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MAY 17, 1999

Brands Hatch lands the British GP

BRANDS HATCH is to host the British Grand Prix in 2002 - and could go on holding the event until at least 2012. The Kent circuit's chief executive Nicola Foulston signed a deal with Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone last week after he was unable to reach agreement with the British Racing Drivers' Club to extend the deal with Silverstone after the 2001 race. Silverstone is controlled by the BRDC but the club and Ecclestone have been unable to agree over money. The issue has been complicated by a bid for Silverstone - supported by Ecclestone - from Foulston. She offered to keep the Grand Prix at Silverstone if the BRDC members agreed to sell her the Silverstone company. This was rejected.

The Brands Hatch deal is believed to be worth around $15m a year to Ecclestone, considerably more than the $9m which Silverstone is currently paying.

Although the deal is in place it is by no means certain that the race will be held at Brands Hatch as the circuit will have to be almost completely rebuilt within three years in order to hold the event.

Brands Hatch announced plans for the upgrading of the track with reprofiling of many of the corners to add extra run-off area and a completely new pit and paddock complex in an area which is currently woodland at the back of the circuit. The work will cost around $30m and Brands Hatch also announced that it has already secured the money from the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is providing an extra $60m to fund the expansion of the company's activities. Foulston says that she expects the first event to make a profit.

But everything depends on the track being granted planning permission for the work. Brands Hatch is located is an environmentally-protected "Green Belt" area which means that any building will need approval from the government, rather than the local authorities. Brands Hatch enjoys close links with the planning authorities and had made a variety of changes in recent years, but none were as far-reaching as what is now being proposed. In order to get planning permission there will almost certainly have to be a public inquiry and this is likely to drag on for some years, in much the same way as it did when McLaren was planning its new factory at Woking. There is no doubt that there will be financial and employment benefits to the area and Brands Hatch already has the support of the Sevenoaks District Council. Obtaining planning permission and getting the work done could easily take more than the three years available. The process could take a lot longer and with several members of the BRDC enjoying contacts with the government, progress could be slowed enough to torpedo the project completely. The danger is that if that happens and the BRDC refuses to meet Ecclestone's demands, Britain could lose the Grand Prix completely.

It may be that Ecclestone and Foulston are hoping that the switch to Brands Hatch will convince the BRDC to give way and agree to sell to Foulston. She could then switch the Grand Prix contract to Silverstone. Hard-line members of the BRDC are intent on stopping that happening.