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OCTOBER 13, 2004

The future of the British Grand Prix

Today the FIA issued what could be a very drafty draft of the Formula 1 calendar for next season and the British Grand Prix is on it, albeit with a provisional status, pending an agreement between the parties involved. It seems that both sides are not yet ready to face the flak that would ensue if the race was left off the calendar.

The question however remains as to how the various parties involved are going to deal with the problem of race fees in the future as it is very clear that the British Racing Drivers' Club, the owner of Silverstone, is not going to be able to meet the kind of financial demands that Bernie Ecclestone has in seven years from now. The only way that this sort of money will be available is if governments become involved and accept that the races must be loss-making events which are worthwhile because they boost the local economy and add prestige to the region. FOM might argue that the fees are justifiable but one can foresee a situation in which we will some of the races defaulting on their payments in the years ahead, of paying up to to cancel the contract, as we have seen Interpublic do with Silverstone.

The British government will ultimately have to face up to fact that it must pay for the event, or not have a British Grand Prix at Silverstone which, given the relationship between Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bernie Ecclestone, seems to be the only choice. However neither man will stay in their current forever so perhaps there is a future one day at Silverstone. In the meantime it is fair to say that the British Grand Prix might be better off being held in London, if only because the city wants to boosts its image as a place to stage big events. London may still get the Olympic Games in 2012 but the decision is due in the summer of next year and in the interim the candidate cities are jockeying for position and busy signing deals for sporting events and voting through money for infrastructure projects. London has already made much of its $25bn refurbishment of the Underground network which will include a new station serving the new Wembley Stadium, new trains, new signalling systems and extended lines which will improve the links in the south and the east of the city by taking over existing railway lines, which will probably include an Underground station at the Crystal Palace stadium, plus an additional station at Heathrow to serve the new Terminal 5.

Britain has also landed the 2008 World Short Course Swimming Championships and the 2007 Mountain Bike World Championships, which it is argued is "further evidence of the international community's confidence in the UK as a host of major sporting events".

The obvious way to avoid the Silverstone problem would be for the British GP to be taken over by a promoter such as Harvey Goldsmith and the venue changed to allow much larger numbers of spectators to attend at cheaper prices. That was the fee to FOM would not seem such a burden. The obvious place for this to happen would be in Central London and no doubt government money would be available if the race was somehow linked to the Olympic bid and to the tourist trade. The success of the Australian GP in Melbourne is evidence that the theory could work as the Australian race attracted a four-day audience this year of 363,900 people. With numbers like that a race can make a profit. And with a population of something in the region of seven million people (more than twice the number in Melbourne) and good public transport there is no reason to think the crowds would not come. The recent F1 demonstration runs in London (seen by many as a toe-in-the-water by Goldsmith) attracted perhaps 250,000. The only sensible place to hold such an event would be in Hyde Park. Other suggestions in the docklands and the Lee Valley would attract fewer people.

Goldsmith has a long history of promoting events in the park, dating back to the 1960s and it seems that plans could be put together in time for a race in 2006.

It may be that with all the chatter about Silverstone, the attention is being carefully drawn away from London.