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Does the British GP have a future?

By Andrew Benson


Lewis Hamilton's McLaren at last year's British Grand Prix
Hamilton's success helps the British GP - but does not guarantee it

More than 90,000 people will descend on Silverstone on Sunday to watch the British Grand Prix, one of the nation's premier sporting events.

But there is a possibility that the event may not continue beyond next year when the track's contract to hold the the race expires.

The British Racing Drivers' Club, which owns the track, is in negotiations for a new deal with Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone.

In what has become a familiar tale of brinksmanship, the 77-year-old has questioned the race's future, saying he does not think the track can afford to host the race.

So is the British GP nearing the end of the road?

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

There is a significant difference between the price Ecclestone wants a circuit to pay for a Grand Prix - and which he gets from several of the government-backed venues in places such as China and Malaysia - and what Silverstone is prepared to pay.

Up to a point, Ecclestone will accept less from Silverstone to guarantee the race, but he is only willing to go so low - and he wants certain things in return.

Chief among these is for the circuit and its infrastructure to come up to his exacting aspirations.

Silverstone is an old airfield, and while there is nothing fundamentally wrong with its facilities, they are pretty spartan compared to those at some of the newer venues.

CAN SILVERSTONE AFFORD F1'S PRICE?

Ecclestone is believed to be asking 11m for the first year of the new contract, with a 5% year-on-year escalator - up from 7m for the first year of the previous contract, which was similarly index-linked.

I would not presume because we have Lewis Hamilton contending for the world championship, that guarantees the future of the British Grand Prix

Damon Hill
That is peanuts compared with what, say, China, pays him, but it is a considerable amount for what is essentially a private members' club.

The BRDC believes it has a duty to protect Silverstone for the nation. It recognises that it is important to hold a Grand Prix, but it is not prepared to bankrupt itself for one.

The BRDC's problem is that its ability to raise money out of the Grand Prix is limited to ticket sales - everything else, such as trackside advertising, is owned by F1 - and you can only charge so much for a ticket before people refuse to buy them.

That explains why the BRDC has come up with an attempt to raise more money in its plans to redevelop the track.

The plans include not only the new F1 facilities demanded by Ecclestone, such as a new pit and paddock complex, but also a business park, two hotels, a university campus and a new housing development nearby.

WHY CAN'T THE GOVERNMENT HELP?

Silverstone is now one of very few F1 tracks that does not have some form of funding from central government, and that makes its position very difficult.

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone
Ecclestone wants a British GP - but only at his price
The likes of China, Turkey, Malaysia, Bahrain and, from next year, Abu Dhabi are prepared to pay huge sums to get an F1 Grand Prix because they see it as a virtually unparalleled way of promoting themselves globally.

Silverstone is not in that position, and nor is the UK.

The problem confronting anyone seeking government assistance with the funding of a British GP is that F1 is seen as awash with cash - which is true, up to a point - so from an image point of view, spending public money of it would not go down well.

Why line the pockets of already exceedingly rich men, the argument goes, with money that could be used for schools, hospitals and the environment?

Equally, the current UK government got its fingers badly burned in previous dealings with Ecclestone, when Prime Minister Tony Blair was accused in 1997 of exempting F1 from a tobacco advertising ban in exchange for a 1m donation to the Labour Party.

However, many in F1 have pointed out that the few million it would cost to guarantee the British GP pale into insignificance - and, some would say, offer better value, given the size of the motorsport industry in the UK - than the 9bn-plus being spent on the 2012 Olympics.

AREN'T "HISTORIC" F1 TRACKS PROTECTED?

Not any more. From 1981 until last year, F1 was governed by something called the Concorde Agreement, which gave protected status to four traditional races - Britain, France, Monaco and Italy.

But the Concorde Agreement lapsed last year, and while negotiations to renew it are ongoing, they have hit a major snag - Ecclestone disagrees with Max Mosley, the president of governing body the FIA, about certain fundamental structures of the sport.

606: DEBATE
Davidp61
There is a power battle going on and while that war wages all sorts of other issues that used to be defined are up in the air, so the position of those tracks is no longer guaranteed.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that a private equity company called CVC owns 86% of F1 Group, and Ecclestone - while he is also a shareholder as well as chief executive - is effectively its employee, and as such can no longer do exactly what he wants.

Ecclestone still wields more power than anybody else in F1 but, to some extent, he is now answerable to CVC and its shareholders.

Silverstone is one of the great challenges to a modern Grand Prix driver, but that is not enough to secure its future.

DOES LEWIS HAMILTON MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Hamilton is F1's new poster boy, and he seems set to have a leading role in the sport for at least the next decade.

But while there is no doubt that his presence boosts the profile of the sport in this country, that does not necessarily have any relevance to the future of his home race.

Formula One cars pass by the BRDC headquarters at Silverstone
Silverstone's facilities need to be upgraded to secure the British GP
While Hamilton is important to the future success of the British GP as an event, that is not the same as his presence securing the existence of the race.

As BRDC president Damon Hill puts it: "Lewis is very important for the future of the British Grand Prix. You cannot deny that.

"For any Grand Prix, to have a homegrown hero leading the championship is going to make a difference to the event.

"But I would not presume because we have Lewis Hamilton contending for the world championship, that guarantees the future of the British Grand Prix."

To put it another way, when Mika Hakkinen was world champion there was no perceived need for a Finnish Grand Prix.

And lots of new tracks have been introduced to the F1 calendar over the last few years, but not one of them has a representative on the grid.

ARE ECCLESTONE'S THREATS TO DITCH THE RACE SERIOUS?

That is the $64m question to which no-one - except Ecclestone himself - knows the answer.

When it comes down to it, as Red Bull driver and BBC Sport columnist Mark Webber puts it, F1 "is Bernie's train set and he can put the rails down as he likes".

He has ultimate power over the calendar, and he has already made it clear he is prepared to see certain much-loved and historic venues fall away.

The San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy was one example - no-one in F1 really believed he would drop a race in Ferrari's home country, held at a track steeped in history and which also happened to be one of the most popular venues with those in the F1 paddock. But he did.

Ecclestone is well aware of his power, and he has wielded it to force much-needed improvements out of both Silverstone and government.

Among these has been the A43 bypass that has completely transformed access to the track - the five-hour queues of a few years ago now seem consigned to history.

There is no doubt that, in an ideal world, Ecclestone would like to keep a British Grand Prix on the calendar.

But there is also no doubt that money talks loudest in F1.

Ecclestone would be a brilliant poker player and, in a game in which he holds all the cards, trying to bluff him would be an unwise strategy.




see also
Hamilton upbeat for Silverstone
26 Jun 08 |  Formula One
British Grand Prix is a sell-out
05 Jun 08 |  Formula One
Mark Webber column
02 Jul 08 |  Formula One
Silverstone pit complex approved
30 May 08 |  Formula One
British GP is essential - Button
04 Dec 07 |  Formula One
F1 boss renews Silverstone attack
20 Nov 07 |  Formula One
Silverstone vows to reward fans
09 Jul 07 |  Formula One
Around Silverstone with an F1 star
05 Jul 07 |  Formula One
Hamilton 'could save British GP'
19 Jun 07 |  Formula One
How Blair put the media in a spin
10 May 07 |  UK Politics


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