Work to get Donington Park ready for the 2010 British Grand Prix begins in earnest today after plans for a £100 million track revamp were given planning permission on Thursday night.
The green light from the local council has brought a fresh reality to the ambitions of Donington Park CEO Simon Gillett to host next year's Formula One race, and provides further reason to silence the many doubters who have been sceptical about the event taking place.
Autosport.com spoke exclusively to Gillett on Friday morning to hear his views on the progress of the plans, what the financial situation for the circuit is and what his reaction to the critics has been.
Q. First of all, what's the first reaction to the confirmation of planning permission. How do you feel?
Simon Gillett: I'm out of this world. It is the culmination of six years' hard work after originally coming from a boyhood dream. Now, all of a sudden, yesterday gave us the green light to go ahead and do it - so I am over the moon.
Q. You spoke to autosport.com at the Monaco Business Forum, and said you thought planning permission was in the bag. Was it still a big hurdle for you to go through this process though?
SG: No matter how confident you feel on these things, and you have all the right signs and feel as positive as you like, until someone actually says you have got it, you haven't actually got it. At 7.30pm last night someone said you have got it, and that was it. We finally just tripped over the final hurdle.
Q. Was it a fairly straightforward process from signing the deal to getting everything in place. Was there a lot of work to make it happen?
SG: It has been a lot of work. It has been a full time effort from myself and my team to do the work with getting Bernie (Ecclestone) over the line and getting the planning permission over the line. But we have done both.
Q. What's the next step now then?
SG: Build it!
Q. So when does that start?
SG: Today. We were fencing yesterday with the construction team and we are on site today. That is it - we are now full speed ahead. If you go up to Donington Park today you will see some big holes have started being dug.
Q. What is the time frame for when we can expect things to be built?
SG: You will see things sprouting out of the ground quite quickly. Groundwork is first, but the first big change will be the tunnel. We are going to have a new tunnel between Coppice and McLeans, an HGV tunnel, and that will be started today and completed by February 20. The next phase then will be hitting the pit and paddock, and probably by the MotoGP in July you will see the complete building up on site.
Q. Bernie Ecclestone remarked recently that there was a September inspection. Is that all scheduled to take place?
SG: Yes, Bernie has to make sure that we are all on track, so he will be there in September and then again in March. They are both programmed in and we are confident and comfortable that we will be there.
Q. In terms of the other racing activities at the track, will they be unaffected by the work?
SG: That is the idea. The reason why the tunnel is first is that we will get it in, cover it up and then resurface the track as normal, so we have free and unfettered access to the infield. The only difference is that infield viewing this year will be unrestricted. That is the only thing we will do.
Q. Is funding now the biggest challenge for this project?
Q. So you feel it is all in place?
SG: We are comfortable with our funding. We will be announcing our funding package and debenture scheme probably by the end of quarter one, so by the end of March 2009. We think that is the right time to come out and start speaking to people about that. So you will hear a lot more then.
Q. When you signed the deal for the British Grand Prix the economic climate was a world away from what it is now. Has the funding situation changed in recent months?
SG: We are quite a good long term prospect. The fact that we have a ten-year deal is very important. If we had a five-year or three-year deal I could see how that would be really impacted by the current economic climate but the longevity of that contract and the scale of the plans gives people the comfort and the time to recoup. We all know that the green shoots of recovery will happen in the next six, 12, 18 months - whenever it will be. But we've got, if you take 18 months to our first Grand Prix and another 10 to thereafter, it gives a good return on investment and security that something will be there.
Q. There has been talk of 5000 debentures for £6000 per year.
SG: It is interesting, as I have seen that figure quoted! The final bit we are working out now is what the pricing of the debentures will be. That is why we are not coming out with that at the moment, we are fettling and tinkering. There is an interesting balance with debentures - as we have to give content and they have to give money. The amount of money they give is dependent on the amount of content we give back. So we are just working out the right balance of those two at the moment, doing a lot of third and fourth round research to make sure we get exactly what the customers want.
Q. Is the corporate route still best, with marketing being clamped down on?
SG: The debenture scheme is not a corporate vehicle - it can be. It is both a personal and corporate vehicle, and that is the balance we are working on at the moment. There is no point in me going out and selling the debenture scheme I want. The idea is we are going out to the market, and we will have interviewed around 3000-4000 people over the process of our research phase. What we will do is build the product that the 3000-4000 people think is required.
Q. How is progress going with the traffic plans?
SG: I am really excited, and that is one of the big things I am excited about. We have announced the first public transport Grand Prix, and I cannot think of another sport where 90,000 people can drive to the front door and watch. If you look at Wembley or Twickenham, they have proven that public transport is the best way to go. We have already started work on that first phase, and we have a programme of work between us, the local authority, the Highways' Agency, the Police, the emergency services and the airport over the next six months to get that fine fettled into something that we all think and all believe will work.
Q. There were some comments with you last year talking about the airport use being restricted over the GP weekend, but an airport representative said this week that that would not happen. Can you clarify that situation?
SG: Well, what we are doing is to go through a process of negotiation. What the airport will not do is lose money. They are a commercial business and they are not going to close because I have got a Grand Prix. Will they take a better financial alternative? That is what we are looking at at the moment. Those negotiations are still ongoing. We have a lot of airport traffic, from helicopters to private jets and charter jets from the continent. And the airport fee will more than recompence them for shifting around some of their standard flights around.
Q. You've hit your first major target. Everything appears on course - why have there been so many doubters from day one saying the project will not happen?
SG: I will bite my tongue for now! That is the British way, isn't it? The British way is that nothing will ever happen until it does, and then we cannot wait for it to fail. You expect it, and this business is a very closed business as well. It is very stuck in its ways. Silverstone has had the Grand Prix for a very long time and people are very used to that - and change is something that scares the pants off both this business and British people in general. Unfortunately I've come in with a little bit of change and that has upset some people.
Q. Does that criticism fire you up?
SG: Well, I've been told I wouldn't get the circuit. I've been told I wouldn't get planning. I've got both. So I am hoping now people will tell me I won't get on the grid and I won't be able to build it on time. As long as the doubters keep at it, we will keep achieving. As I've said, I am not out to convince the doubters, I am going to build it. We will still build it, we will still run the Grand Prix, and that is the best way to prove the doubters wrong.
Q. Have you ever had any doubts yourself about the scale of the project you have taken on?
SG: No. I would not have started this if I didn't think I could get to the goal. How I always look at it is that I look at the goal and then I work my way back from there. I have always been clear about this - I am going to build the world's best circuit with the world's best content and the world's best facilities.
Q. Can you see any other outcome than the 2010 British Grand Prix taking place at Donington Park?
SG: Not at all!