Future of British GP guaranteed by new deal

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The Independent Online

Silverstone Upstaged Monaco yesterday, the traditionally quiet spell during the Principality's Grand Prix, but in turn could find itself upstaged by a demonstration of Formula One cars in the centre of London.

Just as talk gained strength that there really might not be a British Grand Prix in 2005, Max Mosley, the president of the sport's world governing body, the FIA, confirmed that a three-year deal has been agreed to safeguard the race's future. The promoter's identity remains a mystery, however.

Formula One's commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone recently pocketed $93m (£54m) for taking rights to the troublesome race off the hands of the Interpublic Group, but made it clear he was not prepared to promote it. Ideally, he wants the British Racing Drivers' Club, the owner of Silverstone, to shoulder that potentially onerous burden. They appear equally unable or unwilling to do so. Other options might be for Paddy McNally, the Duchess of York's former consort who once promoted the Austrian GP on Ecclestone's behalf, to take over the duty via his Allport Management company. Or Philippe Gjurdan, Ecclestone's problem-solving associate, who has promoted 22 grands prix, in France, Spain, Malaysia and Bahrain.

Coincidentally, news broke yesterday that central London will reverberate to the sound of Formula One cars on 6 July, the Tuesday before the British Grand Prix. Teams will put on a display in Regent Street, triggering speculation about a London-based British Grand Prix as a possible sop should the capital's Olympic bid fail.

The idea of such an event has frequently been mooted, but on this occasion Ecclestone is operating in conjunction with the noted events promoter, Harvey Goldsmith, and London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone. The demonstration will put the BRDC under further pressure, and a race would provide a major boost for the capital's economy. Melbourne has shown since 1996 that such an event is possible, and 360,900 people flocked into Albert Park for this season's race.

The FIA would have to sanction the race, but, speaking in Monaco yesterday, Mosley, said the chances were: "Almost nil". However, last year the public relations company Prism had all the necessary permissions lined up for Shell to make a demonstration run on Waterloo Bridge with the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, and Ecclestone said yesterday: "I have been talking to Ken Livingstone for a couple of years, and it's possible something might come of it."

Silverstone, however, is the likely venue if the former world champion Jacques Villeneuve drives a Williams-BMW later this season. The team resolutely suggest the chances of this are as remote as the chances of a London Grand Prix. "I wish our engineers were as creative as the press!" said the team's technical director, Patrick Head. "I was rung up after Barcelona saying that they understood Jacques Villeneuve was at the Paul Ricard circuit and was going to be driving one of our cars. It was certainly the first I knew about it. I did buzz upstairs and asked Frank [the team owner, Sir Frank Williams] whether he had set something up and hadn't told me about it, but he also denied all knowledge." However, Head admitted: "All is possible in the future."

Sources within the Williams-BMW alliance suggest that Villeneuve, who won 11 grands prix for the team between 1996 and 1998, and the world championship in 1997, will drive, though he is some way down the shortlist of potential replacements for Juan Pablo Montoya (who is definitely off to McLaren in 2005) and Ralf Schumacher (who may or may not get a ride at Toyota). If it happens Villeneuve's role will be to provide a reference point when some of BMW's junior drivers get to try a Formula One car for the first time. That is unlikely to please the man whose mercurial Formula One career seemed to have ended when he left BAR-Honda in controversial circumstances just prior to the Japanese Grand Prix last year.

Some factions within the alliance believe that both BMW and Williams would far better be served by focusing on testing up-and-coming drivers. One is the Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi, who has been dominating the Formula 3000 championship this season and is on pole for tomorrow's race. When Williams first tested him, at Valencia back in 2002, his first acquaintance with both a Formula One car and the circuit saw him lap only 1.2sec off Montoya within 20 laps before problems intervened. Since then Williams has tried out sons of famous world champions Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet Jnr, as well as the IRL American series champion, Scott Dixon. Now they are set to take another look at Liuzzi, though David Coulthard and the team's test driver, Antonio Pizzonia, are also in the frame.

The hot favourite, Mark Webber, may yet have to stay with Jaguar if they hit sixth place prior to the mid-season point. The team chief, Tony Purnell, wants to hang on to Webber, but is also an unashamed Liuzzi fan.

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