New controversy on Silverstone by-pass

The British government could be embroiled in a new motorsport controversy following reports on how Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former transport secretary Stephen Byers pushed forward the building of Silverstone's by-pass against the advice of Whitehall

New controversy on Silverstone by-pass

The road was not finished in time for the British Grand Prix earlier this month, but enough work had been completed for sections to be opened specially for the event to ease traffic congestion. The system was a great success and ensured that the future of the race did not come under threat because of embarrassing jams that blighted Silverstone for years.

But following a story in Friday's edition of The Independent, questions are likely to be asked of the government about its role in accelerating the road scheme for the sake of the British GP.

It is said that Byers personally approved an extra £8 million emergency pay-out to speed up the build process, despite a warning from senior civil servant Sir Richard Mottram that the decision could not be justified. A letter from Byers also shows that Blair gave Formula 1 a private guarantee that the new by-pass would be usable in time for the July 7 race.

The government pledged its support to help Silverstone keep the British GP's future alive after lobbying from Jackie Stewart, the president of circuit owner the British Racing Drivers' Club.

But today's revelations have already brought strong criticism from opposition MPs. Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Edward Davey said: "This is one of the most expensive race weekends a British PM has paid for and is of no obvious benefit to ordinary people. It is frankly scandalous...the GP would have gone ahead anyway this year without this pay-out."

Controversy surrounding the relationship with the government and F1 is not new. Blair was embroiled in a scandal in 1997 over a £1m donation made by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone. The Labour Party was forced to return the money when it emerged that ministers had argued for F1 to be exempt from European tobacco advertising bans.

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