The death-blow to Donington Park’s hopes of staging the British Grand Prix may have been struck today – by circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft, suing Simon Gillett’s company for nearly £2.5 million in unpaid rent.
He also seeks the forfeiture of the lease in a move that will see a judge at Derby Crown Court effectively decide the fate of Britain’s most prestigious event.
The legal firm Browne Jacobson LLP, acting on behalf of their client Wheatcroft & Son Limited, issued the proceedings at Derby County Court today.
Kevin Wheatcroft said: “It is with great reluctance that we have taken this decision.
“Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd owe us nearly £2.5m in rent dating back to September 2008. Despite receiving numerous reassurances over a number of months they have consistently failed to meet their financial obligations under the terms of the lease.
“We have held off taking legal action for as long as possible but have been left with no choice but to commence proceedings to recover the outstanding rent and forfeit the lease.”
Donington Ventures Leisure Limited was awarded a 150-year lease by Wheatcroft in 2007, and negotiated a 10-year contract to stage the British Grand Prix in the summer of 2008, providing Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone with the chance of an alternative venue to Silverstone – a chance he jumped at.
But the project has been beset by problems, including a global economic downturn which has made it extremely hard to see how DVLL could raise the tens of millions of pounds needed to fund it.
The planning application approved by Leicestershire councillors in January left open a major loophole which would allow the event to be closed down if planners were not convinced by a public-transport strategy set to ban private cars almost entirely from the track.
In February The Daily Telegraph broke the story that Wheatcroft & Son were contemplating legal action against Donington Ventures Leisure Limited, the company that is headed by Simon Gillett.
However Mr Gillett strenuously denied that there was any truth to it, telling the paper that that there had been discussions with the Wheatcroft family over the best use of available funds, which included the issue of land rent.
He said there was no outstanding writ for unpaid rent and insisted they were â€œworking together to make things go forward”.
Also in February DVLL director Kanwaljit Gill, more widely known as Lee Gill, was reported to have filed a legal action over unfair dismissal after he left on the eve of the circuit’s redevelopment planning application being filed in September.
The figure citied in court papers was reportedly £150,000 although there is no word on whether this action is still outstanding or has been settled.
Mr Gillett promised that the details of the debenture scheme, with which he proposed to fund a redevelopment that would bring the circuit up to F1 standards, would be revealed in the last quarter of the 2008/09 financial year.
That deadline passed more than two weeks ago, although he did cite ill-health when asked by Autosport when the information would become public.
And the digging of an access tunnel under the track to allow construction work on a new pit and paddock complex has recently left the circuit unusable for the club racers who are its bread and butter – and among its most loyal defenders.
The Motor Sports Association, the sport’s British regulator, has refused to grant the track a racing licence until safety is improved in the area between McLeans and Coppice corners – and the negotiations have yet to be resolved as racing events are postponed and cancelled.
Tom Wheatcroft saved Donington Park from dereliction in the 1970s and turned the circuit into a mainstay of the national motor-racing scene, based on his memories of the excitement of pre-war racing there.
He rebuilt it at his own cost and created the world’s largest collection of classic motor racing cars in the process. It is hard not to see a connection between the disintegration of the circuit’s racing season and the issuing of the writ.
The big question is, of course, what happens to the 2010 British Grand Prix. And it is hard to see at this point how it will go ahead.
If Wheatcroft & Son Limited win their court case and the lease is forfeited, it will leave a tangled legal position where DVLL has a contract but no racetrack to apply it to.
If DVLL retains the lease any remaining investor and public confidence in the company will still be wrecked.
Attempts are being made to persuade the Government to intervene – principally by Lord Astor, president of the Motorsports Industry Association – but yesterday’s budget, the current massive hole in the public finances and the trouble Labour has got into with Ecclestone in the past have probably put paid to that.
Ecclestone himself has made it perfectly clear not only that will he not countenance a return to Silverstone, but that he has too many dates for the 2010 calendar and would welcome the chance to drop one.
He would have the final say as to whether the race could go ahead at Donington, with an inspection of the track and facilities due in September. But the track currently has no racing licence for top-class motorsport and would also need carry out the necessary upgrades then pass a FIA inspection unconnected to its current licensing woes.
Max Mosley, FIA president, has confirmed that his organisation has a remit to save the six ‘classic’ European grands prix, but has admitted that he can’t force Bernie Ecclestone’s hand.
Which means the future of the British Grand Prix has never looked bleaker.