Donnington's British GP: will it really happen?

Donington Park’s bullish chief executive continues to fly in the face of widespread scepticism over his ambitious plans to host the 2010 British GP, as work to upgrade the circuit, its facilities and infrastructure steps up a pace to meet the deadlines set by Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Simon Gillett remains defiant that Donington is a realistic alternative to Silverstone and will “deliver” on its promises, having won a 10-year contract to host the race from next year. On January 8 a significant milestone was passed as North-West Leicestershire District Council granted planning permission for the heavy revisions to Donington, which include the addition to the track of an infield loop and a new pit and paddock complex. The diggers have already moved in to begin work on an infield access tunnel.

But this has not been enough to satisfy many doubters. The question remains whether Gillett’s team really can raise a total of £100 million to complete the project, via a debenture scheme due to be revealed in March. And a controversial plan to rely on public transport to get the crowds in and out of the circuit has given more ammunition to the sceptics.

The morning after the planning permission was granted, Motor Sport spoke to Gillett to ask the big questions. Is he convincing? Judge for yourselves.

You want people to travel to Donington via public transport. How will that work?

“People will get the idea that driving and then walking is actually not as good as getting on the train and then a bus, then [at the end of the day] getting out of your grandstand seat, back on your bus and being at the train station in 15 minutes, and in London two hours after leaving the Grand Prix. Year one, everyone will kick and scream and moan. Year two, they’ll kick and scream and moan a little bit less. By year three, they’ll say ‘this is quite nice actually. I can have a drink on the train, have a drink at the circuit, enjoy myself and then get home’. I want it to be quite awkward to come to us in a car. I’ll make it expensive and I’ll make it awkward.”

Is it sustainable to run a Grand Prix over the long term? Even Singapore is said to have lost heavily for its first race…

“Well, I couldn’t comment on how the others make or lose money because I don’t know what their contracts are. I do know what my contract is and I know that the elements in there that enable us to make money will make it commercially viable. The other thing is not to focus on the GP. The media centre is one of the buildings I like to hold up [as an example]. [Most] media centres are a square box with hangers on the roof, and they bring in TV screens on the day, and you’ve got rented tables and chairs. When it goes you are left with this empty hangar. What we are doing is building a 500-seater stepped auditorium with a big [screen] at the front. When you guys leave for the other 363 days of the year I’ve got a 500-seater auditorium that serves conferences, product launches, whatever it may be. That’s what’s commercially viable.”

So do you expect to make a loss in the first year and then make it up in other areas?

“No. The construction is completely separate. We fund the business by taking the two things apart. The debenture scheme looks after the capital cost of construction. The ticket income and everything else we have from our contract takes care of the inscription fee. So we are not trying to pay everything with the ticketing fee.”

How are you going to work with the neighbouring East Midlands airport?

“We’ve got a great relationship with the airport. The MD and I meet very often. We’re looking to give them as much commercial benefit as we can. At the moment the exact commercial benefit is unquantified and as it firms up I know they will do what they have to do to secure that business.”

What’s the timescale for each stage of development?

“We intend to have the construction finished by the end of this year. Bernie is coming in September to make sure we’re doing something – quite rightly. If we haven’t done anything he’ll probably have some concern. But there’ll be a lot there. And then in April [2010] we have the FIA track inspection. We’re on course for all of that and they are two dates that have been planned for from the very beginning.”

And the council and everyone in the local area has been supportive of the project?

“Absolutely. One of the councillors, the chairman of the council, said it’s like winning the Olympics every year for the next 10 years. The difference between us and the Olympics is that the taxpayer isn’t picking up the tab.”

What sort of relationships have you built up with the F1 community, aside from Bernie?

“I’ve got some friends who are team principals. Bernie aside, I’ve made some good friendships in there. But to be honest we’ve just been getting on with working. You might have noticed I’ve not said an awful lot recently. I’m talking now because I’ve delivered something. I’ll go back into my little box now and get on with delivering, and you’ll hear from me at the end of March when I’m saying ‘here’s the debenture scheme, here’s what it costs, here’s what you get.’ And then I’ll go back to delivering again. That’s the message I want people to get from Donington: we’ll just deliver this.”