NEW Kerry Dunlop on the Kent track’s problems
The future of Lydden Hill Circuit hangs in the balance pending the result of a planning application for a multi-million pound development.
Pat Doran, who heads Mansion Park, the company that has owned the circuit for the last six years, wants to build a three-storey hospitality centre, grandstands, a new admin block and 14 engineering suites to be accessed via a new entrance with easier access from the A2 trunk road.
The plans show great ambition, but the move is also being made out of a degree of desperation to keep the venue afloat. In recent years racing activity at Lydden has dwindled due to a combination of factors. The venue is now considered too pricey for circuit racing clubs to hire and run meetings, plus new noise restrictions have added an additional, unwanted, barrier to running events.
Diversification of activities is now the only way Doran sees a future for the circuit, and the facilities are needed in order for the venue to run new ventures. Non-motorsport related activities, such as using the venue to train police drivers (in road cars), cycle racing, camping, craft fairs and even hot air ballooning have all been suggested.
Doran explains: “I’m very confident [the planning application will be approved]. This has been something we’ve been working on for two-and-ahalf to three years to get to where we are now. We’ve been working with the local authority and community to try and get the best for everyone.
“But if we didn’t get it the circuit couldn’t continue how it is. It will be back to being a track in a field that just held two or three events a year and would be mothballed. We want it to be a hub for the racing community.”
Rallycross is successful at Lydden, which holds Britain’s round of the World Rallycross Championship. But pure circuit racing meetings for cars and motorcycles have dwindled from around a dozen per year in the 1980s and early 1990s to just three in 2014. In 2015 only one motor race meeting was held: there are none planned for this year ( see Racing News). So now there is very little income from circuit hire.
Many organising clubs now argue that they cannot afford to rent the circuit due to an increase in track rental costs, brought about in an effort to recoup some of the massive investment put in to originally secure the FIA World Rallycross round in the first place.
Since Doran took over he has pumped more than £1million into circuit improvements, including a new admin block, an impressive glass-fronted startline building for race control and media, a proper asphalt surface for the paddock, increased run-off areas and a host of cosmetic changes. And the staging of an FIA world championship round does not come cheaply…
The result has led to the rise in costs across the board. The two clubs that used the venue most – the South East Motor Sports Enthusiasts’ Club (SEMSEC) and the BARC South East centre – are now unable to host events there. SEMSEC ceased racing in 2014 and, while BARC SE did run one meeting at Lydden last year, a second was cancelled on cost grounds.
“The problem with Lydden is a lot of little things add up,” says BARC SE competitions secretary Rod Birley. “The track hire fees have increased, but it’s all of the other costs that hurt more.
“For example, you have to use Lydden’s own ambulance service, and that’s gone up £1000, and it costs more to get officials, timekeepers, scrutineers there. When you add it all up, it’s cheaper to race at Brands Hatch. And drivers won’t pay Brands Hatch entry fees to race at Lydden.”
A recent noise restriction has also hurt club racing at the track. To bring in extra income, drifting events were held at the venue, but the additional noise caused complaints.
Lydden is now restricted to 100 decibels of noise instead of 105db, and can only run six hours of track activity on a Sunday.
Birley adds that is perhaps the biggest restriction: “Many classes won’t get under 100db without modifications. Drivers won’t pay out to fit silencers or baffling for just one round. It’s actually a reduction of about 30 per cent.
“We had similar issues at Brands Hatch but the guys there worked so well with the council and a compromise was reached. The same needs to happen at Lydden.
“It’s such a shame as it’s a superb little track and we’d love to go back there. Lydden has its place in UK motorsport and we want to see it survive.”
With the loss of drifting and the lack of income from racing clubs, Lydden must look elsewhere for revenue. There is a three-day exemption for the noise order, which should be sufficient to allow the world rallycross round to take place as planned on May 27-29. But should a compromise on this not be found, it leaves a question mark over the future.
Doran adds: “The noise abatement is a big thing. We can’t hold drifting events anymore. That’s a quarter of our turnover taken off. The only way we can make money is to diversify.”
Now motorsport enthusiasts, organisers and competitors will have to wait with fingers crossed until mid-february, when Dover District Council should make its decision. Additional reporting by Rob Ladbrook and Stephen Lickorish. ■