April 29, 2009

Decision Day Looms at Donington

Bernie Ecclestone, the man at the heart of the FIA’s crown jewel, has (yet again) thrown the British Grand Prix of 2010 in serious doubt this week. In fairness to the pint-sized powerhouse of Formula One, the troubles at the East Midlands circuit started long before Bernie got involved.

Simon Gillett, the impressive CEO of DVLL, has agreed a 150 year loan for the use of the Donington circuit from Tom Wheatcroft, the Park’s owner. However, following a string of financial complications (including the small matter of a recession) the rent bills have been lying unpaid, and most likely unopened, on Gillett’s desk since September 2008.

It clearly all got a bit too much for Wheatcroft and his son, as they reached the final straw with DVLL and commenced court proceedings for the outstanding £2.47m. So the big question is now, where does that leave the British Grand Prix? Industry insiders are mulling over a number of different options – quite which one will prove correct, only time will tell.

First, there is the (slim) option that Gillett and co. will find financial support from a third party investor – someone with a lot of money who believes in Ecclestone’s rhetoric on how the economy will benefit and companies, local and national, associated with the race will enjoy unprecedented exposure.

There is also the chance that the £2.47m won’t be paid back to Wheatcroft and Sons, leaving the Donington Park circuit a half-built, empty sand-pit languishing in the hopes and dreams of what could have been. Does Wheatcroft seriously believe this will be the most sensible option for him and his circuit? What repercussions would an empty track over Grand Prix weekend be for the future of Donington Park?

The final and most cynical option comes from the anti-Bernie camp. For years, Bernie has been forcing Formula One into the Far East or the oil-rich states of the Middle East and has long made the British Grand Prix the pariah of the Formula One calendar (much like he did with the French Grand Prix – where not enough razzmatazz caused the Magny Cours circuit’s downfall). The view from the most hard-nosed of paddock folk is that Bernie knew Donington couldn’t live up to its original pitch. If that is the case, it certainly was a timely ruse to drag the British GP away from a dilapidated, tired Silverstone only fit for club days and the odd BRDC meeting and towards a sparkling new venue on the calendar.

Bernie Ecclestone is calling for national investment in the project at Donington, as a return for the amount of income motorsport generates for the government. The House of Commons has spoken to say that motorsport is an independent entity and the government cannot be drawn into bailing out a racetrack in addition to the already nationalised banks.

So where from here for the pinnacle of British motorsport? Only time will really tell, but one thing is for sure – Tom Wheatcroft, with his crafty business nouse, his unrelenting desire to be in charge and his unwillingness to shirk away from a fight is unlikely to back down in the ensuing legal battle with Simon Gillett.

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