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F1: Donington ‘not getting involved’ with fans’ concerns

So, this week we learn that the report of Donington Park facing a slight planning delay has legs, as a few more publications pick up on The Evening Standard’s three-paragraph story last week to the effect that no planning decision can be made before the end of January.

Does this matter? The fact is that, as long as the circuit management really has been working with planners to ensure that their conditions are fulfilled, and that they are ready to start construction work on January 28, then probably no, not much.


What matter an awful lot more are the attitudes revealed in these latest exchanges. As you can observe from reading the articles linked above, the circuit continues with its blowhard PR strategy and this, more than anything, instils gloom and pessimism in your Brits on Pole team.

What we’d love to see right now is some openness, some willingness to communicate and some information about what’s happening from the people best-placed to know. Because if everything’s on course as stated then they have little to lose and quite a lot to gain by sharing their knowledge with us.

That’s what it would take to get us behind the scheme. Instead, here’s a quote from their spokesperson Dave Fern: “Everything has got to be in place by April 1 and it will be. The detractors can say what they want. I’m not getting involved and neither is Donington Park.”

There you go – the message is ‘it’s none of your business so shut up and leave us alone to get on with it’.

Reading this in the Derby Evening Telegraph made us feel sad and doubtful about the future. We do not count ourselves among the mentioned detractors; in fact we are very keen to see Donington succeed. It should be plain that a site whose entire rationale is to support British racing will be desperate to see a British Grand Prix take place in 2010.

However, in the face of the nakedly cynical policy now being pursued by Formula One’s management in regard to the hosting of races, and the recent demise of more than one event, it seems to us that the future of our home race is currently hanging by a thread.

And what is that thread composed of? Why, dear reader, it is woven from a single brief statement: “We have the contract and it will happen.”

The fans are stakeholders

It’s not about British F1 fans being asked to have blind faith in the Donington management in the hopes that the funding, the project management skills and the planning permission are all in hand and that past management deficiencies have been rectified.

It’s not even the issue of multiple circuit-owning MotorSportVision baulking at a relatively modest £15 million development of Snetterton in the current economic climate when planning permission is already in hand – raising perfectly legitimate questions about the viability of the Donington project.

No, it’s worse even than that. The Donington team appears from recent comments to have no acceptance of the idea that there are stakeholders in this project above and beyond some residents living nearby who must be talked round in order for planning permission to be achieved.

However, they currently have in their hands 60 years of British motor racing heritage and one of the two oldest continuously-staged races on the calendar (the other being the Italian Grand Prix). The British Grand Prix, held at Silverstone in 1950, was the first race in the first-ever official Formula One World Championship.

This inconvenient way of looking at events is, incidentally, why Bernie Ecclestone is routinely so dismissive of the history and heritage of Formula One racing in Britain and around the world – it tends to get in the way of the important business of making money.

If Donington’s proposal was concerned with the conversion of a historic building or the development of a historic landscape it would be obvious that wider interests were at work than the immediate ones of the circuit and its neighbours. So why should things be any different with such a historic and nationally important event?

If Donington’s bid fails then, as Mr Ecclestone has made quite clear, the 60th British Grand Prix will be the last one in that continuous chain and the 2010 event will simply be removed from the calendar.

That’s something that we feel that motor racing fans have a genuine reason to fear as well as a reasonable expectation of their worries being addressed, rather than being met with a curt dismissal from a PR spokesman.

The race is bigger than the venue

And this isn’t necessarily a plea for Silverstone to retain the race. The British Grand Prix has also been regularly staged at both Brands Hatch and, of all places, Aintree. If Silverstone is unable to meet the promoters’ requirements then the market should prevail and business should indeed be taken elsewhere.

But that only works if there is a genuine alternative. Because, unless or until Donington can make a success of its redevelopment, Silverstone is the only track in the UK capable of hosting the race, since planning restrictions (and possibly Jonathan Palmer’s common sense) prevent Brands from doing it.

The argument that Donington Park actually saved the race is questionable at best. That will only be true when the race is saved – when the circuit is a FIA grade-one certified venue. It is also arguable that even Ecclestone would not have had the front to remove the grand prix directly from the calendar with so much of the sport’s heritage and infrastructure based in Britain.

He needed an excuse – and the Donington team, in signing up to a deal which appears to have suited his needs and his timescale so much better than it did their own, looks perilously close to having provided one.

And they’ve gone tightrope-walking without a net. Despite the fact we have an event of genuine national importance at stake, it is useless to expect a deus ex machina intervention from the government – the political and economic climate means what was already vanishingly unlikely is now flat-out impossible.

To really rub salt in the wound, while not really acknowledging that British fans do have genuine concerns about a major slice of their motor racing heritage, there has been a suggestion that it will be fans who are called upon to fund the Donington redevelopment through Simon Gillett’s now-notorious televised mention of a “fan-powered debenture scheme.”

You can’t have both. Either the redevelopment is our business, or it isn’t.

Winning hearts and minds

In order to harness goodwill, and win those all-important hearts and minds, you have to talk to people, win them over, advocate your position and get their enthusiasm and passion working for you, taking nothing for granted. Instead, we have Fern’s statement that neither he nor Donington are getting involved in discussions.

This more than anything else makes us feel sadness and disappointment at what might happen. In truth we sometimes wish we could just ignore it, bypassing these unpleasant emotions and adopting the policy that we eventually started using towards Max Mosley.

Realising in the end how much that gentleman was enjoying the attention, and that his activities were a distraction from this site’s true subject, motor racing, we stopped mentioning him altogether in all but the most necessary circumstances. And right now we wish we could do the same with the 2010 British Grand Prix.

There are a couple of cheap jokes to be wrung out about the fact that the circuit’s self-imposed deadline falls on April 1, or that Mr Fern, in telling The Telegraph: “There is no question that Donington’s ability to stage the race will be jeopardised by this delay to the planning procedure” seems to have said the exact, diametric opposite of what he meant.

But, quite uncharacteristically, we don’t have the heart for them. Unfortunately, there is far too much at stake this time.


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