As writer and presenter @GPFocus, Ewan Marshall roots out the real stories behind the headlines. From the days of yesteryear right up to the present, he is always keen to share his opinion on Formula One. Follow him on Twitter @EwanMarshall
July 6th, 2012 (F1plus / Ewan Marshall).- Barely a year goes by when the British Grand Prix is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. This year torrential rain has hampered organisers and forced them to take extraordinary measures – some with serious repercussions for the paying public.
Whilst the details are sketchy it would be foolish to make any real judgements; instead it would be wiser for any post-mortem to be conducted as the weekend progresses. Nevertheless, at a time like this, great sympathy must go to the fans that have faced chaos descending in their thousands and look set to face more of the same for the remainder of the festivities. The same goes for the organisers who are truly up against it in unprecedented circumstances.
However, is not the first time the race has been up against it, only to meet every challenge presented to it.
As long as there has been Formula One there has been a British Grand Prix. Alongside Italy, the country stands as the last bastion of the sport; the final link to yesteryear as it continues to modernise and move into new, green fields.
But the story of the event has been far from straightforward; instead it is one of many ups and downs, ifs and maybes which have led it towards the road of no return too often for comfort.
Grand Prix Racing in the United Kingdom dates back to well before the second war. With its famous banked oval, Brooklands hosted proceedings from 1926-27 as drivers from across the world came to compete in cars barely recognisable to those today.
But Formula One as we know it did not start out until after the Second World War, with the Silverstone circuit hosting the very first championship event in 1950, won by the Alfa Romeo of Giuseppe Farina. Ultimately the aftermath of the conflict left many of the existing facilities unusable; therefore it was of great fortune for the motor racing authorities to learn of the organisation of an informal event at the former-WW2 airfield, located in the heart of the Northamptonshire circuit. Following the race, which would effectively become known as the Mutton Grand Prix for its organiser hitting a sheep whilst competing, would spur the Royal Automobile Club into action – acquiring a lease the following year to race and develop the facility; eventually switching to the recognisable layout based around the parameter of the airfield.
Though the event grew in stature year by year, by 1954 Silverstone’s monopoly on the British Grand Prix was over, with the Topham family and the British Automobile Racing Club successfully lobbying the RAC to allow the newly-constructed Aintree circuit to alternate with Silverstone from the next year onwards. The arrangement lasted until 1962 when Brands Hatch, under new ownership and having made substantial renovations to its circuit, wrestled its place away and formed a new arrangement. Meanwhile Silverstone itself had been underwent its own series of upgrades, with the pits first moved away from the edge of the circuit before brand new garages were built by the mid-1970s – all the while complimented by owners the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC) acquiring more and more free holding estate and completing the job in the same decade.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s and Formula One was a completely different world, with the British Grand Prix still a highlight. However, a ruling from the World Motorsport Council would force countries to select only one venue for their race, leaving a tussle to ensue between the two existing venues. By 1986 talks had taken place for Bernie Ecclestone to buy Brands alongside computer-guru John Foulston, but it would be the former who would emerge in full control for an estimated $8million.
But even this transaction could not safeguard the Kent circuit’s place, as Ecclestone went on to sign a new five-year deal exclusively with Silverstone. Consequently Brands retreated into the wilderness, only to re-emerge on F1’s radar at the end of the century, sparking the start of a crisis which gripped the Grand Prix for close to a decade.
Just before the start of the 1994 British GP (LAT Photo)
Following her father’s tragic death, Nicola Foulston would launch a number of failed bids to acquire Silverstone from the BRDC before agreeing striking a deal with Formula One in May 1999 to race at Brands from 2002 onwards. Ultimately this proved to be somewhat of a red herring, with the circuit never likely to be ready in time and Foulston having sold to Interpublic, through its sports marketing arm Octagon. Realising their predicament, the American firm quickly turned its attention back to Silverstone and moved to agree terms with the BRDC for a fifteen-year lease, with the latter receiving around $7m per year which it would then be matched by the former into redeveloping the circuit to meet modern standards. Nonetheless the brakes were put on the venture from the offing, with the British Office of Fair Trade opening an investigation into the arrangement and then the untimely foot and mouth outbreak delaying construction work inside the facility and around on its access roads.
With its share price falling and having lost money from the various debacles inflicted on in the first years of its tenancy (the 2000 affair for example), Octagon sold off its motorsport investments and agreed a release fee with Ecclestone- leaving the BRDC alone to negotiate the future of the race.
Unsurprisingly talks were far from straightforward as both parties squabbled over a whole host of issues, leading to the FIA to take the unprecedented step to leave the race off the calendar in mid-2004. Thankfully the situation proved salvageable, with mediation from the British government and incentives from the East Midlands Development Agency to develop a new business park on the vicinity of the circuit leading to a new five-year extension.
Williams car at the 2006 British GP (LAT Photo)
Yet this new deal would only postpone the feud for so long and once again erupt towards its conclusion. This time it was the turn of Donington Park to enter the fray, backed by new investors led by Simon Gillett who managed to secure a new seventeen-year deal to move the race. However the Derbyshire circuit would soon be left looking a shadow of its former self when attempts to raise the finance required in time for 2010 fell through. With the Grand Prix in limbo it was Silverstone, now fully pushing on with its own overhaul plans in time for the arrival of Moto GP, to step in again – finally getting the go ahead months later, after acquiring a new deal of a similar length to that prescribed for Donington.
Bolstered by the new deal the Northamptonshire circuit could now rubberstamp its revamp and by May 2011 successfully opened its brand new state-of-the-art pit and paddock complex, costing around £28million.
Thus the story of the British Grand Prix has been far from straightforward. Instead it has been that of a rocky road, littered with potholes along the way – many of which have not been mentioned or even fully detailed in this article. But despite all of its knock backs, the event remains well supported, and a sporting tradition in the United Kingdom. Though work is still to be done to further Silverstone’s cause, all signs suggest that all the levers are in place to make sure one of Formula One’s most treasured possessions remains firmly displayed.