Saving Silverstone

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What chance a home win at the British Grand Prix? Will Ferrari hold the upper hand around Silverstone’s fast sweeps as it did last year? Will the British summer offer us a scorcher or a stinker? These are the typical questions we should be asking ourselves as July approaches, and indeed Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button give us some insight into the importance of their home race on page 14. But there’s another question that continues to nag away, as it has done for months. As it has done for years, in fact. The question? Never mind the form, will there even be a British GP in future?

The short answer is yes, because the 2009 race is contracted to take place. But beyond next year there are major doubts. Silverstone’s owner, the British Racing Drivers’ Club, is doing everything it can to secure a new deal. But when the price of a contract is $22 million a race, with a five per cent escalator added on each year, you’ll understand why it is taking some time. The uncomfortable truth is that the British GP has never been in a more precarious position than it is right now.

It’s easy to blame Bernie Ecclestone. He has been mercilessly turning the screw on the BRDC for years, seemingly with pleasure. He claims to have no sentiment for Silverstone, but then again getting the same answer twice from him on anything is difficult. The truth is Formula 1 as a whole wants to keep the British GP because the UK is so central to both the sport and business. The trouble is Silverstone will have to pay the going rate – which is what Bernie has put on the table. One source told me in a meeting recently he simply handed over a contract with the words ‘German GP’ crossed out and ‘British GP’ added in…

So how to pay for it? We’ve been through the government funding question so many times before. The fact is the British government will never pledge millions to match their equivalents in China, Singapore, India and so on. Silverstone accepted that years ago. Instead it has its ‘Master Plan’, which includes building hotels, leisure centres and selling off some land for housing. This will also have to fund a new state-of-the-art pit and paddock complex, to be built between Club and Abbey corners.

Do the sums add up? The BRDC board clearly believes so and they feel Silverstone has a fighting chance. But when they admit that just breaking even on a sell-out GP is considered a success I find it hard to see how it works. So perhaps a third party is needed to pump investment into the circuit. But again, we’ve been here before. Remember Sir Jackie Stewart and St Modwen? To get the board and the 800-odd members to agree on a suitable partner (and there have been offers) seems impossible.

So the BRDC appears to be committed to valiantly going it alone. President Damon Hill and his team remain optimistic that the British GP will be saved and there is a mood of quiet determination at the old airfield circuit. As negotiations rumble on, spare them a thought if you head to Silverstone this year. You might be thinking ‘we’ve heard it all before, they’ll sort it out’, and perhaps you’re right. But as inconceivable as it seems, the British GP might be about to become history. Savour it while you can – just in case.

Ove Andersson’s tragic death sparked memories. Back in 2004, I accepted an invitation to join him for a Toyota-funded retirement ‘party’ in Sweden. We spent two unforgettable days driving cars on a frozen lake, riding snowmobiles and toasting Ove’s long career as a driver and team owner.

During a quiet moment, I interviewed him for Motor Sport’s old ‘One That Got Away’ feature. He couldn’t remember much about the Monte Carlo Rally he chose, but with retirement much in mind he was in a contemplative mood. The next morning I saw another side of Ove as he sawed away at the wheel of a Group A Toyota Corolla. I spent half of my ride watching him at work, the other half looking ahead – out of the side window.

A suitable memory of a true rally man, I think.
Damien Smith

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