Opinion: Now Ecclestone threatens no British GP in 2010

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, May 13th, 2009

 
 

It looks like the fears of everyone who believes this year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone could be the last for a while are a step closer to being realised.

Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone has raised the possibility in an interview with The Times that problems with Donington Park’s readiness to stage the event could be solved by simply cancelling the 2010 race.

It was, of course, presented as a positive move to help the circuit’s developers carry out their work – but the practical result would be the same. No race in 2010.

He said: “If the work at Donington is not finished in time, we would be happy to skip a year. I don’t want to lose the British Grand Prix — that’s the last thing we want to do, but we aren’t going to Silverstone for sure.”

This is in direct contradiction to a statement he made on April 27, again to The Times, in which he said: “If they were to do what they should have done, and what we’ve been asking them to do for five years, we’d have to have a look at it. We’ve got nothing against Silverstone.”

Bernie fails to convince

It is hardly surprising that the idea of the race taking a break for just a single year is already attracting scepticism.

For example, Keith Collantine, over at F1 Fanatic, is keen to see top-flight racing back at the Donington track, but is unconvinced by Ecclestone’s latest position.

He says: “I’m not in the slightest bit confident that if the British Grand Prix disappeared next year we would be likely to see it on the calendar again soon…

“It may be hard to believe that the home country of the present world champion and current championship leading team and driver could be at such great danger of losing its F1 race.

“But FOM’s revenue from hosting Grands Prix is largely unrelated to ticket sales, so it matters little to them whether the grandstands are full or not.”

Ecclestone himself has spoken of the pressures on the F1 calendar caused by new countries seeking to host races. If Britain disappeared in 2010, would there really be space to bring it back in 2011?

Motorsport Valley wants the race to stay

Ecclestone’s turnaround comes in spite of considerable criticism from the motorsports establishment, much of which is based in the UK, making it quite it clear that teams and drivers want to continue racing here.

Damon Hill, president of the British Racing Drivers’ Club which owns Silverstone, has pointed out that British GP attendees pay the highest ticket prices of any F1 audience due to its unsubsidised nature.

It is also one of very few F1 events able to make a profit – although not a big enough one to secure the finance to redevelop the circuit on the scale Ecclestone is demanding.

It is also worth mentioning that Silverstone’s much-criticised facilities are not the worst on the F1 calendar – Interlagos probably takes that dubious honour. But, hang on, Brazil is not a first-world country, so let’s not be too quick to criticise.

However it’s hard to see the case for ditching Silverstone and yet continuing at Monza in Italy, which has been staging races since 1922, and is adored by fans and racing insiders alike despite its ramshackle nature.

It’s becoming a truism that when Spain and Germany had world champions they got two grands prix a year while we, with a reigning drivers’ champion and a British championship leader, are faced with none. There doesn’t have to be an automatic link – what about poor Finland?

But we have a situation where drivers, teams, captains of industry, fans and politicians all want to see a British Grand Prix. We have one of the world’s most developed motorsports industries and one of the most engaged and informed constituencies of spectators.

It has also become public knowledge that the race is on a list of five ‘classic’ events and possibly protected by the prospective new Concorde Agreement.

And yet still one man – Ecclestone – can scupper it by threatening to take his toys home. This is no way to run a multi-billion pound business.

It is, frankly, pathetic behaviour.

What must Donington do?

In September last year, a month after the news broke that Silverstone’s 22-year unbroken reign as the British Grand Prix venue was at an end, we wrote a piece entitled Why we think the 2010 British Grand Prix won’t happen.

In it, we argued that there were seven criteria that the Donington Park management would have to meet if they were to pull off the project in the timescale available.

By our reckoning, they have missed three of them: improving the company’s management (witness the recent problems over the lease and circuit licence, for example), securing reliable finance and enjoying a healthy dose of luck, something that the world financial crisis shot down almost immediately.

And the jury is still out on a couple of the others, including securing maximum co-operation from a local authority that is still waiting more than four months on for signatures on crucial planning documents, and successfully project-managing the actual building work so it doesn’t fall behind.

We also, incidentally, said that we very badly wanted to be proved wrong about the potential failure of the project – and that still applies.

And how likely is it to do that?

So let’s try to cut through the frantic spin being put on events by Donington promoter Simon Gillett, Ecclestone and several politicians, who are attempting to walk a greased tightrope between expressing support for the race and fending off Ecclestone’s ludicrous demands for direct public subsidy in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s.

Can we make any attempt to assess how likely the 2010 event is to happen? Our judgement is as follows.

If Tom Wheatcroft can be got back on side, and if there are banks prepared to fund a debenture scheme that can be launched within the next two months, and if Gillett is right about the work being covered by a nine-month timescale, and if planning rules and transport arrangements can be tied down to the planners’ satisfaction, and if construction is properly project-managed, and if public confidence hasn’t been damaged so badly by the recent carryings-on that there are some people still prepared to shell out thousands for 40 days of top-class motorsport entertainment and privileged track access then, yes, there will be a British Grand Prix at Donington next year.

But you already know what we’re going to say next, don’t you?

That’s a hell of a lot of ifs. And probably only one of them has to produce a ‘no’ for the whole house of cards to fall.

And this is going on when Silverstone is up for the job, has a solid track record and has enjoyed public subsidy already in the form of infrastructure improvements to surrounding roads – but is apparently ruled out because Bernie Ecclestone once got his trouser bottoms muddy in the car park.

This is not a fair or reasonable situation. In fact, we’re being treated like fools, principally by Ecclestone, but with the assistance of Gillett, who provided him with the opportunity to create this situation by staging his “dawn raid” in the first place.

And we, the race-supporting public, deserve better.

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