes.”
Things like India and Russia, for instance.
End of the line?
This has made us very worried. Two months have gone by since the announcement of the venue change with nothing in the way of concrete reassurance that our race is in safe hands.
It was made so much worse by the fact that, on July 7, Donington’s CEO Simon Gillett said on national television he was hoping to enlist “fan power” to make the scheme a success, and would shortly explain how – followed by a long silence.
We’d love to be wrong about the likely failure of his plan, because we’re the ones who’ll suffer for it – us and all the other F1 fans exactly like us.
But it’s getting harder and harder to see how we will be. Especially after some news broke today that does nothing but confirm our scepticism – and that of many others.
Lee Gill resigns
According to Autosport Donington’s chief operating officer Lee Gill has resigned, ending his association with both the circuit and former partner Mr Gillett. No reason has been given publicly for his exit from the company.
Other F1 news sources are reporting the resignation of the chief finance officer and of its PR company, an organisation that is successfully involved with many elements of top-flight motorsport.
Well, last night Mr Gillett was due to speak at a meeting of Castle Donington Parish Council, to give a presentation on future development at the site and to answer questions previously raised by council members.
Click through above and follow the ‘agenda’ link to confirm this. Meeting minutes should also be available in due course.
Mr Gillett reportedly explained at that meeting how a planning application was due to be submitted today – just within the three-week deadline that was reported on by The Leicester Mercury on August 16 under the headline “Paperwork over race track plan is ‘imminent’“.
The Derby Evening Telegraph, in the finest traditions of local papers everywhere, covered the meeting – well done to the reporting team – and its article confirms an application was expected today. You can read its story here – note the quote about “a great relationship” with East Midlands Airport – you’ll be needing it later.
Do today’s events suggest that the company may not have subsequently succeeded in lodging the application by this deadline?
Certainly there is nothing yet on the council’s website to confirm it. However, since it reserves the right to keep applications confidential if it wishes, that may mean little.
On the other hand, something was the catalyst for this morning’s resignations.
Was it the knowledge that the deadline would be missed? Or was a proposal handed over that didn’t meet with the agreement of the entire management team?
Managing the managers
Less than a week ago we reported how Donington Park had been summoned to a review of its events licence following concerns raised by local police.
The hearing saw it robustly criticised for causing safety problems at neighbouring East Midlands Airport and selling alcohol to under-age drinkers at two events including MotoGP.
Airport general manager Neil Robinson accused the circuit of â€œa systematic failure of managementâ€ over its failure to notify him about the erection of structures on its land, according to the Derby Evening Telegraph.
(Given that the airport serving Silverstone becomes the busiest in the country during grands prix, and that Mr Robinson is Mr Gillett’s self-described solution to all his parking problems (see above), you would think they’d be working just a little bit harder to keep him on side.)
The paper also reported how Phil Crier, representing Donington Park Leisure Ltd, described the licensing review as a â€œhumbling and embarrassing experienceâ€ and admitted to significant management failings.
So why are we rehashing this? Not out of malice, but to make an important point.
Following the licensing hearing, we came up with a list of seven things that Donington would have to do to successfully stage the 2010 race. One of those was to sort out the management issues it revealed.
Perhaps, if we were prepared to be generous to Mr Gillett, we could see today’s events as the start of this process?
Without insider knowledge it is impossible to say on whose advice (or against whose advice) Donington Park was refusing to discuss or explain any aspect of the its plan until after it had been decided on – as revealed by The Leicester Mercury in August.
But the vacuum left by its silence has been filled by a host of worried voices, not least those of Leicestershire County Council planning bosses, who were getting quite keen to find out what on earth was going on.
And of fans like us, who could see in recent remarks by Bernie Ecclestone a decreasing likelihood of being able to attend an F1 event without travelling overseas to do it.
It’s anyone’s guess as to the relationship between the circuit management and the relevant PR company, and what prompted them to reportedly join today’s exodus should that particular aspect of the story be confirmed as accurate.
But here’s one safe conclusion. Given the way events have unfolded since the British Grand Prix, if Donington had a communications strategy at all, it either wasn’t working – or wasn’t being followed.
Perhaps the chance of a fresh start could give the circuit management an incentive to develop a PR strategy that is inclusive and that gets the necessary stakeholders on board, including planners, residents and race fans.
Taking the positives
Because what we all want is for the British Grand Prix to succeed, let’s try to put the most positive spin we possibly can on the events of the last 48 hours.
Looked at in this way Mr Gillett has addressed Donington’s evident management problems, he is working to put a new team in place that will support his bid to make the circuit the best in the world, and he has a great opportunity to start afresh with a new, positive and hopefully inclusive PR strategy.
He’s also given solid information on two important points:
- There will be no attempt made at infrastructure improvements before summer 2010. The influx of spectators (in 2007 Silverstone hosted a capacity crowd of 90,000 on race day) will be dealt with via a massive park and ride scheme, possibly involving neighbouring East Midlands Airport with whom the circuit has enjoyed good relations, despite some recent difficulties. It will have a capacity of up to 50,000 cars.
- Residents concerned about noise have little to fear – levels will not be any higher than now and the number of days allocated for racing and testing would also remain the same.
(The source of this information is the Derby Evening Telegraph article quoted above.)
Success or failure – you decide
That leaves one final question to pose. Do you believe that Simon Gillett deserves our generosity? Don’t resort to cynicism – consider this carefully. After all, we’re the ones that stand to lose out if he fails.
He could be in the midst of turning round his problems and making the Donington Park grand prix plan a winner. Potential investors and business partners could think the same.
Or the resignation of key members of the Donington Park team could have just made the chances of a British race in 2010 recede dramatically.
Whichever of these possibilities you prefer, one thing is certain. The Donington plan was always a huge gamble. And it looks very much like, with today’s events, the odds just got an awful lot longer.