Columns - Big Al

Stewart hails Silverstone "win-win" situation; But will Tony Blair pitch in with financial help?


The deal announced on Saturday to save the future of the British grand prix at Silverstone is not only the most expensive commercial transaction in the history of the sport in this country, but also the only potential route to defuse the time bomb ticking away beneath the future Britain's round of the FIA formula one world championship.

"This is the biggest day in the history of British motorsport and I have no doubt that the facility will be surpassed by no other race track in the world," said Jackie Stewart, president of the British Racing Drivers Club, referring to plans dramatically to upgrade Silverstone including a new pit and paddock complex on the Hangar Straight at the opposite end of the circuit to its current location.

"It will give the whole motorsport industry in the United Kingdom a very firm foundation and it's a win-win situation for motor racing."

Stewart also echoed the sentiments of Ecclestone and FIA president Max Mosley for additional government funding for the British grand prix in much the same manner as the Australia supports its race at Melbourne and the Malaysians back their race at Kuala Lumpur.

However, cynics are bound to wonder precisely what incentive Tony Blair's administration would have for supporting such an obviously well-heeled sport as formula one, given that only previous significant contact resulted in the acute political embarrassment over Ecclestone's one million pound donation to the Labour war chest in 1997.

Race promoters Octagon, together with the BRDC, which owns Silverstone, are now committed to paying out around 150 million pounds over 15 years to Bernie Ecclestone's F1 Holdings empire for the privilege of extending the contract to run the race from 2002 to 2016 inclusively.

Ecclestone has also backed the deal by pitching in with Octagon and the BRDC as an investor in the upgrading program which is expected to cost "tens of millions of pounds."

Octagon only agreed a lease to manage the Silverstone circuit as late as last Friday with a steering group from the BRDC made up of formula one team chiefs Sir Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, Martin Brundle and Silverstone circuits chairman Denys Rohan.

Yet it is ironic that only six months ago Britain's blue riband event was on its knees, facing a chaotic and uncertain future with two circuits vying to stage the race despite neither having the infrastructure to do so.

Brands Hatch, whose former chief executive Nicola Foulston two years ago signed an ambitious deal for the race with Ecclestone, simply couldn't get the planning approval to update the cramped 2.65-mile Kent circuit. Meanwhile, Silverstone was unwilling to commit to the program of updating necessary to keep the race, given that prior to Saturday the 2001 fixture looked like being their last.

Either way, for Britain's motorsport industry, this has been a triumph for quiet diplomacy and the forces of commercial inevitability. On a less prosaic level, race fans who trudged up to their knees in mud to gain a fleeting glimpse of their 170mph heros last Easter, will be looking forward with huge anticipation to leaving their wellington boots at home from now on.