A racing uncertainty
Silverstone had no option but to trigger the break clause in its British Grand Prix hosting contract in order to ensure the track’s future. The losses incurred by the Formula 1 fixture were described as “unsustainable” when circuit owner the British Racing Drivers’ Club announced its decision ahead of this year’s race in July.
Club chairman John Grant said it was time for Silverstone to “stop letting its heart rule its head”. He pointed to combined losses for the Grand Prix over the past two years of £7.6 million and an estimated shortfall from this year’s event of £3-5 million.
The rising losses have resulted from a five per cent increase in the fee paid to Formula 1 under the terms of the 17-year contract that began in 2010. That would have meant the initial £11.5 million fee to host the grand prix rising to £25 million by 2026.
Silverstone was required to give two years notice in order to break the contract, meaning that the 2019 Grand Prix will now be the last unless the BRDC can negotiate a revised deal with new F1 owner Liberty Media. It waited until the last possible moment before informing Liberty’s Formula One Group that it was exercising the option, which explained the timing of the move made on the Tuesday morning before the Grand Prix.
“This decision has been taken because it is not financially viable for us to deliver the British GP under the terms of our current contract,” said Grant. “We have reached the tipping point where we can no longer let our passion for the sport rule our heads. It would not only risk the very future of Silverstone and the BRDC, but also the British motor sport community that depends on us.
“We are not prepared to continue to lose money [on the GP]. We have had to make this decision to protect our position. Grass-roots motor sport shouldn’t subsidise top-level motor sport – that is the wrong way around.”
Liberty’s F1 boss, Chase Carey, accused Silverstone of posturing by invoking the break and claimed that it had offered an extension to the deadline to avoid detracting from this year’s race. But Grant insisted that Silverstone had “one legal opportunity” to call time on the existing contract.
Silverstone managing director Stuart Pringle claimed that it was unfair to describe Silverstone’s move as posturing.
“We are not being threatening or squaring up to Liberty,” he explained. “We think they are thoroughly good news for F1. There are open lines of communication between us and Liberty. There’s a good relationship and that includes an operational relationship as we get ready to go into our biggest weekend of the year.”
SILVERSTONE STILL WANTS THE GP
The message from Silverstone and the BRDC is that they are very much committed to hosting the Grand Prix, but not at any cost.
“Our objective is to keep the Grand Prix,” said Grant. “If we don’t, I believe it will be a failure and I also believe it will be for Liberty as well. The good news is that we have two years to find a solution. I am very hopeful that by the time we get to 2019, we will have found that solution.
“The starting point is very positive. They have made it clear they want to preserve the important European Grands Prix and that Silverstone is one of those. I think we want to achieve the same result, so it is a question of how we get there. Our hope is that an agreement can still be reached so that we can ensure a financially sustainable future for the British GP at Silverstone for many years to come.”
A SILVERSTONE ALTERNATIVE?
Grant described Silverstone as the “only viable venue for a British GP”. He is correct in that no other circuit in the UK, Donington Park and Brands Hatch included, has the necessary FIA grade 1 track licence, or even the volition to bid for an F1 race.
Carey has made much of his desire to increase the number of city races on the F1 calendar and rumours about a possible British GP venue on public roads in the Docklands area of east London surfaced in the build-up to Silverstone’s announcement. That has followed the closed-roads legislation in the 2015 Deregulation Bill that will smooth the path to public highways being used for motor sport in the future. Liberty also hosted a spectacular live F1 event in London, during which teams paraded their cars on the city streets, a day after the Silverstone announcement.
But Grant dismissed the idea of a London Grand Prix.
“In the view of a lot of experts, the London Grand Prix is not viable, financially or environmentally, and I agree with them,” he said.
London mayor Sadiq Khan, like predecessor Boris Johnson, is a fan of the FIA’s Formula E electric-vehicle series and his team has had discussions with championship boss Alejandro Agag about the return of a London fixture. Khan said that he was open to London hosting major sporting events, but claimed there had been “no formal approach” about a race in Docklands.
Site will not be sold
The idea of Liberty Media buying Silverstone to preserve the British GP has been dismissed by the BRDC. It reiterated a position first outlined in February this year that it is no longer talking to potential purchasers.
“Selling Silverstone is not actually on our agenda at this moment,” said Grant. “We are open to consider all alternatives with Liberty to find a sustainable future for the GP. Having said that, we have also stated in recent months that it is the BRDC’s strategic direction now not to sell Silverstone circuit. We don’t think we need to sell it.
“We see ourselves, and have seen ourselves for almost 70 years, as the guardian of British motor sport, not just F1 but the whole of British motor sport. We think that having the BRDC retain ownership of Silverstone helps to achieve that long-term objective.”
The BRDC was in discussions with a number of potential buyers last year, which were known to include Jaguar Land Rover, Jonathan Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision circuit group and Ginetta Cars boss and BRDC member Lawrence Tomlinson. An upturn in the track’s business following changes in the management structure of the wholly-owned BRDC subsidiary Silverstone Circuits Ltd, as well as a push to diversify its activities, have resulted in the new stance.
COMMITMENT TO MOTOR SPORT
Silverstone will continue to host international motor sport events even if the Grand Prix does not return. Pringle pointed out that the circuit will begin hosting Britain’s round of the World Rallycross Championship next year and that it was committed to retaining its place on the World Endurance Championship calendar.
“Top-level motor sport is a key part of our make-up,” said Pringle. “It defines the brand, but we also need a broader base to the business.”
The Silverstone Experience, a new visitor centre due to open in April 2019, is part of that drive. It is hoped that it will help attract a new audience to Silverstone and its events. Whether any of this will be enough to replace F1 remains to be seen.