F1 rights holder Bernie Ecclestone went on live television from the British Grand Prix paddock on Saturday and said the words that a nation’s motorsport fans desperately wanted to hear: there will be a race in 2010, and it could be at Silverstone.
So what was the catch?
As turn-arounds go, it was breathtaking. Years of sniping at the management of the Northamptonshire circuit culminated last year in Ecclestone torpedoing its anniversary celebrations by announcing he was taking its race away and moving it to Donington Park.
Since then he has repeatedly insisted that if the redevelopment of Donington was not completed in time – an increasingly unlikely prospect – there would be no reprieve. The F1 roadshow would move on without a backward glance to a new nation like South Korea or India, and the men in blazers at the British Racing Drivers’ Club could play with their Dinky toys for all he cared.
Yet, pressed by the BBC’s Jake Humphrey during the build-up to qualifying, he said: “We’ll be back at Silverstone if things don’t work out at Donington. We’ve got an agreement, as everybody knows, with Donington and I’m hoping they can complete the agreement and do all the things they are supposed to do. And if they can’t, for sure we will come back to Silverstone.”
Asked for the reason behind the change of heart, he said: “There has been a big change with the BRDC, they have got more commercial people involved and these people are prepared to do all the things we want, for the reason we left in the first place,”
The statement had not come completely out of the blue. The day before, FIA president Max Mosley had set the hare running by telling the Beeb: “The chance of there not being a British Grand Prix next year is very small and my personal view – and it is not for me to decide – is I think it highly probable that it will be at Silverstone. But that remains to be seen.”
On the face of it, what could be better news? Either Simon Gillett manages, Houdini-like, to wriggle free from all the problems with the Donington redevelopment and stage the race, or he fails and good old dependable Silverstone steps in to make everything alright again.
And yet, the u-turn is so sudden and so spectacular that it’s worth stopping for a moment to think about what’s behind it. Is it a sentimental regard for British racing history and a love for the fans that has made Ecclestone perform a high-speed donut on the Silverstone Tarmac and head off in the opposite direction?
Or is it something else? Like perhaps, the announcement on Thursday night that eight of his 10 current teams will be buggering off at the end of the season to set up their own series?
A series that will need circuits to race on, circuits that aren’t currently expecting to be holding Formula One grands prix in 2010. Circuits whose owners are currently in the same place as the rebel team owners and available for long discussions that might lead to circles being pencilled around dates in 2010 diaries.
But with a few well-chosen words, Ecclestone and Mosley have almost certainly knocked that on the head. Unless their version of F1 is so far down the road to collapse that nothing can save it, Silverstone has been put in a position where it’s almost impossible for it to strike an agreement with the FOTA breakaway series.
Silverstone’s owners, the BRDC, don’t believe Gillett will get Donington ready in time. Chairman Robert Brooks, who raced at Donington in Formula Ford in the 1970s, said: “We don’t think from where we sit that a summer grand prix in 2010 is a possibility at Donington.”
Ecclestone knows this – and he also knows that, because of this, from where the BRDC are sitting his words on Saturday will have the force of a promise that they will be staging next year’s race as normal.
But only if they play ball.
It’s very easy to construct a theoretical schedule for the FOTA breakaway series to race at next year. Silverstone, Magny Cours, Montreal, Indianapolis for starters. One of the German circuits, say, since they were complaining about Ecclestone’s sanctioning fees. The new Portimao circuit, which is ambitious to hold a grand prix. Perhaps Monaco would follow the history of teams like Ferrari and come on board. Australia, South Africa and Brazil should probably be able to come up with a circuit each. Ferrari has one in Italy and Toyota one in Japan. That’s a round dozen straight off.
Except, if Ecclestone and Mosley can stop the first few ‘obvious’ ones from falling into place, the breakaway series might never build up the momentum to attract the rest.
How far ahead the pair were able to plan in the first few frantic hours after the FOTA announcement is, of course, unknowable. But it will have been crystal clear to them that they must at all costs prevent Damon Hill being able to end his grand prix weekend with a press conference announcing the date of the 2010 FOTA Grand Prix of Great Britain.
By making their spectacular climb-down, and by throwing Simon Gillett to the wolves, they may have just managed to do that.