Donington Doubts: The Future of the British Grand Prix

Andy ShawCorrespondent IMay 6, 2009

2 Feb 2002:  General view of Donington Park in Leicestershire, England. \ Mandatory Credit: Mike Hewitt /Allsport

Over the last week or so fresh doubts have surfaced over the future of the British Grand Prix, with 2010 race promoters Donington Ventures being taken to court by the Wheatcroft family, who own the circuit, over unpaid rent.

After years of discontent with the current British GP venue, Silverstone, Formula One Management announced last July that the race would be moving to Donington for 2010.

But doubts about the ability of the promoters to get the circuit up to F1 standards have persisted since that time, with many believing that the project would fall at the first hurdle and fail to secure planning permission for the upgrades to the track and surrounding infrastructure.

Planning permission was duly granted in November by North West Leicestershire District Council, on the assumption that full details of how the project would be funded would be released to the public at the end of March.

Yesterday the council met again and extended Donington's deadline to the end of June, by which point all the funding must be in place. Sceptics have again suggested that this will not happen, and the future of the British Grand Prix therefore hangs in the balance.

Quite what this would mean for Formula One in Britain is unclear at the moment, as Bernie Ecclestone has insisted that there is no chance of the race returning to Silverstone.

The British Racing Drivers' Club, who run operations at the Northamptonshire circuit, must be confident that should Donington fail to deliver, the race will indeed return to their track.

The reason for this is that the FIA is duty bound by means of various agreements to protect certain "historic" Grands Prix, such as those in Britain, France and Italy.

Such agreements of course did little to help for the French Grand Prix, which for only the second time in F1 history will not run in 2009, though this is because the French national motorsport authority (FFSA) cancelled the event on cost grounds rather than it being forcibly removed by Ecclestone.

Moreover, FIA President Max Mosley insists that the FIA were never contacted by the FFSA over the future of the French GP, so they were powerless to act in that case.

Given the precarious current state of the British GP, and the importance of the race to fans and teams, it is far more likely that the BRDC would approach the FIA should the threat of a 2010 calendar without a British race become real.

The problem with this approach is that it seriously undermines the integrity of the sport.

It is difficult for most British fans to stomach, with the popular view casting Ecclestone as the perennial villain of the F1 soap opera, but the fault for the disappearance of Silverstone from the F1 calendar lies with the BRDC themselves.

For years, Britain has had an extremely privileged position on the F1 calendar. The BRDC paid less to Ecclestone for hosting the race than any other venue, and got away with having significantly lower-quality facilities.

In trying to redress this balance, Ecclestone asked for the BRDC to upgrade their facilities, perhaps not in keeping with ultra-modern venues such as Sepang and Shanghai, but at least to a standard acceptable to FOM.

The BRDC responded by making elaborate plans for upgrades, but never delivered upon them. So Ecclestone asked again.

More plans were drawn up, no improvement work was ever started upon. And so the cycle continued.

It has become abundantly clear over the last ten years that the BRDC was perfectly happy to make plans for improving their facilities, but had no intention of ever delivering upon them.

They were hoping that Ecclestone would fall for their deception and sign up to a long-term deal with the circuit; if that failed, they intended to fall back upon the British GP's "historic" status to forcibly keep Silverstone on the calendar.

It is unsurprising, then, that Ecclestone eventually grew tired of the politicking of the BRDC and chose to move the British Grand Prix elsewhere. Talk of a conspiracy to remove Britain from the F1 calendar, or a personal vendetta against the BRDC by Ecclestone, are diversions from the main point.

Ecclestone is an extremely astute businessman, a fact that nobody will deny. Letting personal grudges get in the way of good business would hardly make a billionaire of the kind that Ecclestone is.

It is inconceivable that he would allow personal feelings to trump business sense—he may have been less inclined to show sympathy for the BRDC, but the situation we are now in is all of their own making.

The BRDC have played the "history" and "tradition" cards many times in the last ten years, and look set to do so again should Donington's F1 venture not get off the ground. But they have clearly shown time and again that they do not deserve the Grand Prix.

Simon Gillett, head of Donington Ventures, has semi-ironically remarked that he could fund the entire Donington project if he had a pound from everyone who said that it wasn't going to happen.

Perhaps the mathematics are a bit off—a £10 contribution per person should cover it—but the message is clear: Donington will fight for their right to host the British Grand Prix to the end.

For the sake of taking it away from the incompetence of the BRDC, let's hope they are successful.