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Government supports Silverstone plans

Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe lent his weight on Thursday to Silverstone's plans to revamp the Formula One circuit and secure the British Grand Prix's future

"We want to see a British Grand Prix here at Silverstone and will do everything that we can to support that happening," he said on a visit to the circuit.

He ruled out direct financial assistance, however: "We can't do that and we've not been asked to do that at this stage," he told reporters.

"We've been asked to support sustainable development which has lots of vision in it and has the opportunity for the government to support in a variety of creative ways.

"We have talked about this fantastic decade of sport in Britain coming up with the Olympics, possibly the Commonwealth Games and the rugby and football World Cup bids," added Sutcliffe.

"To lose the British Grand Prix would be a massive blow and we really don't want to do that."

Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has threatened to axe the circuit, which hosted the first world championship Grand Prix in 1950, after the contract expires in 2009 unless major improvements are made.

The BRDC approved in July plans that envisage new grandstands and pit and paddock facilities as well as a science park, manufacturer test centre and hotel and conference facilities. There will also be some new housing.

Circuit managing director Richard Phillips said planning permission was being sought for at least two hotels, with around 400 rooms in total, as well as a university campus.

Sutcliffe was driven around the track by Damon Hill, Britain's last Formula One champion and the president of the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) that owns the former World War Two airfield.

Hill warned that there was still a risk of Ecclestone demanding more than the BRDC could pay, even if all the improvements were made.

"It may well be that the market has changed whereby Formula One can only be afforded around the world by government expenditure, as we have seen a number of times," he said.

"We are really on our own and it (the contract) has to stack up," added the 1996 champion.

"We can't afford to go bust. There's an elastic band that stretches only so far. The BRDC is prepared to go right to the end of that but we can't go to the snapping point."

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