Preparations for tomorrow's British Grand Prix here have been thrown into chaos by bad weather that threatens to bring considerable disruption to the rescheduled event.
Fears expressed by drivers, teams and spectators were confirmed yesterday when rain reduced the practice session to a farce and forced the organisers to close public car parks for today's practice and qualifying. The drastic measure, intended to give Silverstone time to work on parking areas for today's race, will cost the circuit more than £3m. But officials believe that is a price worth paying to ensure today's race goes ahead in front of a capacity crowd of more than 90,000.
An attendance of about 40,000 had been expected today, but the likelihood is that barely half that total will make it. Those who already have tickets will have their money refunded. Denys Rohan, chief executive of Silverstone, said: "This is just about my worse nightmare. There will be no profit in this grand prix."
The race has been switched from its traditional July date in a calendar shuffled to accommodate an extra grand prix, in the United States. Many within the sport believe Bernie Ecclestone, vice president of FIA, the organising body, and Formula One impresario, made the change to remind Silverstone who runs the show. The two parties have been involved in a power struggle over the venue for the grand prix.
However, Ecclestone yesterday denied the new scheduling was vindictive. "I am sorry this race has had to be scheduled at this time of the year but it's not my doing," he said. "This was a little bit of politics. Internal pressures made us decide on this date. I thought France would have been the right thing to do but we weren't able to go ahead with Magny-Cours as planned. I had also thought of Austria, but there was a chance of snow there at this time of year. You can never predict the weather. It's England. I've been here in July when it's poured down. We've had it like this lots of times. But I believe it would have been better to have stayed with the original date. I'm going to see to it the British Grand Prix goes back to its traditional date next year."
Ecclestone confirmed that Silverstone would have to bear the cost of turning away cars today. "The outdoor promoter is always at risk," Ecclestone said. "It's like promoting a pop concert. But at the same time they don't pay us more when they get a 200,000 crowd.
"I'm more disappointed for the public. There was nothing else that could have been done."
And yet many warned it could be. The unfolding fiasco was reflected on the circuit, when a Land Rover was sent out to rescue David Coulthard's stricken McLaren-Mercedes from a grassed area. The rescue vehicle became stuck and had to be rescued by a machine with tractor-type wheels.
Up to 30,000 cars had been expected at Silverstone today. Instead, only coaches and bicycles will be allowed through the gates. Squads of workmen will be on the car parks, which are nothing more than fields, laying hardcore and straw at the entrances. It is hoped that, whatever the weather tomorrow, cars will be able to get in and out of the circuit.
Rohan said: "We had to come to a hard decision. We had to sacrifice qualifying day to make sure the public could come to the race. The weather has been exceptionally wet and the water table has simply not been able to go down. The fields are completely swamped."
The drivers, not unreasonably, are concerned about conditions. Mika Hakkinen, McLaren's world champion, said: "There are huge pools around the track making it extremely dangerous."
Heinz-Harald Frentzen, driving a Jordan-Mugen-Honda, topped the meaningless time sheets yesterday. Eddie Irvine, in a Jaguar, was second, followed by Coulthard and Hakkinen.
Michael Schumacher, the championship leader, was 21st in his Ferrari and Johnny Herbert, in the other Jaguar, 22nd and last.
British Grand Prix Leading practice times (Silverstone): 1 H-H Frentzen (Germany) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1 min and 27.683 secs (average speed 211.073 kph); 2 E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 1:28.169; 3 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28.525; 4 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:28.659; 5 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Mugen-Honda 1:28.705; 6 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 1:28.845; 7 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari 1:29.083; 8 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton-Playlife 1:29.111; 9 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Playlife 1:29.214; 10 M Gene (Sp) Minardi-Fondmetal 1:29.537; 11 J Button (GB) Williams-BMW 1:29.775; 12 P Diniz (Bra) Sauber-Petronas 1:30.214; 13 P de la Rosa (Sp) Arrows-Supertec 1:30.279; 14 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Supertec 1:30.313; 15 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1:30.593; 16 Mika Salo (Fin) Sauber-Petrnas 1:30.643; 17 J Alesi (Fr) Prost -Peugeot 1:30.656; 18 N Heidfeld (Ger) Prost-Peugeot 1:31.006; 19 G Mazzacane (Arg) Minardi-Fondmetal 1:31.250; 20 R Zonta (Bra) BAR-Honda 1:31.322; 21 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:36.425; 22 Johnny Herbert (GB) Jaguar 1:39.690
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