Brands' new dilemma

Norman Fox says that the dark clouds may lighten over Silverstone

Silverstone, inadequate by modern standards, unpopular with Formula One's governing body, the FIA, and damningly criticised after this year's rain-soaked fiasco, is fighting back to become the long-term saviour of the British Grand Prix. The World Motor Sport Council last week reluctantly reprieved the circuit for next year's event and moved it back to the traditional month of July. After that the FIA believe they will be rid of the old airfield. They could be wrong.

Silverstone, inadequate by modern standards, unpopular with Formula One's governing body, the FIA, and damningly criticised after this year's rain-soaked fiasco, is fighting back to become the long-term saviour of the British Grand Prix. The World Motor Sport Council last week reluctantly reprieved the circuit for next year's event and moved it back to the traditional month of July. After that the FIA believe they will be rid of the old airfield. They could be wrong.

The proposed alternative to Silverstone remains Brands Hatch, which although it has the rights to the British GP from 2002 is not certain to win at a public inquiry which could block plans for a £30m development programme. Nick Raynsford, the Government's planning minister, is known to feel that work at Brands would have a detrimental effect on an area of considerable natural beauty. Nobody could make that accusation against developing Silverstone's bleak acres.

Even if redevelopment did take place, Brands would still face serious impediments, not least the limited size of the whole complex and access problems. While Silverstone is hideously difficult to reach and leave, on the only occasions in recent years crowds of 100,000 or more have gone to Brands (for World Superbike events) traffic has caused serious disruption to the M25 - in spite of the fact that large numbers of spectators were on motorcycles.

Rockingham, the new circuit in Northamptonshire, could be a future contender for the British GP, and the only other possibility is Donington Park, which is below today's F1 standards. Donington's owner, Tom Wheatcroft, has turned down an offer from SFX, an American company, to double their 25-year lease on the grounds that the money was "an insult".

So, even by default, Silverstone's owners, the British Racing Drivers' Club members, feel more confident. They base their long-term hopes on more investment - not to speak of better weather - and the support of the teams based in the vicinity. In the hope of encouraging them to lobby on their behalf, Silverstone has promised that, given an extended British GP contract, it will build an exclusive Formula One centre with permanent garages for each team. Testing within a few miles of production is hugely attractive.

The decision to move this year's British GP from July to April was a belligerent shot across the bows of the BRDC from the sport's most powerful man, the FIA vice-president Bernie Ecclestone, who has said Silverstone should be pulled down. He now knows that the outcome of the Brands Hatch inquiry could well be withheld for so long that it becomes impossible for the Kent circuit to finish work in time for the 2002 GP.

This year's terrible publicity provided an opportunity to kill off Silverstone. However, the non-profit-making BRDC, with their image of older-generation enthusiasts in deerstalkers, are spry opponents. The president, Jackie Stewart, feels that while the club are keen to see improvements at any circuits, he believes that Silverstone is "the focal point of the technology and skills that drive the world of motor sport".

Stewart said: "We have always maintained that the key issue is the commercial viability of the British GP. Silverstone is commercially viable for the GP and always will be." He has serious doubts that even if Brands overcame the inquiry the circuit would make commercial sense. There is a strong feeling among even those fans who love the amphitheatre atmosphere and undulations of Brands that if millions of pounds have to be invested, shareholders will need to be rewarded and the cost of attending a grand prix there will be even higher than it has been at Silverstone.

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