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Ecclestone and Silverstone

I see Bernie has being having a go at Silverstone and its owners, the BRDC again. Apparently, he is fed up with the BRDC never managing to fulfill its promises regarding redevelopment of the circuit.

Damon Hill

Damon Hill, president of the BRDC

As usual, the problem is funding the work necessary to bring Silverstone up to modern standards for F1 tracks. Noises are made about the possibility of government assistance but this is the UK we’re talking about – since when did a British government donate public money to a project as popular as keeping the British Grand Prix?

F1 Fanatic has an interesting proposal that might ensure Silverstone’s survival: that Bernie himself buy the track and spend a few of his many millions in bringing it up to date. Since Bernie has already invested in the Turkish Grand Prix circuit (and thereby ensured its existence for years to come), it seems reasonable that he should do the same for a circuit as loved and historic as Silverstone.

Now there would be a marriage made in the corridors of power, if not in heaven – the two Stones coming together in a union of bliss for the foreseeable future. But it’s the Silver that might get in the way; Bernie did not become rich by investing in lost causes and I’m not at all sure he would be interested in throwing his loot at such a big project as Silverstone. The Turkish circuit is almost brand new and does not need much cash to keep it up to par; Silverstone needs several fortunes to turn it into the glitzy venue that Bernie wants.

Yeah, I tried very hard to get in a quip about Eccles cakes but failed – see if you can do better…

So it remains to be seen whether Silverstone will survive yet again through its annual crisis. But there is one point in all this that I have not seen mentioned yet. Amongst all the cheers for Bernie’s purchase of the Turkish circuit, I detected no pondering upon the matter of a conflict of interests. Surely that must occur if the man who says yes or no to prospective GPs also owns one or two of them? How likely is he to cut out his own GP if it fails to come up to spec? And are not other circuit owners entitled to query his impartiality as a result?

It is not that I think Bernie would do anything underhand or that I want to see the future of some circuits threatened because they can’t get funding from Bernie. I am just interested and wondering why the matter has not been raised before. Call me awkward or a pot-stirrer – that would fit well enough.

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The Great Facilities Race

Pitpass dot com has an interesting article about the sale of Donington Park to a consortium calling itself Donington Ventures Leisure Limited (DVLL). This leads to speculation that Donington, with its improved facilities, might mount a serious challenge to be the venue for future British GPs.

Nord

The Nordschleife, Nurburgring

It takes me back to 1993, when Donington hosted the European GP. At the time, there were thoughts that the circuit was too small to put on a decent F1 race but events proved everyone wrong. Thanks to the weather and the genius of Ayrton Senna, the race turned out to be one of the all time greats.

As a result, we all have fond memories of Donington as a GP venue and this must surely aid DVLL in any move to steal the British GP from Silverstone. But the most telling aspect will inevitably be facilities. Pitpass seems to think that Silverstone will never be able to compete in this area and they may have a point. The BRDC, owners of Silverstone, just don’t have the money to build luxury facilities like those on offer in the tiger economies of Asia.

Things have come a long way from the days of rickety toilets and greasy food served from a caravan. The average race goer expects to be cosseted with the latest advances in hygienic amenities; or so we are led to believe. And the standards for acceptance as one of Bernie’s elite circuits just keep going up and up, while the tracks become ever more standardized in the quest for safety. It’s a brave (and boring) new world.

It is not that I think Donington should not have a GP; more that I would be sad to see Silverstone go. Apart from being a good circuit, it has history on its side and that means atmosphere. Which wasn’t enough to save Brands Hatch, of course, and many other famous circuits on the continent. Surely it is about time that more factors than facilities were taken into account in this business of selecting GP venues. If the FIA is so concerned about entertainment value, it might be an idea for atmosphere and setting to be considered as well as fancy grandstands and ablution blocks.

The greatness of the Nordschleife was not just the length and variation of the circuit – it was also the brooding forest that surrounded the circuit and gave it atmosphere. Monaco survives only because its setting is so steeped in history that its demise is unthinkable. And we all react with horror to the thought that Spa might be taken from us yet again. Circuits become part of our memories, reminders of great races we have witnessed, places that speak of famous names and events, deeds of courage and superhuman skill.

Silverstone is not one of the most atmospheric circuits yet it has its share of memories. It remains one of the GPs that we look forward to, not just for the renewal of competition but also because it has that aura of tradition.

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F1 on Television in America

All Headline News has an article detailing an agreement that Speed Channel and Fox Sports will share broadcasting of F1 races starting from 2009. Fox gets the United States, Canadian, British and French Grands Prix, while Speed retains the rights to televise the rest, most of them live. Both channels will feature the broadcast team of Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Peter Windsor.

Kolles

Colin Kolles, Managing Director of the Spyker MF1 team

So it seems there is still confidence in the future of F1 in America, amongst TV executives, at least. There are several blithe assumptions included in the agreement, however, the main one being that the races doled out to Fox will still be in existence two years from now.

With Bernie Ecclestone broaching the subject of the British and French GPs alternating year by year, I wouldn’t care to put money on both races being available for broadcast in 2009. A lot can happen in F1 in that time and some races will have to disappear to make way for new ones like the Indian Grand Prix. Then there is Indianapolis. It’s assured for 2007 but beyond that, who knows?

The point is that F1 has become a sport in which nothing can be guaranteed for more than a year, sometimes even less. Circuits come and go, seemingly at Bernie’s whim, and the FIA re-define the rules as they go along. I don’t envy the TV execs who had to sign up for a contract that looks as far ahead as 2009.

Inside F1, the rumbles regarding customer cars continue. Leading the charge against Super Aguri’s and Toro Rosso’s plans for next year is Colin Kolles of the Spyker team. Of course, Aguri and Rosso deny that their cars will be bought in from their respective parent teams but the suspicion remains even so.

Now would be a good time for the FIA to step in and define clearly what consitutes a bought-in chassis and what defines an independently-built one. From the excuses, explanations and accusations floating around, it seems that the line between one and the other is very vague. And it would be best to have the whole business sorted out before the new season starts, rather than have the usual mid-season bans and dramas.

For once, this is a situation where the FIA should settle the argument before it gets steam up.

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The Circuit Circus

I see that the Imola authorities are going ahead with their plans to improve the circuit in spite of the San Marino GP being dropped from the calendar for 2007. The hope is to get the race back in 2008 but I cannot help but feel that it is a forlorn hope at best.

Imola

BMW Sauber at Imola

With Bernie Ecclestone trying to get the Silverstone organizers to agree to an alternating race with France (and, of course, the BRDC is not interested in such a plan), things look pretty bleak for Imola’s chances. There is a limit to the number of races that can be run each year (18 seems to be the maximum) and Far Eastern countries are lining up with money in their hands, desperate to get into the game. India is next to get a GP, in 2010 we’re told.

Simple mathematics indicates that, if you add a new race to the calendar, somewhere another has to be dropped. And it is Europe that suffers, inevitably, since it has by far the most races. No circuit in Europe can be confident that the ax will not visit at some time in the future.

Traditionalists (like me) can bemoan the loss of old and great circuits but the facts of modern life dictate that the oldest and best are the most likely to go. “Safety” is invariably the excuse to get rid of them because that is their greatness – they present a challenge to the driver and demand a higher level of skill to achieve good lap times.

But we all know that the real reason is money. It is costing the owners of older circuits millions to keep their tracks updated to the latest FIA specifications and this makes it almost impossible to balance the books. Already it costs a small fortune to go to watch a GP – in the future the gate fee will only increase. And that means many potential spectators will stay away – after all, they can see the race on television for a fraction of the cost. The resulting squeeze on the organizers’ finances gets worse as a result.

So how do the new circuits manage? The answer has to be that a GP is seen as a status symbol for the nation and the government helps with cash injections. Notice that half of the Turkish GP’s FIA fine this year was paid by the Turkish government – they want to retain their race because it has benefits beyond mere money; there is national pride to be considered.

In Europe, F1 has been around too long for its subsidiary benefits to be recognized by governments. It’s a case of familiarity breeds contempt. It would be hard, too, for a European government to justify huge expenditure on a GP to its constituents – too many of them could not care less about the sport.

So the spread of F1 to far corners of the earth will continue and fewer old circuits will be used in the future. But, just occasionally, the traditionalists get the last laugh – and here’s an item that made me smile:

F1 Racing-live reports that practice for the A1GP race in Beijing has had to be suspended because the cars just could not negotiate the hairpin. Total chaos ensued on the first lap, it seems. How ironic that all the money and hype has been insufficient to produce a circuit that cars can actually drive around…

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