Will Gray

Does F1 need England?

Will Gray

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As Abu Dhabi prepares to become the 28th nation to host a grand prix, Silverstone officials are desperately trying to secure the future of the British event - but does F1 really need to race at 'home'?

Bernie Ecclestone has been making a concerted effort to spread his world across the globe in recent years and he proved he does not care too much for tradition when he dropped the long-standing French Grand Prix last year, leaving Britain as the only country to have run a race every year since the start of the F1 World Championship in 1950.

As the calendar has morphed, the British race has survived its fair share of threats to its future. But now, after the Donington debacle, it is perhaps facing its biggest fight of all.

When the race was taken from Silverstone's hands for the next 17 years with the promise of a revamped and modernised venue at Donington there was much scepticism. Most believed that, with Ecclestone and the Silverstone owners the BRDC at loggerheads over the circuit's future, it was simply a ploy to strengthen Ecclestone's position in the negotiations once it all fell apart.

Donington's intentions were good, but unfortunately the finances were not and, aside from destroying the success the Midlands circuit had enjoyed with MotoGP - which has now gone to Silverstone - the mess has also left the British Grand Prix in doubt again. But rather than strengthening Ecclestone's negotiations, Silverstone are trying to use the situation to battle for a fair deal.

Ecclestone is still demanding high rates for each race and Damon Hill, the BRDC president, claimed F1 can get value globally far in excess of the UK. But rumours of a cut-price deal for Canada next year could put negotiations, which are believed to be going on at the Yas Marina circuit this weekend, in Silverstone's favour.

During those discussions you can just imagine Ecclestone pointing out the lush surroundings as the reason Britain is falling behind in comparison to the modern F1 venues, but Silverstone officials will no doubt counter that with promises of a planned £25m revamp and point to the fact they need a viable long-term contract to achieve that development without the financial farce Donington suffered.

But if there is one thing Ecclestone does not like doing it's losing a bargaining battle, especially when it's against the BRDC.

F1 already has 18 races on its calendar for next year, albeit with a few as provisional, but Ecclestone has been happy to run with 17 and even 16 races in the recent past and could easily do so again.

The arguments for the British Grand Prix may be vocally strong, but some would say they are structurally weak. F1 survives on its global television popularity, sponsors are now global brands who look for global exposure and top-class hospitality. Britain may have some of the best F1 fans in the world, but having fans' bums on seats at the circuit is not something the sponsors, or for that matter Ecclestone (who gets his revenue from the venues no matter how full they are), is too concerned about. They want the best exposure for their brand and the best luxurious venues for their special guests. If you were them, what would you pick - a motorhome in the middle of a field in Northamptonshire or a purpose-built air conditioned hospitality box by the harbour in Abu Dhabi?

There are, of course, counter arguments to that. Just walking around the paddock it's clear the sport is still quite a British-dominated world. Sponsors may be global, but many of the key decision makers from those sponsors that are chosen to head up the F1 programmes are British and like the chance to sup their champagne close to home once in a while. Most of the teams, too, are British or still have British roots and although Ecclestone would probably not agree, their support for the British Grand Prix could, as it has in the past, prove to be a swaying factor - which is why Silverstone needs to work hard to make sure they have that support as they reach the crucial time in negotiations.

Every time the British Grand Prix is in doubt, the teams rally together to keep it on the calendar. But as Silverstone, like Donington, continues to promise upgrades but then never get round to them while circuits like Abu Dhabi present teams and sponsors with premium working conditions, minds may begin to sway.

It is important to keep tradition, but just look at football. The alteration of the European competitions from knock-out to league-based events (first with the UEFA Champions League and now the Europa Cup) has turned them into one of the biggest sports properties in the world, drawing top global sponsors and gaining global popularity. In contrast, the FA Cup, traditionally the British fans' favourite, and even, in some cases, the Premier League have become less of a focus for the top teams, who naturally seek the best impact for their sponsors to secure the best revenues for the club. Silverstone has that tradition, but you could argue the money is attracted elsewhere.

Britain is always complaining that it gets no support for the race from the UK government, as other nations do, but that will not change as a government spokesman, back in May, insisted it would "be a blow" to lose the British Grand Prix but the government could not directly help financially because they do not want a "state-sponsored" motor racing industry.

Despite that view, it is clear Britain's strong motor racing industry could suffer with the loss of its own home race. As a sport, however, Formula One has plenty of its own heritage and could easily put Britain down as another chapter in its ever-changing history.

In fact, a timely reminder of perhaps the sport's new direction came earlier this week when Williams, one of F1's most British of teams, signed a deal to set up a Technology Centre in Qatar's Science and Technology Park. They are not moving their F1 operations there, of course, but they are using the location to develop two F1-inspired R&D projects which take their F1 technologies and apply them to road car development.

Perhaps, then, Britain needs an F1 race more than F1 needs to race in Britain.

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