Earlier this month Bernie Ecclestone announced Donington Park will host the British Grand Prix from 2010 instead of Silverstone.
In July 1999 Bernie Ecclestone announced Brands Hatch would host the British Grand Prix from 2002 instead of Silverstone. But that never came to be – the race stayed at Silverstone.
So what happened? And can it tell us anything about the proposed 2010 British Grand Prix at Donington Park?
Foulston courts Silverstone
The announcement in May 1999 came after Ecclestone had met with Nicola Foulston, who at the time was chief executive of Brands Hatch Leisure. BHL owned the Kent circuit which last held the British Grand Prix in 1986.
Foulston had been trying since mid-1998 to purchase Silverstone from the British Racing Drivers’ Club but was facing competition for the circuit.
Foulston went to Ecclestone and told him the circuit owners had received offers from potential buyers. This apparently angered Ecclestone as the circuit’s contract to hold the British Grand Prix included break clauses in the event of the track being sold. He felt that, as the organiser of one of the track’s biggest races, he should have been consulted on any potential change, even at such an early stage.
The pair agreed on a new British Grand Prix contract which held that Silverstone would only continue to hold the Grand Prix after the end of its existing deal if Foulston purchased the track.
Brands Hatch claims the race
Foulston continued to apply pressure to Silverstone but, having failed to agree terms for her to purchase the track, she returned to Ecclestone in May 1999 to strike a new deal: giving her the option of moving the Grand Prix to Brands Hatch in 2002 if she couldn’t acquire Silverstone.
With Silverstone still unwilling to sell to Foulston she began to prepare Brands Hatch for the Grand Prix it was supposed to hold in a little over 24 months – exactly the same time frame Donington’s owners face today.
But Foulston did not intend to stick around that long. As she explained in Chas Parker’s recent book on Brands Hatch:
I had a plan almost from the beginning. My father died at 40 in a racing car* after building up his own business and, when I started working and went to Brands Hatch, I had very much a plan that I wouldn’t work for my whole life in the same way. I didn’t necessarily have the plan that I would do what I have done, which is to retire and have a family and live abroad. But I was worried about getting stuck in a rut.
In December 1999 she sold BHL to Octagon, a sub-division of InterPublic Group, one of the world’s largest advertising and marketing groups, for £120m. The valuation of the company was boosted considerably by the expectation that it would hold the Grand Prix from 2002. She earned £50m from the sale and resigned one month later – aged 33.
Brands Hatch’s efforts to perform the necessary upgrades quickly ran into problems. A planning application was submitted in June 2000 for the development work but in September the British government made it the subject of a public inquiry because of the scale of the work. A date for the inquiry was fixed for January 2001.
While Octagon put a brave face on the Brands Hatch delays, behind the scenes they were looking for alternatives – including buying Donington Park and putting the race on there. It was hoped it would cost far less to bring Donington up to Grand Prix standards than Brands Hatch – the figures put about at the time were £20m versus £40m.
But Octagon decided neither option was realistic and instead approached the BRDC. In an agreement brokered by Ecclestone, Octagon took out a lease from the BRDC to manage Silverstone, keeping the British Grand Prix at the circuit.
2010 Donington Park Grand Prix?
If nothing else, the episode serves as a reminder that two years is a very long time in Formula 1. Donington Park has a huge amount of work to complete between now and 2010 and simply getting planning permission could prove very difficult.
The amount of money Donington needs to hold the 2010 race is believe to be around $100m and it’s not clear how that will be raised. There is talk of a debenture (fixed loan) scheme and rumours of a mystery investor – who may or may not be Bernard Charles Ecclestone.
But given the recent history of the British Grand Prix, it is not too great a surprise that claims the race will switch venues are being greeted with scepticism. After all, Ecclestone has said for the past two years that F1 wouldn’t return to Magny-Cours again, and it keeps going back…
*Ironically, at Silverstone.