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FEBRUARY 6, 2007

A little speculation about Donington Park

Tom Wheatcroft had a dream when he first acquired Donington Park in 1973. As a youngster he had watched the Donington Grands Prix of the 1930s, in which the great German racing teams had competed, and he wanted to see Grand Prix cars back at what is Britain's oldest surviving racing circuit. He invested $3m of his own money in the track - which had been closed for nearly 30 years - and in 1977 reopened the facility with a round of the European Formula 2 Championship. Since then the track has become one of Britain's most important circuits. He also established the Donington Collection - the world's biggest collection of Grand Prix cars.

In the 1980s various plans were announced for F1 races to take place at Donington but although commitments were made, no race took place until 1993 when Bernie Ecclestone finally relented and gave Donington the European Grand Prix. The weather was terrible but the event marked a spectacular victory for Ayrton Senna in an underpowered McLaren-Ford. By then, however, the British GP was locked in at Silverstone and in 1997 it seemed that Wheatcroft was giving up when he concluded a 25-year deal to lease the circuit to Two Four Sports. Two years later Two Four Sports was sold to US company SFX Entertainment which has been running the venue ever since, although it too has undergone changes and had become a subsidiary of US entertainment giant Live Nation. In addition to its racing, the track has long been an important concert venue, playing host to a series of "Monsters of Rock" concerts in the 1980s and 1990s which featured such bands as AC/DC, Metallica and Iron Maiden. The tradition has continued in recent years with heavy metal music remaining the theme. The relationship between Wheatcroft and the Americans has, however, not always been easy and the news that the venue has been sold and that Wheatcroft will be on the board of the new company means that things can now change.

The Donington estate, which runs to an impressive 700 acres, is well-located, being next to M1-M42 motorway junction which links the track with the UK motorway network and the cities of London and Birmingham. It is right next to East Midlands Airport, which has flights to many European destinations and is planning to expand to take more long-haul flights in the years ahead.

The big question is whether or not the venue can raise the kind of money that would be needed to build the kind of facilities that some of the big new circuits around the world can now boast and whether a deal can br struck with the Formula One group. It makes a lot of sense for that to happen given that there is no sign at all that Silverstone is going to be able to do the work that has been demanded by Formula One.

As recently as 2003 Wheatcroft said that he would invest $80m in the track if Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone gave him the Grand Prix but added that he would not be keen to pay the fees demanded. The track did invest around $8m at the start of 2006 to resurface the track, rebuild the pits and paddock facilities. There are now a total of 38 garages plus facilities above to accommodate the media and guests, which also doubles up as a venue for conferences, exhibitions, functions and corporate hospitality. The problem with this is that the pitlane remains at a slope and thus, in order to provide teams with flat surfaces, there had to be a series of steps in front of the garages which mean racing cars cannot stop close to the garages, meaning that the pitlane was still rather cramped during races. This would obviously need to be changed.

If nothing else, however, the change of ownership at Donington Park will wake up the folk at Silverstone who seem to be assuming that eventually Bernie Ecclestone will compromise and let them continue to hold the Grand Prix without the necessary changes being made.