Silverstone today regained the British Grand Prix, without ever really losing it. The woes over at Donington Park allowed the Northamptonshire track – which has hosted the race exclusively since 1987 – to jump in and wrestle a seventeen-year contract from Bernie Ecclestone. But there are certain things that do not add up in this deal: Ecclestone’s sudden capitulation, the length of the agreement itself, and the remaining underdevelopment at the track. So what does it all mean?
Ecclestone has for years played hardball with the British Racing Drivers’ Club, which is based at the circuit and acts as promoter for the event. Throughout the last ten years, wrangles have been ongoing between the two parties. Ecclestone’s position was that as rights holder, he had a finite number of races to effectively give away, and that he could not give it to Silverstone for sentimental or historical reasons when its facilities were plainly not up to the standard set by newer venues and many potential hosts. The BRDC, meanwhile, pleaded a lack of government investment (something that many of the newer venues were flush with) and said they could not afford to upgrade by themselves. If they had a long contract, they promised, they could attract investors. An uneasy impasse lasted til 2008, when Ecclestone’s patience appeared to snap and he gave the rights to Donington Park.
Following the collapse of Donington’s bid, then, Bernie has now given the rights back to the little Northamptonshire village track. But why has he seemingly suddenly seen the light and acquiesced to the BRDC’s demands? It is rare that the great man makes decisions that are not designed to benefit his hand in some way. It might be that he believes offering the track this length of contract, it will finally be able to transform itself. Or it might just be, that in the space of the last year, he has come to appreciate the real worth of the old grands prix.
Ecclestone will have been as proud as any British racer to see Jenson Button clinch the world championship this year, especially a year after Lewis Hamilton’s famous triumph. With the two of them safely ensconced at the top British team, it is fair to say British motorsport is well and truly on top of the world, and undergoing something of a glory period. The FOM Chairman has always been keenly aware of the relationship between a national success and a rise in sponsorship, viewing figures and merchandising. Witness, for example, his promotion of two German races when Michael Schumacher was dominant, and the parallel manufacture of two Spanish races after Alonso’s success. Button and Hamilton are dynamite for the sport right now, and losing a British GP would be a blow to an awful lot of interests.
Continuing on the theme, Brawn’s rags-to-riches fairytale season has touched the hearts of many British armchair fans – and spectators’ involvement with comment and fansites is at an all-time high. The BBC’s mostly excellent and entirely wholehearted participation in F1 this season must also take its fair share of the credit. But Brawn are the really interesting case. Their story, of the triumph of British engineering and innovation over the moneyed opponents, will presumably have reminded Bernie of the earlier days of the sport. The callous attitude of the manufacturers – both they who have withdrawn and those who continue to wobble – will have reinforced this perception tenfold. F1 in the modern climate must be about these small, independent teams who have excellence as their byword. And an awful lot of them are, for the most part, British.
Not only that, but one of the best tracks in the world happens to be Silverstone. The Overtaking Working Group’s proposals to improve overtaking, implemented in 2009, manifestly failed to complete their remit. A growing clamour in the sport argues that overtaking and the excitement level of races are connected with circuit design. Silverstone rarely produces a dull race. Dull races, meanwhile, inevitably eventually have an effect on the number of people prepared to pay an extortionate price to watch the cars in racing action. The Turkish GP (despite not being at a track that is one of the worst offenders) was characterised this year by a poor attendance. Others will follow. By all means go to new countries, mix with the new money and the new cultures and spread the word, but do not risk the very raison d’etre of the sport, its heritage. So say many influential people.
These are just some of the factors that may well have convinced Ecclestone to return the British Grand Prix to its rightful home. Not a decision that was necessarily made for sentimental reasons, but one which was as ever made by him because it is in his, and the sport’s, long-term interest.