The battle for Britain’s round of the Formula One World Championship intensifies by the week. Marcus Simmons steps back from the hype to find out which track stakes a better claim.
“The only thing that would make Brands Hatch compatible with the Grand Prix cars of today would be to put the coordinates for NATO aircraft right in the centre of it, bomb it and start all over again.”
Derek Warwick is a motor racing romantic, but there are limits to his love affair with the sport. Okay, two of the most memorable moments of his Grand Prix career came at Brands Hatch, first when he soared the 1982 Toleman-Hart ‘Belgrano’ into a temporary second place, then two years later when he finished runner-up with Renault. That still doesn’t change his view that, as a venue for Formula One cars, the book should have closed on the Kentish circuit when the teams packed up after the 1986 British Grand Prix.
“It’s a non-starter,” he continues, “on safety, environmental and boundary issues. On everything I know about Brands Hatch.”
Looking at the plans to radically re-develop this historic site to host the British GP from 2002, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to bring in the NATO planes. On the Grand Prix loop, only Westfield, which was re-profiled a decade ago, escapes the axe. Hawthorns has been sharpened, with Dingle Dell and Stirlings changed respectively into right and left-handed sweepers. And there’s the new pits and paddock along the old Pilgrim’s Drop. That’s despite Brands Hatch Leisure chief executive Nicola Foulston’s pledge that the changes are “a refinement instead of a rebuild.”
She might well say that, though. After all, the whole question of the substantial redevelopment required to bring Brands Hatch into line with modem Grand Prix racing takes motorsport into the tangled world of planning permission and public inquiries – something even Bernie Ecclestone could have no control over.
Ask any of the ‘old guard’ of British motorsport about the proposed move from Silverstone to Brands Hatch, and you’ll get a pretty negative response. Hardly surprising, seeing that as members of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, which owns Silverstone, they all have a vested interest in the event remaining at the self-proclaimed ‘Home of British Motor Racing’.
Talk to the teams and they’ll tell you that moving the race from Silverstone will make life considerably harder from a testing point of view. After all, with a housing estate backing directly onto Brand Hatch’s Grand Prix loop, the residents are unlikely to put up with Formula One cars pounding around day after day.
Jordan chief designer Mike Gascoyne is the only man in the Grand Prix paddock to have raced an F1 car at Brands Hatch this year (he drove a 1994 Tyrrell 022 – a car he designed – in a club race on the short Indy circuit on Easter Monday). “I can’t see Brands Hatch having 50 days of testing a year,” he asserts. “From that point of view it’s disappointing. Silverstone is a challenging track and good to set your car up on, with quick corners and slow-speed ones. Presumably Silverstone will still be available to go testing on, but it’s nice for the British teams to be able to test where we’ll have the British GP.
“Silverstone’s a good track and it would be a great shame (not to race there), but there’s a lot of water to pass under the bridge before it all gets sorted out. These are probably the opening shots in the battle. I can’t see how all the planning permission is going to happen – I’m not saying it won’t, but there are a lot of ‘ifs and buts’ about it.”
John Watson, winner of the 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, concurs. “I don’t know whether Nicola Foulston has been given permission to cut those trees down,” he points out. “It’s one thing having a four-day Grand Prix, but I just wonder what’s going to go down in the community.”
Foulston claims that planning permission for all the changes required – chopping down the wood, building the new pits complex and paddock and altering the track lay-out – will happen. She points out that planning permission at Brands goes back 75 years to its inception in 1924 as a bicycle racing track, and that its rights cannot be superceded by any changes in the law. For that reason, altering the profile of Graham Hill Bend last winter did not require planning permission.
What’s being discussed here, however, are ‘existing use’ land rights, which do not cover buildings. On top of that, an environmental impact assessment – a detailed study into the effects of any development on the local environment – will almost certainly have to be made. That takes months. Any environmental effect, or any departure from a site’s development plan (and many residents could say that re-construction of Brands’ circuit is exactly that) would mean a public inquiry. That could take years.
Brands points out that 3000 temporary jobs will be created by the Grand Prix. That, however, will possibly be of little importance to the residents. Kent is hardly renowned for runaway unemployment figures, and the extra labour which would have to be brought into the area would need accommodation.
But put that aside for a moment. Does Brands have, for want of a better word, more “fever” as a Grand Prix venue than Silverstone? The answer is probably yes.
“When I used to race at both circuits,” reminisces Warwick, “I preferred Brands any day. It was more demanding, there was more atmosphere. A great circuit. Silverstone at that time was quite plain and bland and open, and very fast.”
Watson adds: “The thing that Brands Hatch was always liked for was its topography and the natural amphitheatre of the Indy circuit. Until it lost the Grand Prix it was considered a great GP circuit. But the emphasis has changed now we’ve lost great tracks like the old Interlagos and Buenos Aires, and Watkins Glen.”
The teams loved the atmosphere at the Kent circuit too. Ian Harrison, team manager of the Williams Formula One team in 1994, remembers: “We organised a test at Brands Hatch with Nigel Mansell when he returned (from Indycar racing), and about 10,000 people turned up. On the little (Indy) circuit the atmosphere is the business, there’s no doubt about that. It’s in your face – even for touring cars.”
But that “in your face” element illustrates just why Brands has to be changed. “The paddock’s not big enough where it is,” continues Harrison, “and there’s not enough room to manoeuvre. Sometimes you have got to do radical things. Purists might say, ‘We like the old Brands Hatch’, but if that’s what they’ve got to do to get the race, that’s what they’ll do, I guess.”
Silverstone has had to make a lot of changes too, and these have been mainly positive, as least for the drivers. Watson points out: “Silverstone is one of the best circuits around. Copse is massive, Becketts is also massive, Stowe is a hell of a corner, Abbey, believe it or not, is a lot of fun, Bridge is a great corner and Priory is a bloody good one. We’ve done a good job.
“I’ll tell you what, Brands Hatch in its entirety would fit into some of the run-offs we have at Silverstone!”
That, though, while wholly admirable from a safety point of view, is part of the problem for the spectator. Silverstone is not a great place to watch racing cars. It’s flat and you’re miles away. It’s difficult to get in and out of (then again, so is Brands).
At the same time, however, it’s more of a purists’ venue less hype, less air displays and more racing than Brands ever had. Don’t forget, the BRDC isn’t responsible to shareholders. It ploughs its profits back into the sport, trying to improve Silverstone and supporting young drivers and the motorsport industry. That ethic extends to the experience of the Grand Prix weekend. It’s not just Fl, is it? It’s the whole package of support races too. Series such as the British Formula Three Championship not a money
spinner, but still vital for UK motorsport’s infrastructure and overseas credibility probably wouldn’t get a look-in at a Brands Grand Prix. Jeremy Lord, secretary of FOTA, which coordinates F3 for the BRDC and the British Automobile Racing Club, expands: “The BRDC do really well to get their own British championship races on. I think Brands would fall into line with the general European concept, which would be to have Fl and Formula 3000 and the paid-for races like the Porsche Supercup.” Which could leave us without British GTs, National Saloons and the MGF Cup not exactly the be-all and end-all of motorsport, but all
entertaining distractions over the Grand Prix weekend. At Brands, we’d also have an Fl track with a lap time of only
just over one minute, meaning a short race. Back in 1986, Piquet took pole position in 1m06.961s. The new track will have a slower Graham Hill Bend, Hawthorns and Clearways. But, on the other hand, it will be shorter and faster through Westfield, Dingle Dell and Stirlings, and there’ll have been 16 years of development. F! has often had a problem with sub-minute lap times. ‘There are no rules about it, but Kyalami and Dijon both came under pressure during the 1980s to do something about it.
Standing back and looking at the Brands vs Silverstone debate in everyday terms, so that you can see the wood for the pits complexes, the whole thing could be seen as a tremendous waste. To put it simply, why go to the expense both financially and environmentally of constructing a Grand Prix circuit when we already have one? “What’s the point,” asks Warwick, “in going out and spending all that money trying to develop a second circuit which will only end up destroying Silverstone? That’s of no benefit to anybody.
“It’s a bit like all these countries going out and fighting each other. All that will happen is that one will die, and that’s not good for motorsport.”