Ecclestone's £11m demand puts future of British GP at risk

F1 supremo stirs anger as Donington Park misses final deadline to meet contract
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The Independent Online

Britain, the home of Formula One racing and birthplace of the current and numerous former world champions, faces the serious prospect of losing its Grand Prix after Bernie Ecclestone, the sport's billionaire commercial rights holder, embarked on a typical game of financial brinkmanship with the owners of Silverstone, the only circuit now capable of staging the race.

The expiry, at midday yesterday, of yet another "final" deadline set by Ecclestone for the owners of Donington Park to come up with the £130m required to redevelop the East Midlands track in time to fulfil its contract to stage a Grand Prix in 2010 (and for the 16 years thereafter), surprised no-one, not least since a statement last Friday had already confirmed a proposed bond issue had "failed to secure enough subscription".

Few in the sport ever believed it would, but there is growing anger and in many cases, genuine disgust, over Ecclestone's calculating readiness to put the British Grand Prix at risk simply to boost the coffers of the companies he controls.

His insistence over the weekend that Silverstone could sign a contract for the race as early as today is regarded as hugely misleading, when the deal on offer is effectively the same one the British Racing Drivers' Club, which owns the Northamptonshire circuit, felt unable to risk signing 18 months ago.

Essentially FOM (Formula One Management), controlled by Ecclestone, wants a guaranteed annual fee understood to be in the order of £11m, with a built-in escalator over the length of the contract. But facing the problem that their only source of income connected with the race is ticket sales, the BRDC are understood to only feel able to pay £9m.

Other potential profit generating areas, such as broadcasting rights, track signage and corporate catering, are controlled by other companies, all of which have paid FOM hefty fees.

To simply break even the BRDC has to sell enough tickets to fill the circuit close to capacity. In 2008, when a record number of tickets were bought, including 95,000 for qualifying on Saturday, and a maximum 120,000 on race day itself, Silverstone reported profits of just £662,000 on a turnover of £38.2m.

Moreover, unlike every other race on the F1 calendar, the British Grand Prix does not receive government support, although the motorsport industry – large parts of which are based close to the circuit, including several of the F1 teams themselves – provides jobs for at least 40,000 people.

While the track itself is regarded as one of the fastest and most exciting in the sport, consistently providing some of the best racing of the year, the 78-year-old Ecclestone has long pushed the BRDC to spend millions improving facilities which are undoubtedly poor by the standard of some of the new circuits that have been built in places like Bahrain, Shanghai, Turkey and Abu Dhabi.

They are not the worst on the calendar, however, and had Ecclestone not sold the contract to the owners of Donington – who agreed to all his financial demands – a new £30m pit, paddock and media centre complex would now be approaching completion.

As it is, time is running out on the oldest and arguably most popular race on the F1 calendar. As one insider pointed out, this time last year 25 per cent of the race tickets had already been sold. Ironically, next weekend's final race of the F1 season, which is being staged at the new floodlit Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi, is being marshalled and staffed almost entirely by around 350 British volunteers.

In the circumstances Ecclestone's insistence that even in the current economic climate he will not offer the British Grand Prix a reduced rate – such as those paid by Monza and the hugely wealthy tax haven of Monaco – is likely to lead to an increase in calls for his brutal commercial armlock on the sport to be broken.

BRDC president Damon Hill said yesterday he remained optimistic an agreement would be reached, but reiterated Silverstone would not sign a contract that could put the financial future of the track at risk.

"I'm confident a deal can be worked out. The contract can be of any combination of years, but it has to be affordable," Hill said.