Formula One authorities surprised fans at Silverstone last weekend with the news that Donnington Park will be the new home of the British Grand Prix in 2010. There had been rumours about the race switching venue earlier in the year, but no-one had taken them seriously because of the large amount of work required to make the deal realistic. There are still a few major unanswered questions about the move which has led some people to suggest the unexpected announcement is actually just a smokescreen for something else.
It is reminiscent of a similar situation nine years ago when Brands Hatch was confirmed as host for the British Grand Prix from 2002. The circuit was going to be significantly overhauled and would be transformed into the new home of British Motorsport. Unfortunately the circuit owners were unable to obtain the appropriate planning permission for the reconstruction, and ended up with a contract for the Grand Prix but nowhere to run it. They eventually had to make a deal with Silverstone.
Donnington is in a similar position to Brands Hatch since a lot of work has to be completed in a short amount of time. That is why some people believe we have not seen the last of Copse, Maggots, and Becketts.
Another suggestion is that FOM have awarded the Grand Prix contract to Donnington in an elaborate ploy to drop the British round off the calendar altogether.
By signing a contract for the British Grand Prix until 2020, Bernie Ecclestone has effectively done his bit to ‘save’ the race from extinction and any failure for the event to continue would fall at the feet of Donnington and not his own.
This year Valencia and Singapore have joined the F1 circus. The US Grand Prix will hopefully be returning next year, along with Abu Dhabi, and within another three years we will also be racing in Korea and India, if not Russia as well. With only twenty races possible in a single season a number of existing events will have to go and this sadly includes some of the more traditional venues. Bernie is helping take care of that problem by placing the impetus on the race promoters rather than himself.
If Donnington cannot get ready in time (which is a distinct possibility) the British Grand Prix will be pushed aside for a more profitable race.
Having said that, it seems unlikely that Formula One Management will ever ditch racing in England. Regardless of what Bernie Ecclestone says to the press, the British Grand Prix is one of the most important events for Formula One and those in control of the sport are well aware of that. Any genuine threat to the race seems unlikely, so the Donnington announcement is best taken for face value.
The move might be great for the future of British motorsport, but it isn’t so good for Silverstone. The Northamptonshire circuit has been synonymous with Formula One since it hosted the first ever World Championship race in 1950. The circuit is much loved by fans and drivers but is now on Formula One’s death row.
It is hard to feel any great sympathy for the British Racing Drivers Club who own Silverstone. They have done as much to lose the race as Donnington has done to snatch it away from them. The BRDC has been trying to negotiate a Grand Prix contract renewal since the current one took effect in 2001, and for almost ten years have promised new facilities that are yet to materialise. FOM recently put their final offer on the table which was reportedly a compromise for both parties. Bernie Ecclestone wanted more money from Silverstone, but still not as much as he gets elsewhere. The BRDC had until last weekend to accept or reject the offer, but ended up asking for a two week extension to consider the proposal further.
Bernie Ecclestone is actually a member of the BRDC but has always been frustrated by the way the organisation is run and the control they have over the British Grand Prix. When they asked to extend the negotiation deadline by two weeks he simply pushed ahead with Plan B.
Bernie made his feelings well known, saying “If they haven’t got anything done in five years they are not going to make it happen in a fortnight. They don’t know what they are doing. The problem is that they don’t do anything in a business like way. I always said to them that the British Grand Prix was the deadline and they weren’t ready.”
It may be sad to lose Silverstone, but if anything the announcement is good news. The British Grand Prix is secure and will be held at a brand new world class venue.
Fans who will miss the historical significance of Silverstone should not be perturbed by the move to Donnington which was hosting Grand Prix races back in the 1930’s. The circuit has a long association with motorcycle racing and was extended in the 1980’s so that it could host a round of the World Championship, and is currently home to the British Moto GP.
Despite being best known for running bikes and touring cars, Tom Wheatcroft always wanted his beloved Donnington to host a Formula One race. Through his friendship with Bernie Ecclestone he arranged the 1993 European Grand Prix, which is the only time that Donnington has featured in the Formula One World Championship. The event ruined Wheatcroft financially (and physically as he spent time in hospital form stress related illness) but it didn’t matter because he got to live his dream. The race itself went down in history as one of the greatest of all time thanks to the brilliance of Ayrton Senna.
Last year Wheatcroft leased the facility to a new group called “Donnington Ventures Leisure” who had a Formula One return firmly in their sights. Now that a new deal has been organised, thanks to Wheatcroft’s close alliance with Ecclestone, the owners have pledged a hundred million pounds to upgrade the venue.
It will give the British Grand Prix a home worthy of its stature. Silverstone is an awesome circuit, but the facilities are below par as most people who have parked there will testify.
However, there are a number of specific issues that are going cause problems for Donnington Park’s owners.
The first stumbling block is the most obvious, and that is money. The millions that are required to upgrade the racetrack and its surroundings do not yet exist. The circuit officials will be raising that money themselves and that is not going to be easy.
Another significant hurdle is planning permission, the very problem that blighted Brands Hatch. A Grand Prix will have a huge impact on the surrounding area and the authorities will need time and resources to confirm approval for the event, especially if local residents object to the race. New roads will need to be built, along with new hotels, and that is not the sort of thing that can be given the green light in a short space of time. In order to be ready within two years the new facilities will need to start taking shape very soon, but that is not going to be possible if the planning permission fails to arrive in a timely manner.
There is also the problem of space at Donnington, as there simply isn’t much room to play with. The circuit cannot expand any further, so to make it long enough for Grand Prix standards it will be lengthened into the infield. It might be quite tricky therefore to add new facilities around the track.
There are some other interesting points raised on the ITV website. Ted Kravitz is certainly not known for being very insightful, but ‘Captain Obvious’ has brought up two unique issues relating to the nearby East Midlands Airport.
The first of those is the airport’s radar. Apparently it plays havoc with race car telemetry, camera equipment, and other electronics at the circuit. If a small touring car race is affected, a much larger Grand Prix would also experience problems. It is surely an issue that can be resolved but still one that will be a thorn in the side of race organisers.
The more pressing issue is that planes take off and land at a very low altitude over the circuit. The runway is almost an extension of the back straight, and the circuit itself was used during World War Two as a military depot attached to the airfield. Any new facilities therefore will have to be low to the ground, and things like construction cranes will not possible. Tall grandstands, timing aerials, and broadcast equipment will be restricted in size which could represent a serious problem.
However, there is nothing that some serious cash will not sort out and if Bernie wants the race to happen, he will make it happen.
It’s a win-win situation for everyone.
The British Grand Prix is saved, it will be held in a brand new venue, and FOM no longer need to deal with the BRDC.
Anyone who does not have a special affinity to Silverstone should be fairly excited by all of that.