Formula for peace as Ecclestone meets Silverstone halfway

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The Independent Online

Bernie Ecclestone, the holder of Formula One's commercial rights, has thrown the British Grand Prix an unexpected lifeline, with a goodwill offer to halve the shortfall between his £8.9m demand and the British Racing Drivers' Club's offer of £6m. "We agreed with the Minister of Sport, Richard Caborn, who asked me, 'Bernie, can't you help do something about it?' " Ecclestone said. "So we split the difference. It's about £1.5m."

Annually the British Grand Prix contributes some £40m to the local economy and national tax revenues, and the motorsport industry's international trade is worth upwards of £3bn. Ecclestone, who has described the BRDC as "a gentlemen's club which is a bit short of gentlemen", added: "I read the Northampton area was going to lose £30m if this race went away. I thought they would just have said to the BRDC, 'You're short of £1.5m, we'll put that in because we're still £28m better off'. But nobody wants to give anything. They expect us to do everything, and we have. We've met people halfway because that's what our sports minister asked us to do."

Earlier, Sir Jackie Stewart had expressed the fear that without the British GP the UK would lose its lead in motorsport technology within a decade. The three-time world champion, who is the president of the BRDC, said: "Never before have so many nations seen the potential of owning our dominant technology. If we lose our major event, we could lose that lead.

"Every nation sees the economic benefit from a grand prix that is televised in 202 countries, and flashes them on to the screens of the world to 360m people. It says, 'We are Malaysia. We are not under-developed.' Bahrain says, 'We are a nation.' China says, 'We are the biggest nation, and therefore we've got to have a grand prix.' Turkey says, 'We spend more in tourism advertising, so we've got to have one.' Formula One is now a global industry."

He added: "We have to fight to retain the British Grand Prix, because if we lose it we will lose the industry in six to 10 years. After golf hit Spain through Seve Ballesteros, there are a whole lot more golf courses there; likewise, after Boris Becker arrived, there were more tennis players in Germany. People could go and see them perform, and people were inspired to emulate them. If we don't have heroes racing and winning a big race within our own land, that watershed disappears."

The BRDC's chief executive, Alex Hooten, said: "Two years ago, a report by the Motor-sport Competitiveness Panel came to the unanimous conclusion that loss of the grand prix would lead to gradual erosion of the industry. Certainly if we lost Formula One testing it would lead to a gradual decline in the standard of the circuit. Without the revenue from the British Grand Prix we could not generate capital investment."

Silverstone wants to create an up-to-date centre for the motorsport industry, but for less than the $240m the Chinese government invested in Shanghai. With no grand prix that would not be possible.

"We have invested three- quarters of a million in helping young drivers," Hooten said. "We were prepared to take a lot of commercial risk in our bid on the basis that if we made a loss we could take up some of the slack by cutting back on such things, or the benefits we offer members.

"But running a non-GP circuit is not something that makes people in the UK much money. The altruistic things the BRDC have done would come under very serious review. I can't see any domestic competition or championship that would come remotely close to replacing the grand prix weekend."

Hooten is still sceptical that the open-book bid to Ecclestone might succeed without somebody, Government or patron, making up the shortfall. "I'm not particularly hopeful about the 2005 race," he said, "but this is by no means the end of F1 at Silver-stone. I think this year is as much about the overcrowded calendar as it is us falling short. We are prepared to carry the commercial risk and pay Bernie a fee, but when the major recipients of the benefits are him or the Government, via the regional economy, we cannot go much further. If we add our money to the $93m (£52m) that Bernie got from Interpublic to take the rights to the race off their hands, it's probably his richest race on the calendar."

If the remaining £1.5m can be found, and all the teams agree, the FIA, motorsport's governing body, are likely to accept an 18th race when the calendar is ratified on 13 October. "Most of the British teams are BRDC members, so it'd be easy for them to say yes," Ecclestone said, adding: "It won't be my fault if there isn't a race, that's for sure."