Donington GP plan might just work


While in Monaco, for the Motor Sport Business Forum, I heard the address given by Simon Gillett on the plans to hold the British Grand Prix at Donington Park, and came away more impressed than expected, I must say.

It will be remembered that the FIA, with gratuitous cruelty, chose the Friday of the 2008 Silverstone race weekend to make the announcement that the ’09 British Grand Prix would be the last to be run there, that henceforth the race would be held at Donington.

Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA statement insisted, had done everything possible to reach a new accommodation with Silverstone, but this had proved impossible. Bernie’s proposition made no financial sense to a circuit lacking in government support, and so the 60-year link with the British Grand Prix was finally being broken. The move to Donington had Ecclestone’s backing, and a 10-year deal had been signed.

To say that most in the paddock received the news with a blend of cynicism and disbelief would be an understatement. “Bernie’s got to lose some European races, because they don’t make enough money for CVC,” one team principal suggested, “and Silverstone’s a prime candidate – he’s always hated the BRDC, apart from anything else. But if Silverstone can’t make financial sense out of running the race, how the hell can Donington do it? This is just Bernie’s way of losing the British Grand Prix – when Donington can’t raise the money, he can say he tried but…”

There are some wicked cynics in F1, and none more so than in the press room, where the response was very similar. Gillett was present at Silverstone that weekend, and, when asked how he proposed to raise the estimated £100 million it would cost to bring the circuit up to F1-spec, and to satisfy BCE’s financial requirements to put on a race, said it would be achieved through a debenture scheme. That sounded more than a little optimistic, and one would have thought the chances of the plan’s succeeding have hardly been increased by the current financial meltdown.

However, Gillett refuses to contemplate failure – indeed, he says that all the doubters serve only to increase his determination to fulfil the ambition to bring the race to Donington.

Anyone who attended the one-off European Grand Prix at the circuit in 1993 will need no reminding of Donington’s perennial traffic problems. The race, run on Easter Sunday and in foul weather, attracted only a small crowd, yet it took for ever to get in and out of the place. MotoGP fans will tell you the same story to this day, even though so many are on bikes rather than in cars.

How, then, to cope with a crowd venturing to the only Formula 1 race to be held in this country? ‘Park and ride’, that’s how. Cars, Gillett said, are not going to be welcomed to the track, and the plan is to have three large sites, well away from Donington, in which spectators will park, then travel on to the track by mass transit means. By this means, of course, traditional car parking areas at the circuit can be freed up for other purposes, such as larger-than-usual camping sites.

A real coup, it seemed to me, is the closure – for the duration of the race weekend – of East Midlands Airport, which is located right by the circuit. This will not only leave at the airport free for ‘race only’ flights, but also make available a lot of space for people to ‘park and ride’. Given that the race will almost certainly be run in July, and that this airport traditionally operates a lot of ‘bucket and spade’ holiday flights, it’s remarkable that Gillett has managed to negotiate such a deal.

Accessibility by train is also high on the agenda. A new station, East Midlands Parkway, is to be built on the main London-Nottingham line, and dedicated ‘British Grand Prix’ trains will arrive there from St Pancras (a two-hour journey), after which travellers will be bussed into the circuit.

A good deal of sound thinking seems to have gone into the sheer logistics of accommodating a Grand Prix crowd at Donington, and Gillett was nothing if not plausible in his presentation.

There remains a strong ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ current running through F1 when it comes to the 2010 British Grand Prix at Donington Park, not least because people – even before the economic meltdown – simply couldn’t see how Gillett and his team were going to raise the necessary cash. Some believe that Donington will be cut some financial slack by Ecclestone, others that Bernie may himself be among the investors.

When, recently, plans for a Grand Prix at Disneyland Paris or whatever it’s called were cancelled, Ecclestone said it was vitally important that somehow the French Grand Prix should survive. We must hope he entertains similar feelings about the land of his birth.

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