Will 2019 be the last Grand Prix at Silverstone? Don’t bank on it

Car (South Africa) - - COLUMN -

LIB­ERTY Me­dia’s in­her­ited-prob­lems-to-solve list will have been full to over ow­ing since the Amer­i­can com­pany took own­er­ship of F1 last Septem­ber. One of the most po­ten­tially trou­ble­some items yet to have re­ceived a strike-through is the ques­tion of what to do about en­sur­ing the fu­ture of F1’s so-called “clas­sic” Grands Prix.

The races in Bri­tain, Ger­many, Monaco, Bel­gium and Italy have been on the sched­ule since the start of the world cham­pi­onship 67 years ago. And that brings both its bene ts and prob­lems. The plus points are bound in the tra­di­tion and af­fec­tion gen­er­ated by these races and wo­ven into the sport’s his­tory. The down­side is their per­pet­ual strug­gle to make ends meet, a dif culty ex­ac­er­bated by the de­mands of Bernie Ec­cle­stone’s puni­tive fees on be­half of the sport’s pre­vi­ous own­ers (plus a handy per­cent­age for him­self, of course).

Monaco, as you’d ex­pect, is a spe­cial case, but the swinge­ing levy for the right to hold a GP has hurt some; par­tic­u­larly Silverstone, home of the Bri­tish GP and the very rst round of the cham­pi­onship in May 1950.

Silverstone signed its cur­rent 17year con­tract at the end of 2009. It knew the go­ing would be tough due to an an­nual 5% es­ca­la­tor that pushed the fee to £12 mil­lion for 2010 and £16,9 mil­lion this year. But it was ei­ther that or no Bri­tish Grand Prix, Ec­cle­stone putting the deal be­fore any char­i­ta­ble thought about Silverstone’s place in his­tory and in the minds of more than 100 000 fans du­ti­fully pay­ing ex­cep­tion­ally high ad­mis­sion prices each year.

Silverstone is owned by the Bri­tish Rac­ing Driv­ers’ Club (BRDC) and, ac­cept­ing that the busi­ness model would be ten­u­ous to say the least, it did not fore­see the world­wide re­ces­sion tight­en­ing the nan­cial screw even fur­ther. The Bri­tish Grand Prix lost £2,8 mil­lion in 2015 and £4,8 mil­lion last year.

The ar­rival of Lib­erty Me­dia pre­sented an op­por­tu­nity for the BRDC to sig­nal the need for rene­go­ti­a­tion. A break clause of two years’ no­tice had been writ­ten into the orig­i­nal con­tract on the un­der­stand­ing that, if nec­es­sary, it had to be ex­er­cised be­fore the 2017 Bri­tish Grand Prix. With a fee of £25 mil­lion loom­ing in 2025, it was no sur­prise when the BRDC ac­ti­vated the clause. As things stand, 2019 will be the last Grand Prix at Silverstone.

This has pre­sented Lib­erty Me­dia with a prob­lem. It is aware of Silverstone’s im­por­tance but, if it re­duces the scan­dalous 5% an­nual in­crease for this event, the Ital­ian, Bel­gian and Ger­man organisers will also be kick­ing down Lib­erty’s door in no time at all.

There are other com­pli­ca­tions in­so­far as Silverstone ac­tu­ally pays less than Bahrain (£31 mil­lion), Rus­sia (£38,7 mil­lion) and Azer­bai­jan (£58 mil­lion). That ar­gu­ment won’t wash with the BRDC be­cause it is a pri­vate mem­bers’ club, re­ceiv­ing zero as­sis­tance from the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment … and un­likely to do so in the fore­see­able fu­ture given the par­lous state of the coun­try’s econ­omy and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ne­go­ti­at­ing the long and bumpy road to­wards some sort of exit from the Euro­pean Union. In any case, the more re­cent ar­rivals on the F1 cal­en­dar are gov­ern­ment-backed as an ex­pe­di­ent means of us­ing the Grand Prix to make ev­ery­thing look ne and dandy in their re­spec­tive coun­tries.

Lib­erty Me­dia will be aware that Silverstone re­mains at the heart of the Bri­tish mo­tor­sport in­dus­try, which is worth £10,5 bil­lion, and em­ploys 45 000 peo­ple with 75% of their out­put be­ing ex­ported. The ma­jor­ity of the F1 teams is also based in the UK, with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing fan base. Be­ing re­spon­si­ble for get­ting rid of the Bri­tish Grand Prix would not be ideal for Lib­erty Me­dia’s PR and the com­pany’s avowed in­tent to reach out and con­nect with F1’s sup­port­ers.

How­ever, all may not be lost from Lib­erty’s point of view, given that it favours stag­ing races in so-called “des­ti­na­tion cities”, cit­ing New York, Ber­lin and Las Ve­gas as ex­am­ples of where it wishes to use a city’s streets to bring F1 to the peo­ple. Prior to the Bri­tish GP, Lib­erty staged a highly suc­cess­ful pro­mo­tional event in the heart of Lon­don as F1 cars strut­ted their noisy stuff.

This, of course, trig­gered ru­mours of a Lon­don GP, but stag­ing a demon­stra­tion and run­ning an ac­tual race are two dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios; think dis­rup­tion, pol­lu­tion and noise. Given that it takes months to set up a proper race­track, the cen­tre of Lon­don would seem out of the ques­tion. Then again, that does not rule out us­ing a cur­rently un­de­vel­oped part of Lon­don’s dock­lands. Which, in turn, raises the ques­tion of who would foot the bill.

I’m not a gam­bling man, but I’d say it’s a safe bet to book your room for the 2020 Bri­tish GP ... at Silverstone.

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