I was going to write a “usual” introduction to the Silverstone race weekend, but then I realized there is nothing usual about it. Silverstone has gotten the short end of the stick, and, as a consequence, the sun isn’t shining anywhere, except maybe at the MotoGP rights holder Dorna’s headquarters. The MotoGP powerhouse, spearheaded by Chief executive Carmelo Ezpeleta, is playing around with the circuits and broadcasting networks like a spoiled rich brat bullying the smaller poor children at a playground. It seems the older the men in power get, the more they forget about the past and its heritage. We almost lost Brno, now it has come down to Silverstone.
The legendary racetrack, known as “The home of British Motorsport”, got a grand makeover ahead of the 2011 F1 race. But the facelift didn’t happen without the whining and dealings of Formula One’s strong man, Bernie Ecclestone. According to Damon Hill, at the time the president of the Silverstone promoters British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC), some members opposed the fees and weren’t exactly the easiest people to deal with. Bernie had enough and threatened to move the circus to Donington Park, but Donington failed to cough up the “dosh”, £135m to be exact. Bernie made peace with the BRDC and agreed to sign a new,17-year contract, on the condition that they build a new pit lane.
And what a pit lane it is! Designed by the architects, who made the London 2012 Olympic Stadium, it boasts three stories and is 390 meters long. It cost around £27m and everybody was happy, except for the people running Donington Park.
MotoGP was set to make its modern Silverstone return in 2010, but a closer inspection of the track deemed it unfit for MotoGP and the insane speeds that come with it. Riders were especially concerned about the bridge at Bridge Corner. So, in 2009, a £5m renovation plan saw the light of day. A new arena section was built and, again, everybody was happy, or at least we thought so.
Roll on 2014 and the Circuit of Wales. Well not quite, this year’s round will still be held at Silverstone, but it looks like it might be for the last time. Next year it shall be in Wales. Or the year after that… nobody really seem to know. In the meantime, everybody can start a bidding war in case the circuit isn’t finished on time (2016?). That means that Silverstone might host it next year after all, even though they, now, officially lost the contract. Or it might be Donington Park… or maybe… it will be in your backyard if you can build a safe enough track and have enough quids left over to fill the necessary pockets.
Oh, ye of little faith
In theory there is nothing wrong with the Circuit of Wales. It is nothing but an extremely ambitious project, but ambition alone doesn’t necessarily turn it into a good idea. The world is full of race tracks, some are better, some are worse. The world is also filled with different kind of sport venues that were built for grand events, with the hope of boosting the regional economy. Arena Amazônia, the jungle stadium in Manaus built for the 2014 Brazilian World Cup, is the most recent example of “raving mad”, but unfortunately, it isn’t the only one.
A quick Google search reveals the sad tales from the past. The Olympic venues from Athens 2004 are ghost structures in a dead landscape. Sochi, the host of the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, looks like a half finished utopia. Beijing’s arenas are faded dusty propaganda pieces, and Sarajevo, well… they had other things to worry about than the state of their 1984 Winter Olympic venues. The same goes for the football stadiums in Ukraine that were built for Euro 2012. Not that Poland is filling up its stadiums on a daily basis.
Of course, there are also examples, where the sporting event and its facilities actually had the desired positive effect on the region, for instance Barcelona. And there are former sporting structures that have been successfully rebuilt into apartments, malls and even an evangelic church (Lakewood Megachurch). But those are not options when it comes to a racetrack.
So we are back to Wales. According to the plans, the £280m facility will feature testing possibilities for car manufacturers, a karting track and a motocross track, as well as a young riders academy. The Heads of the Valleys Development Company (HVDC) chief executive, Michael Carrick, has said the Circuit of Wales could become a key driving force for the Welsh and British economies. He claims the scheme would create 3000 jobs during the construction phase, and between 4000 to 6000 posts, once the circuit is complete – according to the Daily Mail.
If I were nice, I would say it’s an overly optimistic statement. If I were honest, I would say it’s a load of rubbish. And I’m not the only one being sceptical. The project’s progress so far has been anything but smooth sailing.
One of the persons, who helped to introduce HVCD to Welsh government officials, is Prof. Garel Rhys, chair of the Welsh Automotive Forum. He told “Week In Week Out“ (a BBC Wales TV-program), that he supports the idea as such, but that he has concerns about the jobs predictions:
“It increases expectation to an incredible height and where are those [jobs] going to come from? You need incredible multipliers to get to 6000 – so I’ve thought when it was said that it was silly. If you could have 1000-plus [jobs] on the Heads of the Valleys, fantastic – but a figure of 6000 really doesn’t do any good to anybody.” he said.
A letter to the PM
There have been questions raised about the use of public funding and the lack of transparency. The Welsh government is supposed to invest £30m pounds, according to a letter seen by “Week In Week Out”. Michael Carrick commented that the proposed investment from the Welsh government “is not a huge amount of public money” and a “quite a modest contribution” – writes BBC.com. “Week In Week Out” also claims to have discovered that HVDC is seeking an additional £20m commitment from the UK government.
Silverstone isn’t taking the loss on the chin and has written a letter to the Prime Minister asking for clarification. The letter read:
“An injection of funds by the Welsh and/or UK governments to the Circuit of Wales project would amount to a transfer of state resources, which gives Circuit of Wales an economic and selective advantage over other circuits. As such, it could amount to illegal state aid.”
“There are a number of well-established, privately funded circuits in the UK including Wales that feel the British motor sport industry would be threatened by the addition of a government-funded circuit.”
The circuit’s governing body also released a statement on the matter:
“Silverstone has no objection to competition between UK circuits, but it has to be a level playing field.”
“Silverstone reiterates that it is sympathetic to the economic situation in Ebbw Vale, but motor sport at circuit level is not particularly profitable and is often loss-making.”
“Many UK circuits are under-utilised and struggle for revenue. It is unrealistic to suggest Circuit of Wales will be the exception.”
Doubting auditor and angry tree huggers
After being refused access to one report about the decision to award the development a £2m grant in 2012, Conservative AM Antoinette Sandbach made claims for more transparency. She also requested that the Welsh government conducts an investigation into whether more public money should be spent on the project.
The Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas, said that the report had not considered concerns from other circuit owners, who warned, that few circuits actually make a profit.
“It doesn’t look in sufficient depth of detail whether the claims the company make are accurate, deliverable – and actually the Welsh government and the Auditor General have identified that it is high risk. And if it is, then you need to assess how great is that risk, because otherwise we are going to lose that – and it’s money that could be spent in other ways in Wales.” he said according to BBC.com.
On top of everything else, environmentalists have opposed the building of the track, as it is adjoining a national park. Meanwhile, the now sacked Welsh Environment Minister, Alun Davies, lobbied the environmental regulator Natural Resources Wales (NRW), in favour of building the race track in his constituency. And who was responsible for NRW? Well… Alun Davies of course.
It’s an old saying that sports and politics should not mix, but in today’s day and age they are like two peas in a pod, with the money being the delicious side order.
Bradley Smith lives in Andorra for a reason (besides the local tax laws)
I understand how a region with high unemployment can see the Circuit of Wales as Christmas come early, and I want to see them prosper as much as the next person. But, let’s stop for a second, take it down to a basic level and ask ourselves: why do young British riders go to southern Europe, in particular Spain, to hone their skills? Well, the competition level in the championships is very good, the bikes are similar to the ones we see in Moto3, the race tracks are lovely and it isn’t raining cats and dogs nine months out of twelve!
If rain is to your liking, well then you have Donington Park, Cadwell Park, Brands Hatch, Goodwood, Knockhill, Mallory Park, Snetterton and so on. And if you must get wet in Wales, than you have Pembrey or Anglesey and such. Sure, you won’t be flying down the straights with a MotoGP bike, but you have Silverstone for that… sorry, I meant had… you have the Circuit of Wales… maybe… in the future… oh sod it! Just look at it this way darling: we will always have Qatar.