The news that Donington Park has passed the planning hurdle to redevelop its circuit in time to host the 2010 British Grand Prix has been received with caution and reserve by the motor sport community. There remains plenty of scepticism over chief executive Simon Gillett and his team achieving their ambition of bringing Formula 1 back to the Leicestershire circuit for the first time since 1993.
Gillett knows he won’t convince anyone that Donington can actually honour its contract with Bernie Ecclestone. The doubts will remain until the venue is ready and Ecclestone has given the green light to signal that it’s up to his exacting standards.
There remains the hardly insignificant question of how Gillett will raise the £100 million required to fund the project through a debenture scheme, which he plans to explain to the outside world at the end of March. Then there is the traffic problem. North West Leicestershire District Council granted planning permission on the proviso that a Grand Prix traffic management scheme meets with its approval. The popular prediction of F1 at Donington is gridlock and total traffic chaos.
Unsurprisingly, Gillett has an armoury of replies to the doubters. At the Autosport International Racing Car Show in Birmingham last weekend Motor Sport took the opportunity to ask Gillett a few questions. Here is what he had to say. Does he convince you? We’d love to hear what you think.
Q: You want people to travel to Donington via public transport. How will that work?
A: “We’ll do it in phases by having park and walk first and foremost. People will get the idea that driving and then walking is actually not as good as getting on the train and then on a bus, then getting out of your grandstand seat, getting back on your bus and being at the train station in 15 minutes, and in London from two hours of leaving the Grand Prix – that’s what I want to do. People will get the idea, and we will get better at it. People will get better at planning their day around it, and that’s how it will happen.
“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’. The die-hards I’m sure will say they are not turning up unless they can rev their car up in the car park, but the percentage that won’t turn up will be more than offset by the people who say ‘I don’t have to sit in a car park for four hours, I can just turn up and have a great day’.
Has the park and ride idea come from other sports?
“When I first came to the idea of getting the circuit I hadn’t turned to any other circuit to find out how to run one. I have turned to horse racing, rugby and football. All these sports that are out there forging ahead and changing the business model to make the customers’ experience better.”
Is that something you recognised that motor sport needed to do?
“People ask me why did I get to this point, acquiring the circuit. It happened because I was absolutely peed off with the treatment I got as a motor sport spectator. It got to the point where, like every British person, I moaned about it for years and then I finally thought, when I’d got rid of my last software company, I’m going to do something about it.”
Were there any particular events where you experienced these problems?
“I couldn’t possibly comment! When I spoke to Tom Wheatcroft originally about buying the circuit [on a 150-year lease], it wasn’t about money. While of course it was a consideration, the bit that got me through the door with Tom was when he asked why are you different to everyone else who is offering me cash? I said I want to talk about three things: security, food and toilets. I’ve always said this – they are the three elements that make a good day. Why when you turn up at an event is the first person you meet someone who doesn’t want you to get in? I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. That has to change. Look at Asda 10 years ago. You used to walk in with a flat-peaked security guard there saying ‘don’t nick anything’. Now you’ve got ‘Hi, my name is Bill, I’m happy to help, come in, what can I do for you?’ Fundamental difference.
“On food, the polystyrene thing with a polystyrene burger in it – gone. People still want burgers, but what’s wrong with ciabatta with a 100 per cent beefburger?
“As for toilets, there will be no blue plastic toilets. As part of the planning application we are putting in eight permanent toilet blocks on the site, while under the suite we are putting in another four toilet blocks. There will be hundreds of permanent traps, we will man them to death and make sure they are clean.
“If you do the basics right, and allow people to get in and out easily, all of a sudden it’s just down to the racers to do their bit.”
How 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 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]. Look at the plans for every media centre pretty much around the world and it’s 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’s over] you are left with this empty hanger. What we are doing is building a 500-seat stepped auditorium with a big [screen] at the front. When you guys leave for 363 days of the year I’ve got a 500-seat auditorium that holds conferences, product launches, whatever it may be. That’s what’s commercially viable. Building a media centre is millions of pounds down the toilet. You’ll use it for MotoGP, World Superbikes etc, for maybe 10 days a year. You can’t sustain eight million pounds for 10 days’ usage, especially as you guys don’t pay for it! It will be absolutely fit for purpose for the media on the day, but it comes with added benefits. There’s roof-top viewing covering all of the circuit, it’s fully air-conditioned, it’s got a canteen, it’s got everything.”
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. How we fund the business, you take 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 for everything with the ticketing fee.”
What’s the situation with the airport and how are you going to work with it?
“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. We have a great relationship.”
Is it right that there is a technical problem for the airport with the teams putting up transmitters?
“Putting up a high pole is always going to be a problem with aeroplanes coming into land! Everyone forgets we run MotoGP, F1 is not the only big show in town. We run the MotoGP event quite happily. Yes, what we can’t allow them to do is stick up a satellite and transmit directly into the flight path of the planes. But the flight path for the planes is about 150 metres wide, so if it’s 151m that way or the other they can do whatever the hell they want. Normal transmissions etc, not a problem at all.”
What’s the truth about how aviation fuel affects the circuit?
“Would we get an FIM bike licence to run bikes round there if every time it rained the bikers fell off? I’ve realised what we have is strategic bombing because the only places it affects people are at Coppice and the middle of the Craners, which oddly enough are the two most technical corners on the circuit! I’ve never heard about it being a problem at Goddards, the Melbourne loop or Redgate. They throw it in the kitty litter at Coppice and say ‘bloody aviation fuel, it’s shocking!’ If we had that problem the circuit would be purple and just oily. The other thing I’d say is take the residents around Heathrow; how many of them wake up in the morning and have to wipe the grime of aircraft fuel from their windscreen? Aeroplanes are pretty fuel-tight.”
What’s the timescale for each stage of development? You must have your own deadlines and Bernie’s to meet.
“It’s started. Construction began two weeks ago. 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  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?
“Absolutely. One of the councillors, the chairman of the council, said it’s like winning the Olympics every year for the next 10 years. I thought that was a fantastic quote from him and that’s the genuine feeling from them. The difference between us and the Olympics is that the taxpayer isn’t picking up the tab.”
Are there plans for road development from the M1 to the circuit?
“No. We’ll look at that in time. The thing is, we’ve got a race in 18 months. Planning the highways, compulsory purchase orders, road widening – it might be ready for 2020. So it can’t form part of our plan. Yes, we’ll always look to improve the road network around us but all that serves is for people to say ‘I’ll just be lazy and drive’. 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.”
What sort of relationships have you built up with the F1 community, aside from Bernie?
“I’ve got some friends that 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’ve just been thinking about delivering. 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.”
The financial crisis is obviously on everyone’s minds. How do you feel about it?
“I’ve got positives and negatives on the financial crisis at the moment. Obviously it’s a challenging time out there for anything. We’re lucky that our debenture scheme, our fundraising, is a long way down the track, we’re established and it works over a long period. We went for a 10-year contract because you can invest and get a return over 10 years. If we had a three- or five-year contract I think we’d have problems right now. But because of the longevity we all know what the market will be like in five or 10 years’ time: it will be completely different to what we’ve got at the moment. We’ve got a microcosm of panic at the moment. That will change and the people who are with us and supporting us understand that we have 18 months before we get there, so it’s 11 and a half years [from now]. The positive thing is that if you want a builder right now, it isn’t hard to find one! We have the best construction companies working for us and that gives us amazing confidence to deliver.”