It’s a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in July, 2010. The Red Arrows scream down out of a brilliant blue sky in a climactic bomb-burst manoeuvre before streaking away over the treetops of the Northamptonshire countryside. An expectant buzz rises from the sell-out crowd, as they debate the chances of British superstar Lewis Hamilton increasing his lead in the drivers’ championship and marching on towards his third straight title. In the McLaren garage, at the top end of the award-winning new pitlane structure, Prime Minister David Cameron chats with Lewis, Sir Ronald Dennis and Lord Ecclestone of Knightsbridge, key architects of this exhilarating new golden age of British motorsport. The international media is hailing the British Grand Prix as the new jewel in the Formula 1 crown, thanks to the bold and imaginative refurbishment plan which has transformed the once-rickety Silverstone into a futuristic centre of excellence.
Nice dream, and we must hope not an entirely impossible one. Motor sport watchers will be aware that the future of the British Grand Prix after 2009, when Silverstone’s contract to run it expires, is currently unclear. Formula 1’s commercial overlord, Bernie Ecclestone, thinks Silverstone is a bit of a dump which has been laggardly in updating facilities for racing teams and the public alike. The British Racing Drivers Club, which owns the circuit, is struggling to meet Ecclestone’s fees and to refurbish the facilities. But thanks to the sport’s progressive globalisation, Bernie can convincingly threaten to ship out the race to the next boomtown in the world’s latest emerging market.
“The BRDC have known for many years exactly what they have to do,” says Ecclestone. “There is no mystery about it, nobody’s trying to screw them, quite the opposite. We want exactly the same terms and conditions that we have with Germany. England has the same sort of population as Germany, it’s got the same sort of popularity, except they’ve got more manufacturers in Germany I suppose. But the BRDC know exactly where they are.”
The inaugural British Grand Prix was held at Silverstone on May 13, 1950, in the presence of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and Earl and Lady Mountbatten. It was the first race in the new Formula 1 World Championship, and has since become a fixture of British sporting life, a seasonal milestone alongside Wimbledon, Ascot and the Lord’s Test. The race has in the past rotated between Silverstone, Aintree and Brands Hatch, but since 1987 the windswept Northamptonshire airfield has been its permanent home. Its loss would be a painful historical and commercial blow.
FIA president Max Mosley, often depicted as the other half of a double act with Bernie, says merely that “we are waiting to see if they do a commercial deal with Bernie, which is a condition precedent to the FIA putting an F1 event on the calendar.” He will be well aware that the prospect of losing the race fills many F1 insiders with horror. Sir Frank Williams, who says he is “a strong supporter of Silverstone, being an Englishman”, points out that “most F1 teams believe there really has to be a British GP because it’s one of the core races in the World Championship, and has been for more than 50 years, but also nearly all the teams are based in Great Britain. Most of F1’s suppliers are based in Great Britain. It would be a setback for Williams for several reasons, one of which is morale and team-building – our staff need a weekend with their wives, to see their product racing. It would destabilise the home industry far too much to remove the Grand Prix.”
Eddie Jordan, whose own F1 team was based across the road from Silverstone (where it is now reincarnated as Force India), concurs.
“I don’t even want to think about losing the Grand Prix, because it could be devastating. The Grand Prix is, if you like, the showcase. A lot of teams are based around Silverstone, and these teams would go. When I was running Jordan I had unbelievable offers to set up a team in a different country. It would have been far more beneficial financially to me, but to retain the high-quality level of suppliers and support staff and technological expertise you need to be in the area where that’s most available. If one goes then another goes, and soon you’ve got nothing. Look what’s happened to our own motor industry – it’s gone.”
Under the presidency of Damon Hill, the BRDC has put forward its own redevelopment ‘masterplan’. This envisages the sale of packets of land outside the circuit but owned by the BRDC (or its subsidiary Silverstone Circuit Holdings), the proceeds from which will be used to redevelop the pitlane and paddock facilities to standards acceptable to Bernie.
“There’s land on the other side of the A43, the Silverstone village side, which is potentially very attractive,” Hill explains. “We know land will be deveIoped because there is huge pressure for housing at the moment in the UK. It was sensible to realise that and to turn it into cash now which could be reinvested within the circuit, for a new pit and paddock complex and associated revenue-generating projects such as universities and other industries involved in the sport to be located at Silverstone.”
Cautious optimism is being expressed by those involved, alongside a sense that this plan could be the last opportunity to establish a sound, self-financing basis for the Silverstone race. Previous rescue efforts have demonstrated an alarming propensity to disintegrate. There was the complicated scheme involving financial input from Octagon Motorsports (which had acquired the rights to run the GP at Silverstone), the BRDC and Bernie’s Formula One Management, which would have given Silverstone a £45 million overhaul between 2001-06. The project ended with Ecclestone angrily accusing the BRDC of wasting the money and merely looking after its own interests, and a chastened Octagon washing its hands of the whole affair. At least then-BRDC president Jackie Stewart managed to talk Tony Blair into finding £8m to finish the A43 bypass, improving road access to the circuit considerably.
In 2004, a consortium called Brand Synergy, including Nigel Mansell as one of its directors, emerged to save the Grand Prix after Ecclestone had dropped it from the 2005 calendar, but little was subsequently heard of its £200m plan to develop Silverstone with a ‘fun factory’, casino and leisure complex. In ’05, after Bernie and the club had reached an agreement for Silverstone to keep the race until 2009, the BRDC invited tenders for a joint venture to develop the circuit, with St Modwen Properties being declared the winner in January 2006. However, a revolt by BRDC members sent St Modwen’s plans to the bottom. Further development bids in 2007 by Oliver Speight’s Spectre company and a joint effort by Bill Archer from Wickes DIY and property developer Mike Rockall were also unceremoniously hoofed into touch by the club.
Speight, who hasn’t abandoned all hope of resurrecting his bid, has a grand vision for the circuit. “I’m very much on the side of F1 and the BRDC, but most of all the British public,” he insists. “The point is to try to get Silverstone to be the heartbeat of F1, not the outsider, then everyone will cluster round it. If Lord’s is the home of cricket, Wembley the home of football and Wimbledon the home of tennis, Silverstone ought to be the home of Grand Prix racing.”
Indeed, but the BRDC’s stewardship of the Grand Prix will always cause complications. While rich in historical character, the venerable institution is the polar opposite of a professional commercial business. It was founded in 1928 by the fabled Bentley Boy and hero of Le Mans, Dr J D Benjafield. Originally a dining club for Benjy and his pals, the BRDC evolved into an organisation promoting the interests of motorsport generally and British drivers in particular. It took over the lease of Silverstone in 1952, and purchased the freehold from the MoD in 1971. In 1966 the club formed a wholly-owned subsidiary, Silverstone Circuits Limited, which redeveloped the circuit into – for a time – one of the world’s premier facilities.
However, while the global economy has subsequently galloped ahead, Silverstone’s development has been stuck in the bus lane. Although the F1 paddock is transformed into a multi-millionaires’ convention every summer, the BRDC has been trapped in a permanent struggle to find the cash to upgrade the track’s facilities. The Silverstone set-up is a classic specimen of the great British amateur tradition, soldiering on gamely against the odds. A world-class sporting event steeped in the glories of Britain’s motorsport heritage is in the hands of a not-for-profit private club prone to bickering and infighting, on an ageing circuit buried in the Northamptonshire countryside miles from the nearest railway station. Meanwhile, governments from Turkey and China to India and Bahrain happily pour cash into bespoke new tracks to make ostentatious statements about their burgeoning status in the new world order, and don’t baulk at Ecclestone’s premium rates for the rights to hold a race.
Former BRDC board member and 1981 British Grand Prix winner John Watson, who drove for Brabham when Ecclestone owned the team, has had a ringside seat at most of Silverstone’s travails.
“I respect what the current board is doing because they’re working tirelessly to move forwards, but the issue has always been that it’s a members’ club handling this, as opposed to elsewhere when you deal with the head of a motorsport organisation or a government or whatever. I think Bernie has had difficulty with the members’ attitude that it was their God-given right to have a Grand Prix. But there is no given right. When you reach the levels of business you need to attain to put on the show, it cannot any longer allow the veto of members. You have to view it from a proper business perspective, and people are too emotionally wrapped up in the club and the circuit. No business or PLC can run on that basis.”
This is a fact that Damon Hill has grasped. “I can sort of understand Bernie’s position on this,” he says, “because there’s a sense that F1 and Bernie have taken the ball and run with it in developing the sport, and perhaps they feel that the BRDC have drifted along in the wake rather than being committed partners in the process.”
With a view to presenting a streamlined and businesslike posture, the club has appointed a specialist team to negotiate renewal of the post-2009 Grand Prix contract with Ecclestone. Their point man is Neil England, an erstwhile member of the FIA Commission and previously involved with tobacco company Gallaher’s F1 sponsorship.
“He’s not, shall we say, sullied or tainted in any way by a connection with the BRDC,” says Hill. “There have been many problems with this relationship historically, and I think we’ve solved all those by acting as trustees and guardians rather than being directly involved in the business decisions.”
Hitherto, the BRDC’s defiance of commercial realities has made Ecclestone bristle, particularly since he has successfully persuaded the rest of the F1-watching world to be reasonable and see it his way. “I think the club is their own worst enemy, the way they operate,” he says. “It’s difficult for them because they’ve got so many people and they’ve all got different ideas and different agendas. The BRDC is non-profit making and always will be, because they couldn’t make a profit if they tried. There’s a guy there called Neil England who I know quite well, who’s trying to put it all together.”
Will it work? Bernie is tight-lipped.
“I’ve no idea. I haven’t got a clue.”
Other sporting bodies have found their own solutions to fund-raising problems. Arsenal FC helps pay for its new Emirates Stadium with luxurious hospitality boxes and its elite Diamond Club scheme, where wealthy patrons pay a £25,000 fee and £25,000 per season for a pair of seats plus free Raymond Blanc cuisine and flights on the team’s aeroplane. The All England Lawn Tennis Club and the MCC issue debentures – a species of bond – to fund the refurbishment of Wimbledon and Lord’s. However, they all have a season of events to sell rather than a one-off weekend, and their London location eases concerns about travel and access. They also enjoy the luxury of control over their own product. Bernie Ecclestone designed the commercial structure of contemporary F1, and if you can think of a revenue stream, you’ll find Bernie got there first. Silverstone’s financial plight could be eased if income from trackside advertising and the exclusive Paddock Club corporate hospitality operation wasn’t already flowing into Allsport Management, now part of Ecclestone’s Formula One Group of companies. Pleas for Bernie to reduce his fee for hosting the Grand Prix, about US$15.5m, only seem to make him dig his heels in more firmly.
“Bernie could solve this problem by knocking 10 per cent off the bill for Silverstone tomorrow,” suggests motorsport writer Alan Henry, a former BRDC board member. “That would make the difference between it being marginal and making a bit of profit. Basically, on a good day Silverstone could make US$600,000, or on a bad day it could lose US$1.4m. The problem is that the race promoter has only got the gate to make his profits from. Bernie takes the TV rights, Bernie takes the track advertising rights et cetera.”
As Hill puts it: “I would be in complete agreement with Bernie that Silverstone could be a lot better, but it can only do what it can do with what it has. My wish is to see Silverstone produce a magnificent venue, the best in the world for spectating or providing a fantastic experience and for all the other ancillary things that go together with the circuit, but to do that you have to make a profit, and a significant one. You don’t have to do too much maths to work out how much money is generated by 80,000 people paying in excess of £100 a head.”
Henry adds: “I think the problem is that Bernie can’t help himself. He’s not programmed to do anything less than the best deal, and the best deal is most likely to be the one that bankrupts the BRDC. Bernie now has obligations to CVC Capital Partners, which own F1’s commercial rights, so he has an added incentive to do the best deal.”
Extra spice is sprinkled into the mix by the lingering suspicion that personal animosity underpins the fractious relationship between Bernie and the club. Ever since the BRDC’s foundation by Benjafield and his troupe of wealthy, fast-living Bentley drivers, it has enjoyed a reputation as a bastion of Lord Snooty-ish toffs, a bunch of Bertie Woosters shooting the breeze over the Remy-Martin and cigars while casting a faintly disapproving eye over the unwashed masses teeming onto the Silverstone terraces. Apocryphal of course, and the club’s membership today represents a wide social cross-section, yet… Even Hill isn’t immune to the myth.
“It’s very easy to start talking with a plum in your mouth when you become a member of the BRDC,” he says. “If you’re not careful it does throw back a little bit to a wonderful era that’s passed. The Bentley Boys era was then, it was part of the history. We’ve really got to put that behind us, put it in the display cabinet and start looking forward.”
It’s not difficult to believe that an aggressive self-made entrepreneur like Ecclestone, a trawlerman’s son from Suffolk, could represent the Great Satan as far as some of the more traditionally inclined members of the club are concerned. The more control he gained over the shape and direction of Formula 1, the more his power was liable to be resented. There is a story – one of those ones which various people have heard but which nobody will confirm – that Bernie (himself a life member of the club) once offered to lend the cash-strapped BRDC some money at a favourable rate to help out the Grand Prix, only to have it contemptuously flung back in his face by the Blue Blazer contingent, shouting “we don’t want your money”.
“The place is always awash with different opinions as to what should and shouldn’t happen,” says Frank Williams, “and getting a straight answer to a straight proposal has always, I think, been difficult for Bernie. Plus because he charges so much money, it’s extraordinarily difficult for the club or the circuit to make more than half a million pounds if it’s lucky for the Grand Prix. And I think also they’ve refused to sell to him, which really gets up his nose. But I’m only saying this as an observer, and you never really know with Bernie.”
So what does Bernie say? Has he had personal issues with people in the club?
“No, not at all, no,” he says, in an incredulous tone. “I can’t have fought with everybody, there’s been so many of them.”
There is a theory that they’re a bunch of blazer-wearing toffs who regard you as… “Not any more,” he cuts in. “Originally the club consisted of people who had raced or were racing. It’s sort of gone a little bit away from that now, and if you happen to have raced it’s a bit of a coincidence rather than being how you become a member. That’s nothing to do with it anyway. As you just mentioned, the problem has always been that the members have different opinions of what should happen.”
Did the idea of promoting the British Grand Prix yourself ever cross your mind?
“For two or three minutes it did, yeah.”
So why would you decide it wasn’t a good idea?
“I don’t want to lose money, that’s all.”
If you did it, couldn’t it make money?
“Why could I make money and the BRDC couldn’t?”
Because you’re a single businessman with a clear vision of how to do it.
“Well, I’d rather not.”
Government funding has often been discussed as a potential solution to Silverstone’s problems, and it was an objective relentlessly pursued by Jackie Stewart during his tenure as BRDC president.
The key argument in its favour was the sustenance of Britain’s world-leading motorsport industry, whose annual worth is estimated at around £5 billion and which could be irretrievably damaged by the loss of the Grand Prix. But others view the idea of taxpayer subsidy for a super-wealthy sport, in which the FIA considers it a rational option to fine McLaren £100m dollars for industrial espionage nobody has proved the team committed, as absurd.
“I don’t know where Jackie thought he was coming from, frankly,” says Watson.
“It’s totally unrealistic to think that the government is going to put tens of millions of pounds of public money in to the benefit of a private members’ club. The new sports minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, finally said they’re not going to fund it, and I said thank God, not before time.”
Jordan agrees. “Silverstone, the BRDC and race fans should be able to generate enough income and revenues to be able to keep on track with the current requirements in terms of a proper place to put on a Grand Prix. Once you start putting government money in it’s like a crutch. You can never then get rid of that crutch, and I’m sorry, but then you make it worse for everybody in the future.”
Hill doesn’t expect government hand-outs either, yet two new recruits to the taxpayer-subsidy cause are Ecclestone and Mosley (ironic, since in 2004, Jackie Stewart complained that Ecclestone was undermining him by urging the government not to support the Silverstone race). It’s New Labour’s splash-the-cash approach to the London Olympics that has apparently provoked Bernie and Max. Bernie says he can’t see why the government can’t view support for Silverstone as a normal business investment that would bring money into the UK.
Mosley comments: “I always used to say no [to government funding] but, having regard to the amount being put into the Olympic Games and the importance for the UK of an annual World Championship Grand Prix, the government should quite clearly do whatever is necessary to bring Silverstone up to the highest world standards.”
A spokesman for sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe puts the government’s case.
“For a cash-rich sport like motor racing it’s not justified to put public money into it, but what is justified is to do everything we can to influence decisions around planning and development of infrastructure around the Silverstone circuit, and that’s what Gerry Sutcliffe has said he will do. He is fully supportive of the BRDC.”
But people see £9.5bn and rising going into the Olympics (a project castigated by Labour MP Don Touhig as “the most catastrophic piece of financial mismanagement in the history of the world”), and they might wonder why you can’t dredge up a measly few million pounds for Silverstone?
“The Olympics is very much a public project and it’s a one-off opportunity to bring the biggest sporting event in the world to Britain, so you put public money into it and you get public benefit from it. Obviously we’re not going to start putting money into a private company.”
So could it be the case that the Silverstone masterplan is the Last Chance Saloon? Surely Ecclestone would feel some qualms about if it came to letting the race finally leave the UK?
“Not at all,” he says. “Don’t forget I raced there for the first Formula 1 race there was in England. In 1950 I raced a Cooper. So I should have some sentimentality, but I don’t.”
Not everyone believes him. Frank Williams will always remember the way Bernie pulled out all the stops to help him after his terrible car accident in 1986, and says “there’s a soft core to him – hard to find, but it is there.”
A final word from John Watson: “I think Bernie would do everything that he possibly can to keep the British Grand Prix. But what I would say is that Bernie is a very good poker player, and if you want to gamble with him you’ve got to be pretty rich and be prepared to lose a lot of money. He thinks he’s got a lot of very good cards in his hand, and I think he’s right. But you have to offset that against what he really wants, and he’s not going to tell you what he really wants.”
Change at Silverstone hasn’t always produced expected results
When Formula 1 was last at Silverstone, in 1985, Rosberg had made the fastest qualifying lap at an average speed of more than 160mph, and when asked how fast he had been going down the straights, replied “Straights? What straights?” At that sort of speed Silverstone is one long series of corners.
Those who are responsible for our enthusiasm were getting anxious about cars exiting Woodcote at 162mph, in case one got away and flew off into the grandstands.
A major decision was taken, to effectively make F1 cars virtually stop once a lap, just to cool down the pace. The chicane was abandoned totally, and a whole new complex built between the bridge at the top of the rise from Abbey Curve, to the apex of Woodcote corner. A new 90-degree turn to the left called for some heavy braking before the bridge, and having come down to second gear for this sharp corner to the left, there was a little squirt and into an opening-out right-hand bend.
All the power of the turbocharged engined cars could now be used on a fair old run at Woodcote corner, with everything nicely settled and balanced. The result? A speed-trap reading of 189mph for the front runners as they crossed the start/finish line, in place of a relatively slow 162mph when they had had to negotiate the old chicane.
This meant 195mph under the bridge and into the braking area for Copse Corner. If speed is what Grand Prix racing is all about, then this was Grand Prix racing.
By the end of Saturday’s qualifying, Nelson Piquet was on pole position, a mere seven-hundredths of a second ahead of his Williams-Honda team-mate Nigel Mansell, and they had both averaged over 159mph for the complete lap. I am glad they have slowed Silverstone down – it is much more exciting! August 1987