APRIL 29, 2009

Donington rumours

There are many rumours circulating at the moment about Donington, including the suggestion that the track (or at least the right to operate it) has been bought by Bernie Ecclestone. The track has a contract to run the British GP starting in 2010, but the track's rebuilding programme was dependent on bank financing and when the bank involved pulled out of the deal because of the credit crunch Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd (DVL) was left trying to find alternative sources of funding, a very difficult task in the current financial climate. DVL says that the firm is committed to the project and will announce details of the funding of the project soon. This will probably rely heavily on Paul White, a Monaco-based property developer, who is also the main contractor for the work.

To add to the problems, Donington lost its circuit licence because work to create a new access tunnel reduced the available run-off area, making the circuit more hazaradous. The tunnel is now being extended but legal action from the circuit owners against DVL over the non-payment of lease fees has inevitably led to doubts about the British Grand Prix. DVL has already paid deposits to the Formula One group and will have to pay more fees in the autumn. The uncertainty has led to questions in parliament about the race and a request from Lord Astor of Hever, the chairman of the Motorsport Industry Association, for the government to help return the Grand Prix to Silverstone if the Donington project fails.

Lord Astor asked why the government will not support the British Grand Prix when so much public money is being spent on the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and, depending on the bidding, the rugby and soccer World Cups as well. According to Astor the agreement with Donington was recently extended from 10 to 17 years and Bernie Ecclestone has agreed to accept the fees in pounds sterling rather than US dollars, both measures aimed at helping Donington to make the project a success.

"The relationship between the annual British Grand Prix and the Motorsport Valley business cluster is vital," Lord Astor said. "The loss of one undoubtedly affects the other. Businesses in Motorsport Valley are fighting very hard to retain their dominant position as motorsport becomes more globalised. Any damage to our international credibility, such as the failure to host our own Grand Prix, would have devastating economic effects. Mr Ecclestone has made it clear in a letter that I have seen that should Donington fail to meet its obligations, the Grand Prix would be lost to the UK. With pressure from other countries to join the F1 calendar, South Korea hosting its first race next year and India the year after, it would not be relocated elsewhere here. There would be no British Grand Prix, which would be a disaster."

Astor urged the government to give "a clear, positive statement of support for the British Grand Prix at Donington and to use all their influence to bring together resources from the regions, central and local government and the respective tourist boards to ensure that Britain hosts for years to come the world's most prestigious motorsport competition".

Speaking for the government Lord Davies of Oldham said that "ministers and officials across Whitehall have done all that they can to support Silverstone in its attempts to retain the British Grand Prix. We helped through the East Midlands Development Agency because we were anxious about the future of the Grand Prix. There has been significant investment, not just from the motor industry; there was also substantial investment in the road that facilitated access to the Grand Prix at Silverstone. We stand ready to assist in that area. We are aware that there are some reservations about Donington. The track looks fine, but there are reservations about facilities. There is still the question of raising capital, although our intelligence is that we can be optimistic that the investment in Donington will make it a huge success. However, should anything go wrong on that front, it is important that Silverstone is available to resume its position, because the essential thing is that we must not lose a British Grand Prix. Donington will and must succeed. We are putting all our support into it. My right honourable friend Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Transport, visited Donington recently. He is also an East Midlands Member of Parliament, which is no disadvantage when one is talking about an event that has such a significant impact on the local economy.

"We certainly stand by to help - not directly financially. Motor sport is an independent operation in this country, as most sports are. The government can give degrees of support and help, as with Silverstone in the past. However, no one in this debate or in the industry argues for direct state support. We do not want a state-sponsored motor industry, but the government can give necessary assistance and support in judicious ways, particularly by emphasising how important the industry is to the development of our society and economy. We want to see the continuation of the proud tradition of the British Grand Prix in this country.

"The decision on the Grand Prix was taken by those with private interests in the sport, but they should not have the slightest doubt that the Government regard the Grand Prix as a very important part of the sporting calendar. It is part of our decade of sport and we trust that it will continue to be a feature of the British sporting landscape over the next decade and beyond."