Will Gray

Gray Matter: Goodbye Britain?

Will Gray

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A former airfield in the middle of pristine English countryside, Silverstone has held the British Grand Prix for the last 23 years in succession but its tenure as the venue for the most historic race in Formula One is coming to an end this weekend.

The race moves to Donington from 2010 on a long-term contract, but just when the sport is entering one of the most unsteady periods in its lifetime, so the future of the British Grand Prix, whatever happens to the sport, remains under scrutiny.

Long-running disputes between Formula One ringleader Bernie Ecclestone and Silverstone's owners, the BRDC, have been in the headlines year after year, and it will be interesting to see what parting salvo Ecclestone will have for the venue this weekend.

Muddy car parks, limited access roads, poor road signage and an old-fashioned paddock have all been picked as problems in the past — yet each time the BRDC has done everything in their power to get the circuit, which hosted the first ever F1 race in 1950, up to scratch.

Grass car parks were replaced by gravel, the entrance route was improved, new signs were installed and a dramatic paddock revamp was promised — but that fell by the wayside due to a lack of funding and a reluctance from the government to back the event financially.

And that is the crux of the problem facing the British Grand Prix.

All of the recent new circuits have set a high standard but most have had some level of governmental financial support. Abu Dhabi is sure to step things up another level when it arrives on the calendar this year, and while Britain is the home of motorsport (there is no argument on that, considering the industry in &lsquoMotorsport Valley') you have to develop to stay in the game.

Wembley football stadium was recently redeveloped with the benefit of £161m of government funding - £120m from the lottery, £20m from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and £21m from the London Development Agency. But the Football Association almost matched that, with £148m, and commercial lenders more than doubled it, bringing £433m to the table.

Wimbledon has a new roof for Centre Court, which cost more than £200m to build, but the Lawn Tennis Association had no public money coming their way to pay for it. They financed it, as they did their new Number One court, with a debenture scheme — the same sort of idea Donington is proposing for their redevelopment.

Donington recently claimed it needs just £30m — down from £80 due to the recession apparently cheapening building costs — but the debenture scheme that was due to start in March lost its banking backer. It seems a new one has been found, though, and it is now scheduled to be unveiled next month.

In Wimbledon's case, the debenture scheme involved selling the option to buy a specific seat in Centre Court over five years for £25,000 each. What Donington's offer will be remains to be seen — but the challenge now is that less people will be willing to spend that sort of money on that sort of thing.

Silverstone has overcome pitfalls in the past, and there is no reason to doubt Donington either. So far they have secured planning permission, overcome legal disputes with the owners and, it seems, found a new solution after losing financing.

But while Donington's owners insist they are on schedule, there is a very real chance that at least next year could be without a British Grand Prix, because Ecclestone has offered them a one-year breathing space before running the race there in 2011.
But what would Formula One be without a British Grand Prix?

I lose count of the times I have headed to Silverstone 'for the last time' in recent years, only to find it back on the calendar the following year. So with everything still up in the air, what chance a return in 2010...?



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