MOTOR RACING; Silverstone's `old boys' under attack

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THE OWNERS of Silverstone were labelled a bunch of "old boys" after they all but lost the British Grand Prix to Brands Hatch yesterday.

Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One's ringmaster, has agreed a deal that should see the race being switched to Brands Hatch from 2002 - though it could yet remain at the former wartime airfield in Northamptonshire.

Ecclestone criticised the British Racing Drivers' Club, which runs Silverstone, claiming it had turned down the chance to extend a contract which runs out in two years' time.

He said the race had been saved from falling off the calendar following his agreement with millionairess Nicola Foulston and her Brands Hatch Leisure group.

"The BRDC did not want to sign a contract," said Ecclestone, who runs Formula One Administration. "But Nicola seems an up-together person who would do what we wanted to do. We have reached an agreement which has saved the British Grand Prix. If we had not done this those people [BRDC] would not have signed a contract and there wouldn't have been a British Grand Prix, that's 100 per cent sure."

"Nicola is committed, she has to be, she is commercial, not like the old boys who do what they like. Silverstone is basically run like a big club race.

"They have built a new grandstand, but the circuit still looks a bit tired - a bit Battle of Britain. I could run it at Biggin Hill [which Ecclestone part owns] if I wanted that."

However, yesterday's joint announcement in Monaco, where the Formula One circus is preparing for tomorrow's Monaco Grand Prix, and Kent does not definitely herald the race's return to Brands. It may yet be another stage in the struggle for Silverstone. BRDC insists that it is still in contention to host the race from 2002 and believe the massive work needed at the Kent circuit will prove insurmountable.

Foulston launched a take-over bid for Silverstone earlier this year which the BRDC rejected, responding with proposals aimed at safeguarding its future from hostile bids.

Foulston, BHL's chief executive, hinted yesterday that if the BRDC now used the "window of opportunity" and agreed to her take-over then Silverstone would remain the venue for the annual July race.

"The window of opportunity is in their hands. We are running now towards the grand prix in 2002. We were interested in buying Silverstone as a venue with a grand prix; now we are interested in buying Silverstone as a venue without a grand prix."

Ecclestone added: "If by chance Nicola manages to secure Silverstone, the race will be put on at Silverstone. If not it will be at Brands Hatch. They have the funds and commitment."

Foulston is prepared to spend the pounds 20m needed to upgrade the facilities at Brands, which last hosted a round of the world championship in 1986.

Foulston, who is confident that planning permission would be given, is understood to have agreed to pay around pounds 11m a year to stage the race - double the contract with Silverstone.

Damon Hill, Britain's 1996 world champion who would have made around pounds 70,000 as a BRDC member under its proposed changes, is ready to race at Brands Hatch.

Hill, a former "Champion of Brands" from his motorcycling days, said: "Quite often we go to the same track so a change would be nice. But they will have to do a lot of work and spend a lot of money.

"The problem with the BRDC is that too many people are involved to make the right decision. I'm a BRDC member but there has been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. You never get agreement when there are more than two people involved."

Stirling Moss, who is one of the vice-presidents of the BRDC, said: "I think at Silverstone we have run very good races and it would be a shame if the Grand Prix goes," he said. "Being the most important club there is, I think it would be unfortunate if we did not have it. I would be disappointed."

Grand Prix battle, Business, page 20