Simon Gillett was looking slightly the worse for wear when I met him at Autosport International this morning. He had a reason to be, as he celebrated Donington Park winning approval for its development work in order to hold the 2010 British Grand Prix.
Nevertheless he was happy toi spend a half hour answering questions from journalists – plus myself armed with some of your queries. Here’s what he had to say about how the track will change, how it’s being paid for – and how that controversial park and ride system will work.
“We’ve already started – we began about two weeks ago on the expectation that we would get planning permission. We have the tunnels bored through so there’s a big hole in the circuit at the moment. That will be completed by February 20th so we can re-open the track. And we start work on the pits and paddock on Monday morning.
“It’s full steam ahead now. We expect to have all the construction work completed by the end of this year, giving us plenty of time to try it all out and make sure everything works before the Grand Prix rolls into town.
“We always knew how long we had to build it and the buildings we’ve designed we should be able to construct in that time frame.
“From Redgate corner to McLeans is being left untouched – we’re not even re-surfacing that part of the track. It’s wide enough, the run-offs are big enough and it’s fantastically good so I’m not going to touch it.
“One of the main elements of Donington Park’s character is that from Hollywood all the way down to Schwanz you’ve got a grass bank for spectators, which is staying. It’s where I go to watch the racing from. If you’re on the outside of Old Hairpin you can just about see them coming out of Redgate, then down Craners, all the way up to McLeans and then you’ll just lose them at Coppice behind the new pit and paddock. Then they’ll reappear coming into the new half-mile loop, back up onto the current start stretch. You can see about two miles of the track.
“We’re retaining the club circuit and the changes should enable more club racing to happen. We have the ability to divide the circuit into two, plus the existing versions of the circuit, and we’ll be able to retain all the bike racing.
“We’re going to be shifting quite a few thousand tonnes of earth – but the great thing is we need that dirt to build the pit and paddock area and make it level.”
“We’re presenting our funding package in March. We’ll be using a debenture scheme and we’re a long way along with the process for that.
“All I’m doing here is copying what other sports around the world have done. As I’ve said you can’t drive to Twickenham and you can’t drive to Wembley. And how did Wembley and Twickenham raise their money? Debenture schemes. It’s not rocket science. But Formula 1 and motor sport can be so dyed in wool that people think what happens is you put on a race and spectators turn up and pay for it and that’s the only way to raise money. But we’re basically following every other sport. Horse racing at Ascot has a debenture scheme, it’s commonplace everywhere, it’s tried and tested.
“Taking Wembley, for example, you pay an upfront fee and an annual sum to be a member. That gives you a range of offers that not everyone else gets. For us that will be access to the the clubhouse, behind the scenes entry to the races, they can have their own track days and things like that. We’ll be offering around 6,000 of them.
“In terms of making it financially viable we’re not focussed just on the Grand Prix. For example, take the media centre. Typically if you build one of these it’s a square box with hangers for TV screens. But what we’re doing is building a 500-seat stepped auditorium so that when the press isn’t there for the other 360 days of the year I’ve got a space I can offer for sales conferences, product launches, that kind of thing. Spending £8m building a media centre that can’t be used for any other purpose would just be throwing money down the toilet.
“You may have noticed I’ve not said an awful lot until the press until now. That’s because we’ve been thinking about delivery. I’m talking now because I’ve delivered something. I’ll go back into my little box now and you’ll hear from me at the end of March when I say ‘here’s the debenture scheme, here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s what you get’ and then I’ll get back on with delivering again.
“We’ll start ticket sales once we get the date for the race from Bernie Ecclestone. We’ll allow people to look at the what the view will be like from the stand they book – that’s something that was pioneered by Wembley when they built their new stadium.”
Working with the airport
“If someone were to put up a 300ft pole, that would cause a problem with aeroplanes coming in to land. Normal TV transmissions isn’t a problem. We run Motor GP quite happily. There was one problem at the last Moto GP race – a lighting rig had been assembled in the wrong place, and the airport had to shorten its runway until it was moved. It was a screw-up. We had a similar problem a year ago with a fairground ride that was in the wrong place, so we have a plan showing how tall constructions may be within that flight corridor.
“We’ve got a good relationship with the airport and we’re looking to give them a commercial benefit, although we can’t quantify exactly how much yet.
“The story about planes dropping fuel on the track isn’t true. I always say to people they can come and pour water on the track and see if it turns purple. Would we get an FIM licence to hold bike races if every time it rained you could see oil on the track? No.”
Park and ride
“Park and ride, park and walk, park and cycle – we’ll have cycle paths from the car parks to the track. Apart from just being good sense – no other sport allows 90,000 people to drive up to the front door – it’s environmentally responsible. At the moment we’re a business the burns hydrocarbons for fun. There’s a finite amount of time we can sit there with our fingers in our ears saying ‘this doesn’t matters to us’.
“My intention would be to have all the spectators to arrive via some form of public transportation. The reality is, obviously, disabled visitors will be able to drive to the track and we’ll make sure campers can too. The car parks we’re not using we will turn into camp sites, bringing all the camping on-site, taking all those people out of the traffic problem straight away. They will be coming on-site, but it they won’t all be arriving at 7-11am on Sunday morning and leaving at 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoon.
“People will be able to get a bus from the track to the station in about 15 minutes, and then be in London in two hours. And in year one some people will complain a lot and in year two people will complain a little bit less and by year three they’ll have gotten used to it and they’ll probably say ‘it’s quite nice actually, we can have a drink on the train, have a drink at the circuit, enjoy myself and then go home.’
“Die-hards I’m sure will complain and say they’re not coming if they can’t rev their car in the car park but I think that percentage that won’t turn up will be more than offset by people who are attracted by the idea of not having to sit in a car park for four hours.
“We’ll look at improving the local roads later on. But the thing is, we’ve got a race in 18 months and with planning and highways submissions, compulsory purchase orders, road widening and everything else… it might be ready for 2020. So it can’t form part of our plan. Yes, we’ll always look to improve the road network around us. But for those people who think ‘I’ll just be lazy and drive to the track’, I want it to be quite difficult for them to get in by car.”
“When I first came to the idea of getting a track I didn’t turn to any other circuit to find out how to run one. I turned to horse racing, rugby and football. These are sports that have been out there, forging ahead, adopting new business models.
“People asked me ‘how did you get to the point of buying a circuit?’ and it happened because I was fed up with the treatment I got as a motor sport spectator. When I spoke to Tom Wheatcroft originally it wasn’t about money – though of course that was a consideration – the thing that made a difference to Tom was when he said ‘what makes you different from all the other people offering me money from the track?’ I said I had three priorities: security, food and toilets. They’re the three elements that ensure people have a good day.
“Why is it that you turn up at an event and the first person you see is someone who doesn’t want you to get in? It’s ridiculous. Look at what Asda have done introducing greeters at the front of their stores. It’s not ‘I don’t want you in’, it’s ‘I want you in – with the right ticket’.
“For food – gone are the polystyrene tubs with the polystyrene burgers in them. People still want burgers, but what’s wrong with a ciabatta with a 100% beef burger in it?
“And the toilets. There will be no blue plastic toilets. We’re putting in eight permanent toilet blocks and more under the suites.
“You have to get the basics right and allow people to get in and out easily.”
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