Chaos at the British grand farce

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The Independent Online

Politics, and the worst April weather since 1931, have conspired to render the British Grand Prix at Silverstone the sporting farce of the year.

As Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone was raising his hands in a plea of mea non culpa, the organisers of the jewel in British motorsport's crown - the RAC Motor Sports Association and circuit owners the British Racing Drivers' Club - were obliged to take the extraordinary decision to ban spectators from arriving by private car yesterday.

As early as Thursday the rain had rendered Silverstone's car parks impassable quagmires. Faced with even greater chaos as more than 40,000 paying spectators were expected yesterday, they closed the car parks in the hope that they would be usable for the 90,000 fans expected today.

Ecclestone expects to be blamed. "People are probably pointing the finger at me," he admitted. "I get the blame for most things. But I don't deserve the blame for this. Internal politics caused the change of date." Yet nothing happens in Formula One without Ecclestone's say-so, such is the strength of his autocracy.

At the heart of the disaster - which makes the occasional flooding at Wimbledon seem nothing worse than a trivial irritation - lies the change of the British Grand Prix's traditional date from July to April. It is perceived to be another shot in the ongoing war between Ecclestone and the BRDC over who runs the race.

The BRDC own Silverstone and licence the race from Ecclestone in collaboration with the RAC MSA. Ecclestone, who runs the majority of other grands prix via his Formula One Administration operation, would like to bring the maverick British GP into line with this rewarding arrangement. Back in 1987, a disagreement with the late John Foulston, at that time the owner of Brands Hatch, prompted Ecclestone to switch from the comfortable rotating arrangement between the two circuits to an exclusive arrangement with Silverstone. Now, from 2002 until 2007, he has granted Brands Hatch Leisure the rights.

After 14 years of religiously re-investing the profits from the grand prix into the circuit, the BRDC have moved Silverstone light years ahead of Brands Hatch. But the switch to Brands Hatch Leisure was interpreted as a means by which Foulston's daughter Nicola, who took over after his death in a 1987 crash at Silverstone, could leverage the purchase of Silverstone to add to BHL's portfolio. She has since sold out to US services giant Octagon, who are now investigating the feasibility of staging the British Grand Prix at Donington Park.

Ecclestone said: "Somebody had to have this date, and Silverstone agreed." But the BRDC had no choice once the Austrians had rejected an April date. Emphatically the BRDC did not want to surrender their summer slot, their members remembering the International Trophy race in 1973 in which the Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson spun out of the lead after encountering a snow storm at Becketts Corner.

"But it seems," said Ken Tyrrell, who recently stepped down to make way for Jackie Stewart as the new chairman of the BRDC, "that Austria has stronger lobbyists."

Ironically, qualifying yesterday afternoon took place on a dry track as the weather improved temporarily. But as championship rivals Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen struggled to find a clear road in the closing stages, Rubens Barrichello took his first pole position since joining Ferrari. Heinz-Harald Frentzen was second fastest, ahead of Hakkinen, David Coulthard and Schumacher. Britain's Jenson Button starts sixth on the grid.