It would appear that the fate of the British Grand Prix is still in jeopardy. Bernie Ecclestone had made plans to move the race from the historic Silverstone venue to the rival Donnington Park. Earlier this week, however, Donnington Park faced economic realties, and withdrew their bid to host the race. In short, Donnington Park is broke.
This would seem to pave the way for Silverstone to retain host status for the British Grand Prix for 2010, but a deal for this is far from a sure thing. Silverstone has been offered a 17 year contract that stipulates a 19 million euro fee for the first year, with an escalation clause that hikes the fee by 7% annually. Not surprisingly, the British Racing Drivers’ Club, who own Silverstone, are reluctant to agree to a deal that would not be financially viable, and could put the club at risk.
Damon Hill, the Formula 1 champion of 1996, and now the president of the BRDC, has assessed the matter frankly. As reported recently in The Daily Mail, Hill said, “The BRDC have to sign a contract which makes sense and can’t sign up to a contract which could get them into the same dangers as Donington. Silverstone is not responsible for providing a grand prix, and it’s not Bernie Ecclestone’s job to give a discounted race to Britain.”
Bernie Ecclestone has stated publicly that Formula 1 doesn’t need a British Grand Prix. In recent years, he made similar statements about the U.S. and Canadian venues, and those races fell off the calendar in due course. It seems that once Bernie decides that a race venue isn’t essential to the viability of the sport, the fate of that venue is sealed.
Ecclestone has done much to elevate the status of Formula 1 as a world class sport during his reign as the head of FOCA. In terms of a world viewing audience, it now rivals the Olympics and World Cup soccer. In recent years, however, the effort to make Formula 1 a truly global franchise has pushed the sport towards newer venues in developing nations, such as China, Malaysia, Bahrain, Singapore, and most recently, Abu Dhabi. This has occurred at the expense of more traditional sites in Europe and the Americas.
Ultimately, the engine that drives the sport is a commercial one. Eccelstone will cut a deal with any venue that can afford to pay his asking price. Most of the newer race venues have public subsidies to help cover hosting fees. Most European venues, on the other hand, adhere to a private-sector economic model, and are expected to be self supporting. Clearly, this puts them at a disadvantage. And while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the newer, primarily Asian franchises, one wonders if the sport is losing some of its luster as the more historic venues drop from the schedule one by one.
Said Damon Hill, “My own personal view is there’s a tradition Formula One has — look at it as an export business. The appeal and mystique of F1 is very much European, exported to countries who’d like to have some of that, and if you turn your back on that you may end up uprooting it.”
Image by big-ashb, licensed through Creative Commons.