Donington GP hopes hinge on extended lease?

Donington Park's chances of hosting the British Grand Prix from 2002 could hinge on building magnate Tom Wheatcroft's willingness to extend the lease held by the Leicestershire circuit's new owners

Donington GP hopes hinge on extended lease?

US-based entertainment conglomerate SFX bought the existing 25-year track lease from Two-Four Sports in 1999, but is believed to be unwilling to make the multi-million pound investment necessary to bring the venue up to Formula 1 standards unless Wheatcroft extends it to 50 years. At last week's US GP in Indianapolis, Wheatcroft confirmed that he had rejected SFX's initial offer and was due to meet the company again for further talks.

Wheatcroft, the driving force behind re-opening the British GP's pre-war home in 1977, said: "They [SFX] gave me an offer, but the offer wasn't acceptable. As much as I want the GP, the offer was an insult, and just before I set off for America, I sent them a fax to say it wasn't acceptable.

"They've come to me and [said] they want a 50-year lease, which I don't blame them for - spending 30-odd million, I'd want the same. But there's a difference between trying to help somebody and being a charity."

Whether Donington gets the GP will depend on Brands Hatch owner BHL's attempts to bring the race back to the Kent track. But delays to its rebuilding plans, caused by the circuit's location in 'green-belt' land and a potentially drawn-out upcoming public inquiry, mean that time is running out and that Donington is now in pole position to hold a BHL-promoted race from 2002 onwards - circuit changes permitting.

SFX is scheduled to close Donington down after next year's British Motorcycle Grand Prix for major modifications, regardless of whether it lands the race, but the scale of the changes will depend on the destination of the GP.

Changes for the new GP circuit would involve the use of some extra land, but without many of the constraints imposed on Brands Hatch. Wheatcroft owns approximately 650 acres, of which less than half is currently assigned to the track.

Central to the changes would be a 'stadium'-type complex on the site of the existing paddock, with the new F1 pits and paddock re-located to the inside of the circuit on the Starkey's straight.

"It would take around 11 months, I would think," said Wheatcroft. "We'd close down after the bikes and start that day."

Despite turning down its initial offer, Wheatcroft remained optimistic that an agreement with SFX could be reached and that the circuit could host its first Grand Prix since the one-off European Grand Prix in 1993.

"I'd like it - I've got the disease of Grand Prix racing as much as anybody," he said. "I've been talking to [F1 supremo] Bernie [Ecclestone] and he knows the situation. He's been very supportive."

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