Switch in time irks fans and drivers

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The Independent Online

"You never know," Eddie Jordan said at Silverstone yesterday, looking out of the window at the drizzle. "We're talking ourselves into forecasts of deluges and snowstorms, but by the weekend we could have glorious weather and all this will be forgotten."

As puddles formed on the stretch of asphalt where, on Sunday afternoon, 22 Formula One cars will line up on the grid for the golden jubilee edition of the British Grand Prix, his optimism seemed less than realistic. In the camp sites outside the circuit the first of the weekend's arrivals were working out how to keep their groundsheets dry. Standing water in the car-park fields promised a degree of Sunday night chaos extreme even by the usual standards of the headquarters of British motor racing, where a maze of country lanes make the post-race departure a matter of hours rather than minutes.

That regularly happens in high summer, and high summer this is not. This is late April on a plateau in Northamptonshire, at a venue notorious for the fickleness of its micro-climate. It was on this circuit and at this time of year, back in 1973, that the late Ronnie Peterson found himself racing through a snowstorm while leading the International Trophy. You would be lucky to get sporting odds against a repeat on Sunday, which is not a prospect that fills the world's best drivers with delight.

"I rate it as not the best circumstances," Michael Schumacher, the current championship leader, observed with carefully measured understatement yesterday. "I really don't know why we're here at this time of year," Mika Hakkinen, the reigning champion, said, a bit more bluntly.

Fifty years ago, the first British Grand Prix was held at Silverstone. For most of the last half-century it has occupied a regular date in July, taking an increasingly prominent place alongside Wimbledon, Ascot and the Lord's Test in the calendar of Britain's sporting summer. Traditionally, its precise slot is the week before the Open championship. This year, rudely and abruptly, the date was changed to the Easter weekend, with consequences that may be far-reaching.

As Eddie Jordan pointed out, Easter is traditionally the busiest weekend of the British motor racing year, a hectic time for hard-core fans with an interest in Formula Three, Formula Ford, or saloon and sports cars. But the British Grand Prix is something else. Over the years it has become, like its equivalent in Monaco, a prime opportunity for sponsors' jollies and oodles of corporate hospitality. But, given the weather forecast, this year the Wellington boots may outnumber the Gucci loafers in Paddy McNally's Paddock Club, where guests are entertained at upwards of £1,000 a head.

There are more important consequences, most of them financial. Already the circuit is admitting that corporate hospitality bookings are down by 25 per cent. Grandstand tickets for the practice days remained available, to an event which normally sells out a year in advance, until the circuit halted sales yesterday citing fears of chaos in the car parks.

As for the drivers, they are probably facing the prospect of the season's first wet race. Hakkinen was asked whether the conditions made the weekend more dangerous. "Well, you could get a bad cold," he replied. But the people most likely to catch a cold seem to be the members of the British Racing Drivers' Club, the venerable association whose 600 members own Silverstone and who pay Bernie Ecclestone a fee for a licence to promote the British Grand Prix.

For the last few years, Ecclestone has been mounting an undisguised campaign to change that situation. To Formula One's ringmaster, the BRDC is an old-fashioned organisation with antiquated ideas, standing in the way of commercial progress.

Last year he awarded the licence for the grand prix for the years 2002-2007 to Brands Hatch Leisure, a company then headed by the formidable Nicola Foulston, despite the fact that no grand prix has been held at the Kent circuit for 15 years, its facilities are a long way out of line with present requirements, and modifications would require the sort of planning permission inviting the opposition of environmentalists. But Foulston had agreed to pay Ecclestone's figure of £11m a year for thelicence, rather than the £5m the BRDC has been charged under the existing deal.

Not coincidentally, Foulston was in the middle of attempting to add Silverstone to BHL's portfolio of circuits, making an offer to the BRDC of £60,000 per member. Had she succeeded, BHL could simply have held the grand prix at Silverstone, obviating the need to spend tens of millions of pounds updating Brands Hatch.

Their refusal angered Ecclestone, and the sudden rescheduling of the grand prix was the immediate result. Rule number one in Formula One, they say, is don't cross Bernie. Whether or not the decision was made in order to exert extra pressure on the BRDC, that is almost certain to be the result.

Foulston's unexpected decision to sell Brands Hatch Leisure to Octagon, a division of a US leisure services company, late last year appears to have made little difference to the war currently being waged over the ultimate fate of the Britain's most famous motor race. The latest rumour is that BHL will make a deal to hold the race at Donington Park, the site of the 1993 European Grand Prix, where the facilities will require less in the way of upgrading.

The men who build and drive the cars are too aware of the role Ecclestone has played in their fortunes to want to rock the boat, however much they may detest the idea of racing at Silverstone in April. "We team principals are as chaff in the breeze," Sir Frank Williams joked yesterday, while declining to express an opinion on the matter.

Eddie Jordan was a little more forthright. "I do believe certain efforts were made to change the decision," he said, "but it was too difficult once it had been made. Austria has been given the British Grand Prix date. If you have a date in July, why would you want to give it up and go back to one in April instead? Maybe that means Austria has stronger lobbyists than Britain."

Meanwhile, the first innocent victims of the conflict may be the tens of thousands of ordinary paying customers whose enthusiasm - expressed in a willingness to part with large sums of money and endure endless traffic jams and uncertain climatic conditions in order to cheer on heroes from Stirling Moss to Damon Hill - has been the foundation of the event's success.