Under scrutiny; Silverstone Circuits Ltd.

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“The spectator comes first”

Not so long ago, Silverstone Circuits had an unenviable reputation as the complacency capital of British motorsport. Our sister publication Motoring News received so many bad vibrations at the 1987 Shell Oils British Grand Prix that it initiated a reader survey, the results of which appeared shortly after. The findings contained some unfavourable comments which led to a cold war of words between the two parties before cordial relations were resumed, but that resumption brought a greater strength to them.

The death of Jimmy Brown, a legendary figure within the sport who had organised the first British GP there in 1948 and steered the circuit since becoming a director in 1966 and MD in 1974, came as a body blow on April 19 last year, but the new attitude he had implemented laid the cornerstones for Silverstone’s further progress.

Now, the “I’m all right, Jack” attitude that followed in the immediate wake of the five-year deal to stage the Grand Prix has been replaced by a determination to make the venue the best.

Early in 1987 came serious modifications, followed by new pit facilities and the brand new Press room named, appropriately, in Jimmy’s honour. It was a massive investment, but even at the time it was made clear that it was but the tip of an iceberg intended to sink the Titanic reputation the circuit had of being little more than a converted airfield.

Last month, thanks to the mild winter, further massive work was finished in time for the first national meeting to take place on the revised Club Circuit. This time, however, there is a major difference.

Tom Walkinshaw is an imposing figure well known in motor racing circles. Compact, no wider than a mountain and a no-nonsense Scot who had parlayed his racing career into a series of highly successful business enterprises, he already had several years of membership of the British Racing Drivers’ Club board before he was invited, almost a year ago, to fill Jimmy Brown’s role as Chairman. He is surprisingly diffident about the changes he has wrought since he took over, but is forthright in his assessment of the latest investment.

“FISA has made it clear that only circuits which develop will grow with the sport, and we know what that means. We made all the changes to date to comply with our agreement with FISA.

“The latest changes, however, have nothing to do with that. They are being made because we want to bring motor racing in Britain into the Nineties, and to bring our facilities up to the standards of those in other areas of the sport or entertainment business.”

He refutes suggestions that his own changes have been significant, but there is now an underlying determination to maximise the commercial advantages of the venue, and to reshape it to the benefit of its spectators.

The latter have had a rough deal from the sport in general for many years now, and are frequently seen as the forgotten people as the god of television attracts the attention of the authorities. That in itself is an understandable if sometimes unpalatable corollary of the commercial interests on which it now depends in order to maintain its current high standards, but the evidence is that Silverstone’s management is determined not to lose sight of the importance of those who actually pay to come through its gates.

“We are moving with the times,” says Walkinshaw. “We are making changes in accordance with what we think our public wants and will want in the foreseeable future. We are updating for the spectators and what we are doing now is part of our development programme which will be carried out over the next few years.”

It is encouraging talk, curdled in the view of those angered by the recent leap in ticket prices which was communicated subtly to advance buyers rather than via any kind of straightforward Press announcement. Even the very manner of its introduction has irritated some. Again, though, Walkinshaw is clear about the underlying reasons, and Managing Director Hamish Brown, one of Jimmy’s sons, is quick to point out that the negative response has been low in terms of outraged letter writers.

“The issue is simple, really,” explains Walkinshaw easily. “The cost of staging the Grand Prix has risen considerably on a number of fronts. We have no control over any of them, we simply have to pay the increased rates. Overall, it’s gone up some eighty-five per cent.

“Nowadays the public expects better facilities, but bringing them into line costs money. The two factors have led to the need to put our prices up.

“The abiding problem is that prior to this year we had no firm calculations on cost, but we sat down and did our sums. We discovered that things were just so far out of sync that something had to be done. Our ticket price rise is actually no greater than we are getting charged by outside influences, and our prices are no more than the majority of other circuits are charging for their races.”

The good news is that he doesn’t foresee them rising by anything like as much in the future, now that the adjustment has been made and the balance has been restored. The latest changes take two distinct forms of spectator benefit: comfort and enjoyment.

The comfort factor is an old complaint, to which the management has applied itself thoroughly. The biggest bugbear has always been the problem of getting into and out of the circuit on Grand Prix day. Even as far back as 1981 we made the supporting F3 race, which began at ten o’clock, with only minutes to spare, even though we had reached nearby Shutlanger at 7.30!

Of course, much of it stems purely from the local geography, and although there are limits to what the circuit can do to change it, Walkinshaw and his directors are nevertheless actively exploring means of improving things on that front. In this respect the proposed local bypass will eventually alleviate the situation further. In the meantime, the Whittlebury exit is now thoroughly established, and a new vehicle bridge with pedestrian underpass is being constructed along Hangar Straight, further to enhance traffic flow. In 1987 the new pedestrian and vehicle tunnel was installed at Copse, and from our observations has improved infield access dramatically. The internal access roads have also been subject to significant improvement.

“The biggest single improvement, however, wouldn’t cost anyone anything,” asserts Marketing Manager John Foden, and that would be for everyone to obey the traffic route markings we suggest. I know it’s frustrating to come to a halt, especially when you can hear the noise of racing cars in action, but we have marked the route because that is the most convenient way for people to reach a specific destination. If everybody obeyed them instead of trying to find their own impatient way in, it would make a major difference.”

All round the Stowe, Club and Abbey area the toilet facilities are also being updated, following prolonged complaint, and at strategic points new spectator terraces are being installed. Those at Copse, Maggotts and Becketts will be fully finished in time for the GP in July, while those elsewhere will be completed after a year once the fresh earth used to raise the bankings by some 5ft has settled fully.

Each terrace is concreted, as are the walkways behind them, and is stepped to allow better viewing. Thoughtfully, Silverstone has also added space to accommodate up to twelve wheelchairs at points close to the medical posts. Spectator enjoyment has also been given high priority. At the 1988 Grand Prix the Star Vision and Diamond screens proved so popular that several will be used this year. Between Stowe and Club there will be one of vee shape, visible from each corner, and others at Woodcote, the outside of Copse and Becketts. Twenty feet high, they monitor live action during the day so that spectators can keep up to date with the action all round the circuit rather than just at their particular vantage point. Moreover, there is also a suggestion that 8ft-high video screens will be used so that early spectators can be entertained from the moment they set up camp on raceday. To improve their information further, Radio Silverstone will be stepping up its daily commentaries.

“When people come here this year, they will see the improvements that have been made to enhance the facilities,” says Walkinshaw. “The Star Vision screens, for example, cost hundreds of thousands, but the response last year was very positive so we’ve gone the whole hog.

“When they come to Silverstone, we want people to have a complete day’s entertainment, and we hope they’ll appreciate what we’re doing to improve our standards.” Walkinshaw admits there was something of an old-fashioned outlook when he took over, and, while in this instance he may be too political an animal to stress it outright, it’s clear he knocked it into a much more business-like shape pretty quickly. One would expect nothing else from a man with a reputation for dealing summarily with fools.

“We” — his team comprises MD Brown, Circuit Director George Smith and Marketing Manager Foden — “drew up a list of things we had to do. We appreciated that we had to gear everything to spectator facilities and we costed things out and arrived at our new figures. If our basis is sound, which we believe it now is, we can continue to make improvements. In three years nobody will believe the difference.”

Indeed, progress has already been achieved at a startling rate since the winter modifications were instigated, and here the second element of spectator enjoyment comes in with wholesale revisions to the circuits. ‘Where previously there were effectively three — the Grand Prix, the Club and one for truck racing — there are now two more.

Mindful of the need to maximize resources, and of the incredibly heavy demand for the new John Watson-run Performance Driving Centre, the management has come up with an ingenious means of having its cake and eating it on race and test days.

What was needed was two circuits which could be operational simultaneously, one for general testing or racing, the other for the various corporate activities of the Performance Driving Centre. That ruled out the GP and Club circuits since they are interdependent. The solution was to create a new Southern Circuit which could be completely independent of the Club track. At Abbey, Southern Circuit users turn right instead of left and head off through a left-hander which cuts across one of the internal airfield access roads to Club before entering a right-left-right ess which then feeds back on to the GP circuit just before the left-hander at Chapel.

Walkinshaw, Brown, Smith and Foden formulated the design themselves, Tom’s racing experience helping to create what they hope will be a challenging format which includes a variety of tight and sweeping bends to act as a meaningful indicator of a car’s potential.

“Our prime concern was to make it interesting,” confirms the Scot. “We wanted to avoid anything mickey-mouse.”

There will be a hard-standing area on which testing teams can erect their transporter awnings, but there is a possibility that the two-mile track will eventually be equipped with further facilities and may one day be used for racing. In the meantime, racing will continue on the GP and revised Club circuits. The latter now has two possible formats, the first simply comprising a small chicane past the bridge on the run down Club Straight to Woodcote.

“We were concerned with the speed at which cars were arriving head-on to the grandstands. Not so much the modern stuff, but some of the Historic vehicles which are going faster now with development than they did in their heyday.”

The second format should achieve its aim of making the little track much more interesting. After the bridge on the Club Straight it turns left on to a short straight which leads into a fast right-left-right ess which takes it back on to the existing tarmac to the pit straight. Overtaking opportunities should be improved, and spectators in the grandstands and by the new Woodcote complex introduced in 1987 will have more action to watch.

“So far the feedback we’ve been getting is very positive,” enthuses Walkinshaw. “We think the new layout will make a big difference and get rid of the Club Circuit’s reputation for being boring for both spectators and drivers.”

Inside the new Club section there is also a 400-metre oval which will initially be used for driver training.

Further, undisclosed, modifications are in the pipeline as Silverstone gears for the Nineties. Certainly, the external appearance of its main entrance will change to something more befitting a venue that promotes itself as “the home of British motor racing”, and there will be further investment beyond the recent seven-figure sum. And, inevitably, there will still be detractors. But Walkinshaw and his team prefer to promote their positive outlook and their concern for the paying spectator. “The two important points to remember are that our improvements peak at the Grand Prix, where we expect higher attendance on the qualifying days following last year’s trend, so we’ll have more things going on throughout the meeting. And the second is that the same improvements will benefit spectators at all our other events through the year.

“We didn’t want all the chickenwire fencing that goes with F1, and on our non-GP days the accent will be on family entertainment; the whole place has to become an entertainment centre …”

To that end representatives have travelled as far afield as Disneyland investigating others’ interpretations of the art of accommodating and entertaining people. The results are beginning to speak for themselves. DJT

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