Farewell mud and muck, welcome new-age racing

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The Independent Online

Though the images are so indelibly etched into the psyche of racegoers that they may take years to recede, Sir Jackie Stewart promises British Grand Prix spectators that things will only get better.

Who will ever forget the mudbath that was Silverstone last Easter? Or the sight of traffic cops turning spectators away rather than exacerbate the problem of boggy car parks? Hapless spectators were told to park on roads – the dual carriageway section of the A43 to the M1 was lined with abandoned cars. With the hardiness that is their hallmark, they gathered their knapsacks, wellingtons and kagoules, their beer coolers and collapsible chairs, and trekked to their Holy Grail.

So serious was the situation and its aftermath that the British Racing Drivers' Club, owners of Silverstone, ran a genuine risk of losing their Grand Prix (and thus their biggest source of income).

Now new partners, the BRDC and Octagon Motorsports, who have leased the circuit for 15 years, are determined to expunge those memories, and Stewart, president of the BRDC, has promised that a massive investment will turn the venue into a "centre of excellence" for British motorsport.

Once-bitten fans may take some persuading after last year, but Rob Bain, chief executive of Octagon, pledges that the race will run far more smoothly now that the paying spectator has been elevated to pole position. "We have carried out a huge amount of work over the winter months with this year's event in mind," Bain says.

"We've spent about £750,000 on car parking. We've laid about 800,00 square feet of netting that will reinforce the car parks, built about four miles of additional access roads to those car parks. Going beyond that [to 2003], the spectator will get better value. Better entry and exit times. And better viewing on the track itself.

"Right now our priority has been to make considerable improvements to short-term parking and traffic flow. We are confident that the car parks will be dry." Not all spectators will need to use them, as Silverstone will operate a park and ride coach shuttle system, to ease the traditional congestion. And undoubtedly the return to a traditional July date has eased some of the fears about the weather.

Stewart says that Silverstone will again become a state-of-the-art track by 2003, (though the lamentable facilities at tracks such as Interlagos in Brazil, Suzuka in Japan, Jerez in Spain or Estoril in Portugal put the criticisms of Silverstone into perspective). The BRDC plan has the full backing of Bernie Ecclestone, who together with the BRDC and Octagon Motorsports will help provide the £40m necessary to achieve the initial revamp.

"Motor racing has got to change the way it does business, because we are not used to those things," Stewart says. "If I'm ever talking to a government minister or an MP and they're discussing what motor racing needs, I ask them if they've ever been to Disneyworld. If they have, I ask them what they stood on when they got out of their car. They say Tarmacadam. I tell them, 'well, we haven't got any of that'." And Tarmacadam costs money. A lot of it. Stewart mentions figures around £80m for the complete package, which will later include a new press room with capacity for 700, and greater leisure facilities which include an Imax cinema.

Under the first phase of the development the circuit will be totally revamped in time for the 2003 race, with the pits facility resited on the straight between Club Corner and Abbey. Michael Schumacher, and David Coulthard were consulted, while Martin Brundle suggested that Club corner be banked to help overtaking possibilities on the run past the pits and down to a new layout at Abbey which will make the infield section faster and promote further overtaking chances.

Stewart, who is optimistic that the Government will release sufficient funding for the second £40m phase, adds: "All the other leisure activities which we, as motor racing, compete against, have much better toilets, much better restaurants, a better experience for entire families. We need to match them."

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