Lunch with... Jonathan Palmer

It has taken an ex-Formula 1 driver with a hard business head to turn four well-loved British race tracks back to profit, as Simon Taylor finds out
Photography: James Mitchell

By 2003 the circuits developed over four decades by John Webb had, under subsequent owners, fallen into a parlous state. Brands Hatch, Oulton Snetterton and Cadwell Park, loved by generations of racers and fans, were run-down and shabby, with losses running at £3 million a year.

When the whole lot came on the market that May, the vendors shortlisted five bids. The lowest came from Jonathan Palmer, the ex-F1 driver who'd built a successful corporate track-day business at his Bedford Autodrome. But at the end of the process it was Palmer's bid that was still standing. By January 2004 the tracks were his — at a price of £15 million, with further payments subject to future performance.

After less than three years the changes wrought by Palmer and his team are remarkable. All four tracks are smart and efficiently run, with more and better events, and the spectators' enjoyment has been given top priority. The dubious quality of Brands Hatch hamburgers used to be a standing joke, so I suggest to Jonathan that the right place to meet for lunch is the Brands circuit restaurant, the Kentagon.

It's Monday, and a test day is in full swing. The grass is mown, the hedges are trimmed, the paint is bright, and everything is scrupulously tidy. Jonathan's vivid blue Twin Squirrel helicopter sits on the helipad outside the MotorSport Vision offices above Clark Curve. All staff, from Jonathan himself down to the office juniors, wear the same smart uniform — white shirt with red logo and black trousers or skirt. In the Kentagon Jonathan greets each waitress by name, and walks briskly along the self-service counter with a spoon, sampling several dishes to ensure they meet his standards. Then he selects a healthy prawn salad and a bottle of water.

At 49, he is a coiled spring of energy. He was a medical student when he started racing a Frogeye Sprite in his teens. Next came a Marcos, and then a serious assault on Formula Ford. The steely Palmer determination and capacity for graft were already evident: by working 20-hour days he managed to keep racing successfully and still qualify as a doctor. Then he took a year off to do F3, and became British Champion. That was the end of medicine. Two years in F2 culminated in the European title, and Fl beckoned. After three seasons with RAM and Zakspeed he found a home at Tyrrell.

"I won the Jim Clark Cup in 1987 for top non-turbo driver, and for 1989 my team-mate was Michele Alboreto, who'd been a winner with Ferrari. Inevitably you try to beat your team-mate, and I got the upper hand. Michele didn't like it and left mid-season. His replacement was Jean Alesi, who was young and brilliant, and basically he blew me away. That was the end of my F1 career.

"I manoeuvred myself into McLaren as a test driver, then into a Group C Porsche, and finally touring cars. I only kept racing because I wanted to maintain some income and profile while I decided what to do with the next phase of my life. As a driver I'd had no parental money, no fairy godmother. I always had to hustle, find my own sponsorship, do my own deals. That makes you pushy, and I found I was good at it. I probably enjoyed the business side too much. If I'd stayed in the gym, sat on the beach in Monaco and just gone racing, perhaps I'd have gone further in F1.

"Part of what I used to do for sponsors was organise track days, and I was appalled by what I found. The circuits were scruffy, the people looked a mess, the cars broke down, the organisation was poor. So I looked for somewhere to run corporate events myself. For a time I rented Bruntingthorpe on a day-rate basis, but I needed my own venue to get proper control of things. I scoured the country, and in 1993 I found another disused aerodrome near Bedford. It took six years to acquire it, get the planning permission, and develop it into Bedford Autodrome. I borrowed the money to do it, half on the security of my own property and half guaranteed by two friends, John Britten and Sir Peter Ogden. John's an ex-racer who's run several successful businesses; Peter co-founded Computacenter, which floated in 1998 for £1.1 billion.

"Bedford opened in 1999, and started to do well very quickly. It's now busy six days a week, hosting events for up to 120 people a day. It's the most successful facility of its type in the world. I was keen to expand the business, so when the circuits came on the market in 2003 I thought I'd better put my hat in the ring. I didn't really expect to end up buying them, but I knew I had the credentials to take over what was pretty much a basket-case business. Within the first two months we'd pared the headcount down from 200 to 125. We had the challenge of smartening everything up, with fewer people, and moulding a new management team. But most of the staff were very good, they were excited by the change of ownership. Investment had been minimal for a long time. Snetterton's capital expenditure budget was £23,000 a year. We've already spent £650,000 there."

Jonathan owns 60 per cent of the business: Ogden and Britten each hold 20 per cent. He is the only executive director. "You've only got to look at the Silverstone situation to realise the benefits of running your own business and taking your own decisions, without needing agreement from a large board made up of differing interests.

"The main centres are Brands Hatch and Bedford, with about 80 staff at each, and the administrative HQ at Southwater, which is a mile from my home in Sussex. I'm in the office there by 6.45 each morning, do two or three hours and then go off in the helicopter to whichever circuits I'm visiting that day. Then I fly back to Southwater to see what's going on and check my e-mails. I work pretty much seven days a week. I go to every major event and some of the club meetings too, so it's usually both days of a weekend. But this weekend I was only at OuIton on Saturday. On Sunday I was in the office from 6.30am until 1 lam, and then went home to spend the rest of the day with the kids doing things in the pool and on our motorbikes." Jonathan has four children aged from 17 to nine. His 15-year-old, Jolyon, is already racing T Cars in a team with Martin Brundle's son, Alex.

"People might call me a bad delegator, but that's because I have very high standards about how I want things done. I'm very intolerant of mediocrity. Obviously you don't run a £30 million business with 220 full-time staff, and over 550 during the season, without delegating a huge amount. But I don't take too much as read. I want to see for myself. It's not only the big questions — how good is the racing, what's the gate like. It's the details, too. I swing open the door of every loo I pass, listen to see if I can hear the commentary, have a bite of a sausage, look at the litter bins. As I fly in I take aerial photographs — where are the traffic queues? Are the car parks filling up right? I watch the racing with the spectators, ask for their comments. There's always something you can tease out of people. In our programmes I invite comments and criticisms, with an e-mail address. Some of the respondents are having a rant, but most say something sensible. I always reply; sometimes I pick up the phone.

"It's like having a lovely big train set. But my weakness is that I want the train set to be absolutely right. So I do things which might not make business sense in the short term. But if you get the detail right, the business will follow.

"For a club meeting at Brands we'd expect about 5000 spectators. The organising club hires the track and gets the entry fees. We get the track fee and the gate at £10 a time, say £8.50 before VAT. It costs about £2 per spectator to get them in, direct the parking, keep the loos clean, pick up the litter, or more like £3 for the bigger events. Circuit hire fees vary, but it's roughly £20,000 a day for the Brands Indy circuit. Oulton is around £18,000, Snetterton £10,000.

"The key managers in the business work extremely hard. Giles Butterfield, who has a racing background, is my operations chief. Standard working hours are 8.30 to 6, but a lot of people are doing 12-hour days. What can be very frustrating, when we're all fully stretched running a fragile business, is dealing with some local authorities. If there's one thing that'll push any of us out of this business, it'll be the bureaucrats. We can't help thinking Sevenoaks District Council are rather anti-Brands Hatch with their approach on a number of issues, which is disappointing. We're a significant contributor to the local economy: our rates bill, just for Brands, is £700,000 a year.

"Half my time is taken up with regulatory issues — noise, health and safety. Circuits are massively quieter than they were 30 years ago when everybody ran unsilenced. For club events and track days it's important we don't make any more noise than we need to, but for the major events it's part of the entertainment. With today's technology, F1 cars could be made to run as quietly as road cars, but noise is part of the show. Live8 in Hyde Park with everybody listening on headsets wouldn't be up to much.

"We've got to concentrate on getting the entertainment better. We can do that by influencing the racing. Some of it is nothing like as good as it should be, to get people on the edge of their seats. NASCAR shows how it can be done. British Touring Cars has come a long way, but I don't think we're there yet. I'm very conscious that there are fewer personalities now. Here at Brands, for example, I remember the big following for Gerry Marshall and Nick Whiting. It's something we don't have now, and that does vex me. It's an opportunity: we need to have control over a championship so personalities can emerge.

"I have real empathy with historic racing. The HSCC runs some super meetings across all our circuits. We do want a major historic event at Brands Hatch, but it's not something to be rushed into. It would be easy to say, let's just do another Goodwood. Well, we can't do another Goodwood. We've got the Gold Cup at Oulton Park, and we're going to fettle and hone that until we've got it right. I'm ambitious, but cautious.

"At the moment we're not making a fortune, not at all. We make a profit, we're very careful to do that, and that includes proper investment back into the circuits. And there is a lot more potential, if I can get the recipe right. Somewhere out there is a method, a fresh approach, to make a lot of money out of race circuits. I'm going to find it."

So, having restored four ailing patients to rude health, Doctor Palmer's prescription for future fitness involves his personal vision of more entertaining racing. If hard work, attention to detail and belief in the product have anything to do with it, JP will make it happen.