Stewart in plea to Ecclestone after British Grand Prix is axed

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Sir Jackie Stewart, one of the sport's legendary names, yesterday pleaded with Bernie Ecclestone and the Government to "think again" after the British Grand Prix was dropped from the provisional 2005 Formula One calendar.

Sir Jackie Stewart, one of the sport's legendary names, yesterday pleaded with Bernie Ecclestone and the Government to "think again" after the British Grand Prix was dropped from the provisional 2005 Formula One calendar.

The dropping of the oldest race on the world championship schedule followed irreconcilable differences between F1's commercial rights holder, Ecclestone, and the British Racing Drivers' Club, who own the Silverstone circuit.

Stewart, who is the BDRC's president, said: "We regret that the Government, unlike governments in almost every other country which host a grand prix, have not been able to pull together a package to help the retention of the grand prix in this country.

"Even at this late stage we would ask Mr Ecclestone and the Government to think again and see if we can retain the grand prix for the sake of the industry, sport and the country."

Ecclestone was not in a consolatory mood. "We're not dealing with businessmen ­ were dealing with an gentlemen's club, which is a bit short of gentlemen actually. They [the BDRC] should be running tennis," he said last night.

The collapse of talks and the BRDC's failure to come up with the fee Ecclestone requires from European race organisers have removed Britain's most important motor racing event after an unbroken run of 54 years.

"I have 17 contracts with race sites which I will put forward to

the world council of the FIA [the sport's governing body] for ratification on 13 October as the calendar for the 2005 season, and the British Grand Prix is not among them," Ecclestone said .

The British Grand Prix opened the world championship

in 1950, but the BRDC has come under increasing threat as anti-tobacco legislation started to drive the sport further afield.

The Chinese government invested $240m (£132.5m) in the opulent venue for last weekend's inaugural Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai, and a further $40m per year fee for Ecclestone. "There is no way we can ever compete with that kind of funding," said Stewart, the former triple world champion.

Ecclestone wanted £8.9m from the BRDC to stage the

2005 event. The BRDC's chief executive, Alex Hooten, said he was hopeful that a counter offer, believed to be £6m, would be acceptable to Ecclestone. "Our offer falls short of what Mr Ecclestone requires but it is an offer that doesn't offer any real prospect of making any profit at all. Indeed, it exposes us to making a considerable loss," he said.

However, Ecclestone ­ who once said of Silverstone, "It is like an old house that claims to need only a few repairs. Actually it needs major reconstruction. I don't see a future for it" ­ warned the BRDC not to play hardball. "I am the wrong guy to play hardball with. I have had a lot of practice and I'm pretty good at it."

Hooten said the only help the BRDC received from the Government was to help negotiations with Ecclestone, but hoped ministers might make up the shortfall. That is unlikely after the furore surrounding Tony Blair's newly formed leadership back in 1997 when Ecclestone donated £1m to New Labour.

Stewart warns that losing the British GP could cost the country its technological superiority in motor sport. "If we lose it, we will lose the industry in a matter of six to 10 years, maximum."

After the prolonged, acrimonious arguments, it was inevitable that the British GP had to die in order to live again. But all may not be lost. There is a suggestion that the FIA's statutes contain a covenant to protect key historical races ­ Britain, Italy, Monaco and France. Both the French and Canadian GPs were left off the initial provisional calendars for 2004, but each found the necessary funding at the 11th hour.

Ecclestone has made it clear that while there is no leeway to include the race in the 17 grand prix he is contractually obliged to offer to the FIA, an accommodation could be reached. "If I were to receive a signed contract from Silverstone, I would then have to go to all the teams and ask if they were prepared to participate in 18 races," he said. "If they want 18, I couldn't care less. It's Britain, it's possible."

The British GP may be given a reprieve if the funding is sourced before the world council meets to ratify the calendar on 13 October. But Ecclestone said he had no objection to the race being reinstated for 2006.