Features - Insight
DECEMBER 22, 2008
Donington Park's plans for the British GP
BY JOE SAWARD
Simon Gillett, the chief executive of Donington Park, has not said a great deal about his plans for the British Grand Prix in 2010, arguing that it is best to let his actions speak for him. He understands that there is much cynicism in F1 circles and scepticism that the idea will ever come to fruition.
Gillett announced the deal with Formula One last summer but he says that the programme dates back three years and that F1 people concentrate too much on the Grand Prix itself and do not think about Donington as being a sustainable asset. Most racing circuits make money, but those with Grands Prix tend not to as the funding is sucked up by the Formula One group, or is used to improve the facilities.
Gillett and his backers (whoever they may be) bought a 150-year lease for Donington. Once the track had been acquired, Gillett set to work trying to get a deal for the British Grand Prix. Those plans are now in the public domain and the funding needed is reckoned to be in the region of $150m. Gillett says that he negotiated hard with Bernie Ecclestone to secure the maximum rights he could get, arguing that a private enterprise without government backing needs a better deal to make things work. He has an exclusive deal for F1 in the UK and has hinted that he has a better than usual deal with regard to VIP entertainment and trackside signage. Several races are allowed to do their own VIP activities and their own signage (or partial signage), notably Monaco, Australia and Brazil.
One of the key points in the redevelopment of Donington is that most of the money is being spent not on the circuit but on the buildings that will be used. And these have been carefully designed so that they can be used to generate income all year round. The decision to lengthen the track with a new
infield loop may add to the challenge for the F1 cars, but it also means that Donington can henceforth be used as two independent tracks at the same time - each with its own pits. This means that track rentals will increase in value and the smaller loop will also be available for the owners of 20 apartments that are to be built overlooking the Hollywood section of the circuit, each of these will have a four-car garage beneath the living accommodation, with direct access to the circuit by way of their own pitlane. The aim of this is to copy the idea that is now widely used in the United States where private circuits
generate large amounts of money as the wealthy are willing to pay as much as $100,000 initiation fee for a lifetime membership of a motor racing "country club" where they can have somewhere to store their cars, somewhere to drive them and a home which they can use at big racing events as well. Gillett believes that there are plenty of wealthy people able to afford this.
In addition to all this, there will be around 150 VIP suites at Redgate and at Starkey‘s, which will be leased out to companies on an annual basis and can be used at race meetings or for private events. The new Media Centre will also double as a large auditorium, with all the latest high technology systems built in. One element of the plan that has received a great deal of coverage is the idea of a debenture scheme. This is used at various stadiums around Britain with wealthy fans paying to join an exclusive club which gives them privileges and the right to purchase the best tickets for events. To make it worth their while, Gillett and his team have planned a dramatic four-storey clubhouse, which will include a pool, spa, fitness centre and sauna, plus a ballroom, a bar, a restaurant and large amounts of terrace space to give the members the best possible viewing at big events. The clubhouse will also
have administrative offices and parking. This will operate all year long, holding events, receptions and parties.
In addition there will be the usual hospitality facilities in the main pit buildings which will all be able to be used as function rooms.
Donington will thus become an entertainment destination first and foremost, with the racing providing the main theme, but the circuit will also have a thriving business from events, promotions, concerts, conventions and even its well-known Sunday market, which boasts more than 300 stalls, offers free parking and generates considerable income in the course of a year.
Gillett says that his goal is not only to make the track sustainable but also to make sure that his customers enjoy the experience and return year after year. He says that the sport long ago lost sight of how to treat the public and needs to focus on that to develop in the future.
The biggest surprise in his Grand Prix plan is for there to be almost no access to the circuit for private cars. Club members will be allowed to drive in but everyone else will have to use park-and-ride schemes. Many big events these days do not allow cars to drive right into the venue but motorsport has been slow to follow. The idea is environmentally-friendly and in the case of Donington is based on the fact that the roads are simply not capable of coping with the traffic flow. Gillett argues that parking away from the track and being whisked in to the circuit by means of an efficient bus service is a much better option as people will be able to come and go much more easily. It also help that construction of a new East Midlands Parkway railway station on the main railway line between London and Nottingham, around three miles to the east of the circuit, is now nearly complete. He plans for fast trains from London which will mena that fans can be home after the race in two hours. At some Grand Prix that would not get you out of the car park. In the longer term there is a good chance that there will eventually be a permanent light rail service established between East Midlands Parkway station and the airport next to the circuit. There is thus potential for this to be extended a little further to serve the circuit as well.
Getting rid of the need for parking space means that there are much better options for those with recreational vehicles and part of the British GP plan is to develop the infrastructure necessary to make camping at the circuit a pleasant experience with electricity and water and easy access to local shops. In this way he is able to get the support of the local community which will see benefits from the event, rather than just disruption. Working with the community, rather than against it, he hopes to convince the doubters that the entire Three City Region (covering Nottingham, Derby and Leicester) will benefit from the event.
Perhaps the most spectacular element of his plan is to close East Midlands Airport over the race weekend and use the facilities to fly in F1 charters from all over Europe, executive jets, helicopters and to use the airport parking. To achieve this he simply has to offer the airlines involved a better deal than they would get from passengers.
The circuit‘s planning permission will be decided on January 8 and work will take between nine and 10 months. The circuit has 15 months available
but Gillett says the credit crunch has actually helped him because the construction industry has more capacity available for the work than would normally have been the case.