Sun comes up for Silverstone after Formula One deal
The fact that Bernie Ecclestone chose not to attend yesterday's high-powered press conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London's Park Lane, where the 17-year deal to safeguard the British Grand Prix at Silverstone was announced, sparked speculation that control of the prolonged negotiations was more in the hands of his partners at CVC Capital Partners than it was in his.
Ecclestone has never made any secret of his dislike for the British Racing Drivers' Club, nor the 'blue blazer' image of many of their board members.
And he has always been an intuitive entrepreneur with a fearsome reputation as a hard-nosed negotiator, so much so that the BRDC sent a full complement of their officers to Abu Dhabi — president Damon Hill, Silverstone Holdings chairman Neil England and managing director Richard Phillips — to make sure that no one individual got carried away and agreed to a deal that would not best represent the club's aspirations.
Having such a reputation has served Ecclestone well, and he has rarely failed to live up to it whenever British Grand Prix time has come around. Each summer he has usually thrown a few well chosen words into the mix, at one time memorably suggesting that “Silverstone is in far more need of renovation than an old house that just needs a lick of fresh paint.”
Such criticism has never failed to sting the BRDC, nor to anger those who have been to Brazil's Interlagos circuit and seen how poorly it compares with the former British bomber base which hosted the first-ever Formula One World Championship race in May 1950.
Despite yesterday's speculation, Ecclestone remains a power figure at the sport's epicentre. And that means speaking his mind when he has been criticised in the past by his fellow directors at CVC Capital partners. Most notably, he replied robustly when attacked by board member Sir Martin Sorrell for his comments about Hitler, and then during the weekend of the Singapore Grand Prix for allegedly giving the nod to cheating Renault chief Flavio Briatore.
As Sorrell accused him of being “totally out of touch,” Ecclestone retorted “The comments I made about Hitler... I apologised because they were taken completely wrong. As far as cheating, I haven't made any comments.
“Everybody's entitled to their opinion. Why should his (Sorrell's) opinion be more important than mine? He's not involved in the sport, he doesn't come to races. He doesn't know the people that are involved. His problem is that his brain and his mouth aren't synchronised. If he can find where I said cheating was okay I'll give him a job, and he'll probably need one the way his share price is going.”
As a British private equity company, CVC would doubtless be loathe to be seen to lose the British GP, but Ecclestone has had free rein to negotiate the deal with the BRDC.
He said that he did not attend yesterday because of pre-arranged business meetings which could not be deferred after the new deal had been signed only late last Friday.
And he refused to discuss suggestions that he had accepted an annual compound interest rate possibly as low as four per cent instead of the standard seven that features in every F1 contract around the world.
Meanwhile Hill has described Silverstone's new 17-year deal to host the British Grand Prix as tough but manageable.
”Bernie is very satisfied this is finally concluded and that Silverstone has fulfilled his requests — I won't call them demands,” he said.
“He has always wanted Silverstone to play the game, and you can respect that.
“He wants the best for his product and, if you look at it like that, you can understand why he wanted us to make a commitment.”
Asked whether 79-year-old Ecclestone had personally invested, Hill added: “Indirectly, you could say.
“He is absolutely entitled to go for the best price he can get, and he can get a better price elsewhere, so we were told.
“But, without going into the absolute detail, Silverstone is getting a chance to show what it can do.
“The team have been negotiating, and there are clearly fine margins we are working on, so small differences make big differences over a 17-year contract.
“It does look mind-blowing when you add it all up but, if you look back over the history of Formula One, the progression has been inexorable.
“We fervently hope it will continue to be inexorable, that the sport will continue to grow and attract people.”
There is an escape clause should Silverstone struggle to meet its obligations, which will kick in after 10 years.