The Donington situation gets more complicated by the day as new variables are introduced and observers must attempt to weigh the credibility, relative importance and veracity of all the different statements being made.
That’s no easy task. But there have been some significant developments since Thursday that demand attention – some positive, some considerably less so.
They include news that the BTCC race in May is set to go ahead, but also that there is no government money available for the British Grand Prix and that January’s hard-won planning permission is hanging in the balance over unsigned documents.
Here is a round-up of some of the news from the last two days. These developments need to be viewed against the background of three important pre-existing issues.
They are the news that circuit owners Wheatcroft & Son are suing for nearly £2.5 million in unpaid rent and the return of the lease; the disruption caused to the racing calendar by safety problems following construction work; and the fact that details of a debenture scheme set to fund the circuit’s building programme which were promised at the end of March have not been forthcoming nearly a month later.
Council may rethink circuit planning permission
As Brits on Pole has been reporting since January, the planning permission for improvements granted by North-West Leicestershire District Council was conditional – leaving planners able to pull the plug on the race if event planning and construction did not meet certain criteria, including the development of a proper transport strategy.
Unfortunately it now appears they are thinking about doing just that. As the Derby Evening Telegraph reports here, the council has announced it is reviewing its decision to grant the track planning permission.
At a planning meeting on May 5, a report from council officers will recommend members now refuse planning permission should a crucial planning document remain unsigned by the end of May.
That is a Section 106 agreement, a legal document commonly drawn up between planners and developers when a big construction project takes place.
It commits the constructor to address various matters that are necessary to make a development acceptable in planning terms – often to do with infrastructure or the way building work is conducted.
Nearly four months on and Donington Park has not signed its Section 106 agreement.
Richard Blunt, North West Leicestershire District Council leader, said: “The council has already extended the deadline for signing the agreement by another month, allowing four months in total, and has continued to work with Donington Park to meet the deadlines and terms of the permission.
“We can’t keep extending the deadline for signing the agreement. Donington Park has already started construction and to allow further, unchecked construction to take place may make the original planning permission invalid and any future control the council may wish to retain over events would be severely diluted.
“We are disappointed that, despite the council making every effort to accommodate Donington Park, the council has had to take this action. We must have a consistent approach to the planning process and the Donington Park application is being handled in the same way we would any other development.”
BTCC set to go ahead in May
The circuit has put out a statement saying that the BTCC round scheduled for May 13 will be taking place. BTCC series Director Alan Gow says that he had received assurances that the circuit will be in a position to host the race.
And, to Autosport, the circuit has made the following statement: “For the foreseeable future, it is a case of business as usual as Donington Park staff re-commence their full programme of race meetings in mid-May. And [this includes] the HiQ British Touring Car Championship round, which is set to power into the circuit.”
This means it must be confident of completing any necessary work on the tunnel under the straight between McLeans and Coppice corners, passing a MSA inspection and receiving the necessary licence before that date.
Separately, the Superleague Formula series also seems confident it will be able to hold its planned meeting at the circuit on the weekend of August 1-2.
F1 contract extended – but confusion over financing
On Friday the issue of the British Grand Prix was discussed in a debate in the House of Lords. The Conservative shadow defence minister Lord Astor of Hever, also chairman of the Motorsports Industry Association, asked a question designed to find out whether the goverment was prepared to support the race.
He said: “I have met the owners of Donington Park. They do not seek any free state aid or a government handout. They would like to secure constructive support and positive encouragement from the Government to help them through these difficult times.”
He added that Goverment support would be crucial to help give the project credibility in the eyes of domestic and overseas investors and help provide employment and job security as a result.
Three interesting pieces of information emerged during the debate:
- The government is not prepared to provide direct financial support.
- Bernie Ecclestone appears to have busy behind the scenes, with the Donington contract now extended to 17 years instead of 10 and due to be paid in pounds instead of dollars – terms which suggest a bid to make the project more attractive to investors.
- The Dutch bank ING, Renault’s headline sponsor until the end of this season, was apparently named as handling the financing arrangements. Previously Goldman Sachs was reported as the institution financing the proposed debenture scheme – alongside the sports marketing agency IMG. But, given the previous lack of whispers about ING, the question is – has there been an error here? Is ING actually involved? Or did either Lord Davies of Oldham or the House of Lords transcribers mix up the companies, naming ING when they should have referred to IMG, whose involvement has been public since the beginning of the year?
Lord Davies of Oldham, Deputy Chief Whip in the Lords, said in reply to Lord Astor’s question: “Our intelligence is that we can be optimistic that the investment in Donington will make it a huge success.
“However, should anything go wrong on that front, it is important that Silverstone is available to resume its position, because the essential thing is that we must not lose a British Grand Prix.
“We understand from ING, which is not an innocent in the world of raising money for major sporting venues, that the money will be raised for Donington and the necessary resources are in place.”
This is one that needs careful watching – has ING thrown Donington a lifeline? Or is it simply that IMG has been doing its job by talking up the project’s prospects to the people in a position to influence it?
Concerns spread to bike and music fans
The news that circuit owners Wheatcroft & Son are suing promoters Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd for nearly £2.5 million in back rent and the return of the circuit’s lease has caused unease among fans of much more than just car racing.
The motorcycle press is asking questions about the viability of round three of the British Superbike Championship, scheduled for the end of May, and saying that fans need firm reassurances that they will be able to attend.
While motorsport licences are unable to have any impact whatsoever on the Download rock festival, one of the circuit’s most high-profile annual events, the problems with the lease are also starting to come onto the radar of music fans.
The site’s official fan forum carries a thread in which the problems are discussed – and the participants come to the conclusion that everyone would have been better off if the F1 circus had never rolled up in the first place.
No British GP ‘a disaster’ for Button
Drivers’ championship leader Jenson Button – oh, how we enjoy being able to type that – has said he thinks the cancellation of the 2010 race would be “a disaster”.
The Brawn GP driver told journalists on the eve of the Bahrain race: “I’d be massively devastated if there was no British Grand Prix.
“As a British driver, and motorsport is very British, it would be very disappointing not to race in my home country. I don’t live in the UK, I live in Monaco, but I’m very British and very patriotic and it would be a disaster.
“It is a Grand Prix that is very hectic for a British driver because it’s a very busy schedule but in a way that’s what I love about it.
“It’s great driving in and seeing all those Union Jacks. It’s a great feeling for a driver. Out here [in Bahrain] you don’t know what fans are feeling.”
Damon says his door’s always open
All Bernie Ecclestone’s billions could not have bought the PR for Silverstone that was generated by the TV pictures of BRDC president Damon Hill, world champion and son of a world champion, absorbing the announcement during the circuit’s 60th birthday celebrations that it had been cut out of the future F1 calendar.
Visibly upset, he said then: “‘The disappointment is huge. You cannot believe how much it hurts.”
But he’s been playing the long game ever since, refusing to nurse resentments and making sure that the Silverstone circuit remained positioned as the only truly viable alternative.
In response to the latest news about the Donington project he has said: “We’ve had communications, we’ve always tried to keep the door open. When the Donington move was announced, Bernie actually said it was a shame the government hadn’t helped Silverstone.
“The issue is whether Formula 1 is the kind of event which merits government and taxpayers’ money. Bernie is very keen that Formula 1 should receive the same sort of treatment as the Olympics and football World Cup in terms of government support.
“Whether or not there is an investment in the British Grand Prix I think everyone is agreed that it is an important event and from our discussions with people in government they are very keen that it should be retained.”
He said that he would very strongly argue that the most efficient way of securing the 2010 British Grand Prix would be to hold it at the only British venue currently able to stage it – Silverstone.
“Bernie has taken the decision to go to Donington and now they have got into financial difficulties. You have to ask how that came to pass.
“Presumably he should have been sure that there were safeguards in place that Donnington were going to be able to afford to do what they were going to do.
“Silverstone are the losers in this because we had a contract and were in negotiations to try and keep the British Grand Prix. We’ve been working very hard to make sure we satisfy the demands within whatever limits we can.
“I’m very, very keen that the British Grand Prix is retained but it has to be done in the right way. The Donington Park venture has got a 10-year contract – if that keeps the GP in the UK for 10 years then that’s good for UK motorsport and the BRDC are 100 per cent behind that.
“But is that the most efficient way of dealing with this? That’s the big question.”