A visit to Silverstone yesterday to watch the latest round of the British Touring Car Championship has brought our thoughts back round to the vexed question of the 2010 British Grand Prix.
We were reminded how it’s always amusing to experience the vast disconnect between the glamorous international world of F1 and the cinder-surfaced, rain-soaked, 70s football ground ambience of rural Northamptonshire that is British racing’s bread and butter for the 11 months and two weeks when the circus isn’t in town.
It almost makes you see where Bernie Ecclestone is coming from. But not quite.
This was our first visit since the announcement that Silverstone wouldn’t be hosting the British Grand Prix in 2010. And, standing up at Maggotts in our waterproofs at the furthest extent of the national track, experiencing the vast affection for the old place that always strikes us when we turn up there, we had plenty of time between support races to speculate about the future.
It’s really sad to admit this but we think the most likely outcome of recent events is no British Grand Prix at all in 2010. A bit of research on arriving home has only served to make us more pessimistic. Here’s why.
What’s happening at Donington Park?
In short, nothing that they are prepared to discuss.
It’s September 1 and there is still no sign of the promised planning application that would hopefully reassure British F1 fans as to the future of their race.
On August 16 local newspaper The Leicester Mercury reported: â€œRace bosses said North West Leicestershire District Council will receive the paperwork outlining up to £100 million of works within three weeks.
â€œHuge sums must be spent to bring the track up to scratch with re-surfacing, grandstands, a pit complex and facilities like hotels by 2010.
â€œHowever, track owners said today they would not talk about any of their plans for up to three months. The Leicester Mercury was told this stance would be reconsidered when a decision on their application is made.
â€œDetails of the proposals will be available to the public when an application is made, but Donington Park will not explain or discuss it.â€ Read the full story here.
The paper went on to discuss how councillors are becoming anxious about the delay with concerns about a lack of communication on the part of the track owners and the potential for traffic problems the development will bring.
Three weeks from mid-August is the first week in September. So, that means a planning application is due to be submitted any day now. Right?
The venue has had other things on its mind — including a police-triggered review of its entertainment licence that saw it criticised for causing safety problems at neighbouring East Midlands Airport and selling alcohol to under-age drinkers.
The hearing heard how the runway had to be shortened for 10 hours during a MotoGP event, and diversion plans drawn up for two Lufthansa cargo planes.
Speaking at the hearing, 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.
The paper also reported how Phil Crier, representing Donington Park Leisure Ltd, described the licensing review as a “humbling and embarrassing experience” and admitted to significant management failings. Read full story here.
The story goes on to explain how â€œpolice applied for the review hearing after the park failed a string of underage alcohol test purchases in June, first at Download [music festival], then at the MotoGP.
â€œTeenagers working undercover were sold alcohol at 14 bars, although they were refused drinks at a further 48.
â€œSergeant Sean Moore, the force’s chief licensing officer, called it a ‘frankly shocking failure rate’. He said: ‘There has been a lack of engagement by management with the police regarding event planning.’â€
The venue was allowed to keep its licence and must comply in future with police and airport requests. It is keen to stress that the hearing did not threaten its plans for to stage the British Grand Prix.
(There’s a joke about not being able to organise a piss-up at a rock festival in here somewhere – problem is, given what’s at stake for British motorsport, it’s just not funny.)
What Donington must do
This is what we think the Donington management would need to do in order to successfully stage the British Grand Prix in roughly 20 months’ time:
- Present a realistically achievable set of proposals — with non-critical parts of the redevelopment postponed until after the first F1 race if necessary
- Sort out the management issues revealed at the licensing hearing
- Secure reliable finance
- Get a clear run at the planning process with no major public objections or enquiries
- Obtain maximum co-operation from the local authorities involved
- Project-manage the building work so that it’s completed in time and gets the official FIA sign-off
- Enjoy a healthy dose of luck
However there are so many variables in this list that we have real trouble treating it as a credible scenario. Especially given the two reports mentioned above, which detail significant management issues and a lack of communication with planners.
It seems to us that fans have a genuine cause for concern as to whether there will be a British Grand Prix in 2010. And we hate to say this. But at the moment it seems more likely to us that the plan will fail than succeed.
The omens are not good — for instance, as we’ve seen above, a hugely valuable resource in the shape of goodwill from planning authorities is in danger of being squandered. And, as we were told on July 6 by Simon Gillett, â€œthere’s not a mystery fairy godfather with a £100 million cheque out there.â€
Also, the â€œfan-powered debenture schemeâ€ that he promised remains a mystery – even though it’s some two months since he claimed we’d be hearing a lot about it â€œin the next couple of weeksâ€.
But wait! Is Bernie your idea of a fairy godfather?
Of course, it is possible a fairy godfather might emerge if things go awry.
Government assistance to save the race is a possibility, but it seems remote. This administration has already had its fingers well and truly burned dealing with Mr Ecclestone and has apparently used a very long spoon when supping with him ever since.
And the economic and political conditions in this country at the moment mean a publicly-funded bail-out of a rich and environmentally suspect sport like F1 is vanishingly unlikely.
Could Ecclestone bail out Donington himself by making a big cash investment into the scheme? He’s done it before — investing in the failing Minardi F1 team in order to keep it in business.
This seems distinctly possible and would sway the odds heavily in Donington’s favour — but it will have trouble spending its way out of a really spectacular planning row.
And if capable management is the problem, then a cheque from Bernie won’t change the personalities involved either.
Click here to read part two of this article – what might replace the British GP in 2010?