The BRDC has come a long way under president Damon Hill. The swell of optimism at the club’s annual awards reminded us that Silverstone and the British GP are in good hands
These are good times for Britain’s most prominent and important motoring club. Perhaps it’s too early to say the dark days of relentless Silverstone-baiting are over — you never know with Bernie Ecclestone — but the ‘home of British motor racing’ is finally beginning to capitalise on its potential to become the world’s greatest centre for motor racing excellence.
Five years ago, the grand old British Racing Drivers’ Club, the beloved institution for elite racing drivers from Britain and the Commonwealth, was busy ripping itself apart in a bitter civil war. Since then, its cloudy fortunes have been transformed by a quiet revolution, spearheaded by its unlikely former racing driver president.
Back in 1999 Damon Hill didn’t look much like the character to lead the BRDC into a bright new era. The man who had been crowned World Champion just three years earlier cut a sad figure as he climbed from his Jordan for the final time. But after a much-needed break from the sport, he surprised many by accepting a chalice most believed would be laced with arsenic. As it turned out, Jackie Stewart’s intuition would prove to be on the money (not for the first time): the understated son of his old BRM team-mate would become the much needed antidote to the venom that had infected the BRDC for far too long.
As the club returned to the newly renovated Savoy Hotel for its annual awards lunch on December 6, a palpable sense of optimism — triumph, even — lifted the spirits of members both young and old. Absent Gold Star winner Mark Webber was honoured with both the Bruce McLaren and Richard Seaman Trophies, while Indycar hero Dario Franchitti picked up a ‘Special’ Gold Star along with the Earl Howe Trophy. Meanwhile, knighted heroes of the past Sir Jackie Stewart and Sir Stirling Moss received special awards: JYS the club’s highest honour, a Gold Medal, and ‘The Boy’ the Innes Ireland Trophy in recognition of his brave recovery from his terrifying elevator fall in 2010.
Meanwhile at Silverstone, a year on from the announcement of a new 17-year deal to retain the British Grand Prix, work continues on the quiet revolution: the £40 million overhaul of the wartime airfield is on target. Since Webber’s victory on Silverstone’s new Grand Prix layout in July, the enormous new pit and paddock has risen from the Club and Abbey infield and will be ready for the 2011 race. The complex promises to match anything found at Tilke’s Middle Eastern and Asian autodromes.
“Silverstone’s quite a place now and it is almost certainly the best-run circuit in the world,” the president tells Motor Sport at the Savoy, without any sense of hyperbole. “It’s at the service of motor sport and Great Britain.”
Hill has every right to be proud. “The club has overcome a difficult experience,” he says. “It felt very much that it wasn’t being respected for what it was — although that only comes from acting in a way that engenders respect. We had to face up to the new realities, and the BRDC and Silverstone have bent over backwards for what the sport wants. For a time the club got out of phase with the new developments in F1, and it got left behind. Now it’s catching up, it’s starting to play the game.”
With business taken care of, Hill’s role as president is changing. “When I first took on the role I had an option to be involved [in the business], and I took it. Now I’ve taken the decision not to be so hands on. Actually, since before the British GP I’ve not been so heavily involved. That creates a position for the BRDC to play its primary function to represent the success of British motor sport and separate that away from the business of running a race track. There are two functions of the BRDC and we are here today at the Savoy for the prize-giving part, to celebrate British and Commonwealth success. That is as important, if not more important, than running a race track. That’s where the club started. It latterly got into running a race circuit and that has compromised its primary function.”
As Damon concentrates on the traditional values of the club, Silverstone Holdings Ltd gets on with managing the expansion — and crucially, raising the finance to pay for it. The man in the hot seat is no-nonsense chairman Neil England, who played a crucial role in negotiating the British Grand Prix deal with Ecclestone. With his credentials, he was the perfect man for the job. In his former life at Benson & Hedges, he jousted with Eddie Jordan over sponsorship and served time on the once-influential F1 Commission.
The Grand Prix remains Silverstone’s biggest revenue maker, says England: “We make money out of the GP, which is unique.” More is made from the track’s other promoted race meetings: MotoGP, British and World Superbikes, FIA GTs, the Walter Hayes Formula Ford event and the co-promoted Le Mans Series 1000Kms. Track hire to clubs running further meetings and tests adds more to the coffers.
Then there are the tenants who base themselves at Silverstone — “We want it to be the centrepiece for ‘Motor Sport Valley’,” says England — and the increasingly successful ‘Experience’ business, appealing to punters who want to sample everything from Ferraris and Lamborghinis to Audi R8s and single-seaters.
The Experience courses run mostly on what has traditionally been known as the South Circuit. Now it is to be renamed the International Circuit, complementing the National Circuit at the north end, the newly lengthened Stowe infield track and the full Grand Prix Circuit. “Our layouts mean we can run three races at the same time, opening the potential for ‘weekends of motor sport’,” says England.
The evolution will continue beyond the completion of the pit and paddock complex. The first target is a new grandstand and ‘activity centre’ opposite the new pits, with a connecting bridge to the paddock. Then there is the intriguing prospect of a heritage centre, and eventually an international karting circuit. If you think Silverstone looks different now, imagine what it will be like in five years time.
England claims the circuit adds “£65m to the UK economy. We take the risk for UK Plc.” It rankles that the British government will spend millions on the Olympics, but continues to avoid motor racing. But England is too savvy to waste time on this hoary old subject. This modern age of austerity and the lingering stain of the Blair/Ecclestone tobacco scandal from over 13 years ago means the door is firmly shut on that one.
Instead, the extra revenue is borrowed from the bank and, significantly, from Northamptonshire County Council. Local government sees the benefit of a famous sporting venue within its borders — as do the businesses that cash in come British Grand Prix week.
As for Damon, he’s got other money worries to keep him occupied. He’s clearly nearer the end of his presidency than the beginning, and his attention looks set to be diverted to the stresses and financial strains of life as a racing dad. Son Josh has just finished his second year of Formula Ford and is showing promise.
So what would it take for a third-generation Hill to go all the way? Motor Sport has been told by one racing father that the cost of taking a young charger from karting to F1 is in the region of £6m these days, but Damon reckons that’s conservative. “You might as well say to yourself that you’re going to have to raise £10m, because once you’ve climbed all the steps and done two seasons in GP2, you might still have to buy a seat in F1. Ten million quid! This is something I’m grappling with on a day-to-day basis.” For Hill, it’s groundhog day. “When I was a young driver I was the most boring person you’d ever meet because all I went on about was howl was going to find a budget! I pestered people and they must have thought I was totally mad. Actually, I must have been mad to ever think I’d get through, but I was lucky. I got picked up by some people who invested in the sport and I never raised a bean, apart from in Formula Ford — that’s about it — and — that was only because someone took pity on me.
“In terms of a marketing sell it’s very difficult to justify at the lower levels. F1? It’s fine, there’s a value. But on the way up you are faced with a very interesting commercial challenge.”
Perfect understatement from the president, as usual.
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