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Donington F1 deadline passes; Silverstone waits...

27 October 2009

What was ostensibly the final deadline for Donington Park to prove to F1 commercial rights-holder Bernie Ecclestone that it can raise the necessary funds to be able to successfully stage the British Grand Prix from 2010 onwards has been and gone – as Silverstone waits expectantly in the wings.

There was no update forthcoming from Simon Gillett's Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd (DVLL) company following Monday's midnight deadline for the beleaguered Leicestershire circuit to settle its breach of contract with Formula One Management (FOM) chief executive Ecclestone, in order to be able to honour the 17-year deal it currently holds to host the blue riband event on the British motorsport calendar – and perhaps tellingly, the 2010 British Grand Prix was yesterday dropped from Donington's website.

The failure of initially a debenture scheme and subsequently a hoped-for £135 million bond issue last week plunged the future of the race – the oldest in the sport's history, and one of only four traditional grands prix that featured on the original schedule back at the official launch of the world championship more than half a century ago in 1950, along with Monaco, Belgium and Italy – into increasing doubt. The money is needed in order to complete the ambitious redevelopment plans required to bring the track and its oft-criticised facilities up to F1 standard.

However, after that last-ditch plea by DVLL parent company Donington Holdings PLC ultimately came to nought due to a lack of interest from potential investors – despite some purported early promise – Gillett appears now to have precious few avenues left to explore, seemingly placing the ball firmly back in Silverstone's court.

Despite Ecclestone's fervently anti-patriotic protestations that there is no cast-iron guarantee that Britain will host a round of the world championship and that heritage or not, there will be no special treatment or 'cut-price' deal for anyone as it would not be fair on other possible venues that can afford to pay the going rate [see separate story – click here], it seems unlikely that as an Englishman himself, the 78-year-old will let the event disappear from the schedule, even for just a year. On that assumption, he has the option of either stumping up the money himself or else re-opening negotiations with Silverstone, which has hosted the race on no fewer than 43 out of 60 occasions – and every year since 1987.

However, Damon Hill, President of the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) which owns the celebrated 'Home of British Motor Racing', has made it clear that the Northants track has no interest whatsoever in acting merely as a 2010 stop-gap until Donington is ready to fulfil its side of the deal. Talks are ongoing between the BRDC and Ecclestone – never the most comfortable of bedfellows – but it is understood that there is still some discrepancy between the financial standpoints of the two parties, even if Hill insists he is optimistic that a compromise can be reached to enable Silverstone to retain the mid-summer grand prix.

“I am hopeful something can be resolved,” the 1996 F1 World Champion told British newspaper The Guardian. “There is a good chance we can sort something out soon. I have been arguing quite strongly – apparently without much success – that from my point-of-view as a driver, it is crucial to have special challenges that are a true test of a driver in a car.

“There are few circuits now that have always been on the calendar and have always been revered that make them 'special-value' circuits to the history of F1. Silverstone is one of them. It may not be Monaco, but it's got its own feel to it. It would be a shame not to recognise that. Great tracks and great events are necessary for F1 to be regarded as a great sport.

“He (Ecclestone) can get a value globally that is far in excess of what he can get from the UK. We respect that it is a difficult position for him to be in; he has to answer to his shareholders. Other countries are bound to pay a premium, but their revenue streams are more open than they are to a promoter in the UK.

“We feel the best thing to do is to designate a venue with a long enough term plan that you can tailor your investments. There are options on the table. There are discussions taking place, and I'm hopeful something can be sorted out.”

Silverstone reported a modest profit of £662,000 last year on a turnover of £38.2 million, and has agreed to try to secure external investment for the first time to upgrade its facilities – about which Ecclestone has been famously and repeatedly scathing in his unabashed denigration in years gone-by.

Whilst time is ticking by for a deal to be done, however – with no tickets yet sold for a race that is scheduled to be held on the same day as the football World Cup Final in South Africa on 11 July – it seems that for Gillett, who has remained staunchly bullish even in the face of the fiercest of adversity from financial woes to logistical stumbling blocks, time has finally run out.


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