Q & A with Silverstone's Richard Phillips

Although Britain could end the year with its second consecutive world champion if Jenson Button can hold onto his points lead, the fate of the nation's Formula 1 race is still hanging in the balance

Q & A with Silverstone's Richard Phillips

Despite continued optimism from Donington Park that its funding and redevelopment plans are on course for next year, there remain fears that the venue will not be ready in time.

Silverstone has made no secret of the fact that it is willing and able to step into the breach if Donington Park trips up, but time is now running short for those plans to kick into action if next year's event is to be a success.

AUTOSPORT caught up with Silverstone's managing director Richard Phillips to talk about the future of the British GP and a situation that the track now views as 'critical'.

Q. The British Grand Prix this year was viewed a tremendous success, and over the weekend both Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone offered encouraging words about the race probably being back at Silverstone in 2010. What has happened since July, and where are we at now?

Richard Phillips: It was all brilliant over that weekend and we were expecting something to happen fairly quickly. Bernie made a suggestion in the press that we should talk to Donington Park, which we have tried to do, but nothing much has come from that side of things.

Donington Park still thinks it can raise the money and wants a little bit more time to do that, but since the British GP they have had two deadlines that have been missed. So, we are not further forward in terms of where they are and we've just lost more time really.

We would have gone on sale [with the 2010 race] at the grand prix, which we normally do, and we are losing time. Nothing much ever happens in August and it looks as if we are still going to be in limbo for a few more weeks yet.

Q. Did the British GP weekend change your view on the situation going forward, and the fact that Bernie and Max said such encouraging things?

RP: What surprised them was that we improved. We improve every year and I guess the expectation was that they would rock up here and think; it is the last grand prix so why would Silverstone worry about it? We invested more money and we just did it better and better, and the crowd was even bigger than before.

So I think that had a bearing on what happened at the grand prix, especially after earlier races this year that were not well attended at all, and the drivers were saying 'we want to perform in front of big crowds rather than empty seats'. So that changed the perception. Could you do without the British GP? I think this year showed that you could not.

Q. On the Thursday of Silverstone, the BRDC (British Racing Drivers' Club) said it was worried about the future of the British GP and that every day lost was a day where the race was being damaged. Do you think we are entering a critical phase now?

RP: We were shocked in 2008 when the announcement was made that the British GP was moving away from Silverstone. But in January of this year, we started to plan for a 2010 grand prix, as it takes about 18 months to get all the strategies - for things like grandstands and everything else - sorted out. And, with MotoGP coming here, it is an even bigger job for us as we have a lot of things to move and think about.

So we started the planning and were in the position to do that. We have a very strong team - they have a lot of experience. I cannot see the team at Donington Park being able to do the planning for it and I think they are running a bit too close to the wind just from an organisation point of view, let alone in terms of the building work.

Q. So how worried are you that it is getting to the point where it is too late for them to organise a race?

RP: If you look at what we know, and I am not party to the contract they have signed - although I know what an F1 contract looks like and I certainly knew what the new British GP deal was looking like, it does take about 18 months to plan a grand prix. Normally you would go on sale with 12 months to run if you want to get it to the sort of levels that we get it to, and presumably they do want to do that.

In terms of construction, we have got permission to build some new pits. It has been out to competitive tender, those tenders have come back in and I think we have still got three tenders sitting there on which we can make a choice on to build the new pits. And the minimum on-site build time is 60 weeks - that is for us, so I am assuming they have to build something similar for the pits.

If you take our MotoGP works that we are doing, which isn't a widening of the whole track but is reasonably significant, that is a 26-week track programme just to do that as well. So when you start doing all the other works that they have got to do - get the car parking right, get the toilets right, and grandstands. All of these things have to happen and I just cannot see it.

How much longer can they go on? It is always mañana... it's always tomorrow they are going to get the money, or tomorrow they are going to start work. But it doesn't happen. So from our perspective we are now running towards September, where our last major promoted events happen, and in October we will be starting to take down grandstands and things because we are doing work.

Then the question is, do we re-erect them, or do we put them on lorries and send them back to where they came from? It really is the next six weeks that are critical in terms of how we move forward. But we are ready to go on sale with it. We have a strategy for it, but every day that goes past there is damage done.

The worst race we did from a sales perspective was 2005, when we didn't get the contract until just before Christmas, so we had a very short period going into it. Since then, we moved the on-sale date to September but in the last few years we've been selling from June/July time.

Q. Does that make a difference putting it on sale in July rather than over the winter?

RP: It makes a heck of a difference. If you look at the sales profile, we used to sell a lot of stuff in January time and actually most of the tickets are now sold well in advance of that. So when you get into Christmas, probably two-thirds of the tickets are gone. That is a large slug and you have still got a way to go - but at least it is more achievable. And for an event like this you do need the craic, you do need the people to create the atmosphere because it is the atmosphere that creates the event.

Q. Has there been any contact with Bernie Ecclestone or the FIA about the situation regarding the British Grand Prix?

RP: We have always maintained dialogue with them and they know that we are ready to step into it - but presumably there is some point contractually where Donington Park will have difficulties if things are not ready. That means there will be a point coming up soon where Ecclestone can say yes or no to them, but we just don't want that to go on too much longer.

Q. The uncertainty must be damaging for ticket sales anyway, because fans will not hand over money for an event that may or may not happen at a facility that may or may not be ready?

RP: Sure. Anybody in this day and age wants to be assured that when they part with their money they are going to get the goods. I guess that must be a concern for anybody that if Donington Park did go on sale in the next few weeks, then is their money safe? Will they get that ticket? But they haven't gone on sale yet, so nobody has the danger of losing money yet.

Q. How vital is it that the British GP is saved and that the current situation does not result in the event falling off the calendar?

RP: Well, things seem to have changed since May time this year. Now everyone, including Max and Bernie, seem to be saying now that there has to be a British Grand Prix. I think we all probably knew it or assumed it before that, but there seems to be a bit more commitment towards it. I think there was an interview recently where Bernie said if the British GP was not at Donington Park it would be at Silverstone.

So I think that is a good sign and if something has been achieved this year it is that having a sustainable grand prix is important - wherever it is. Now we just want to move on. There are plenty of other things in F1 that are controversial and interesting to follow - but you don't want to be following a saga about the venue. You just want it delivered properly and people to enjoy themselves. I think it is now safe in the UK, which is a change.

Q. But you cannot wait indefinitely can you? You don't want to get to February and be told Donington Park has fallen through, you will be hosting the British GP.

RP: No, we certainly couldn't. I personally think that if we don't know in around six weeks then it is starting to become rather difficult, certainly in the short term. There would then have to be some allowance made to be able to run the grand prix in 2010 - probably with a smaller crowd, which would not be good and is unnecessary, isn't it? Having built it up, why do you want it to suddenly crash and burn? You wouldn't want it to happen.

Q. Is there an element of frustration from your side that this year's British GP was viewed as a tremendous success, and now there is this cloud of uncertainty over what is happening?

RP: I think what we have got at Silverstone is a very professional team here. Our view going into this year's race was that we thought it was going to be the last one, but we still went into it and did the best we possibly could. That is the way this team works. So, after the event, you then think, was that really the last event?

We are in motorsport, we love motorsport here, but the grand prix is such a big event that people do it because of the love. It is a passion that one event, and I think now everyone is running on thinking that it will probably come back, so they are not getting too upset about it, but if the rug did get pulled from under us then I think it would be gutting for a lot of people.

Q. So who needs to make the next step? Does Donington Park need to put its hands up and come to the table to do a deal, or does Bernie Ecclestone need to step in?

RP: I am presuming that, like in most contracts, there is some fall-over time that you cannot go past. Hopefully that is coming up fairly soon, but not being party to the contract I don't know for definite.

At that time, if they haven't got it, then I am hoping that Bernie Ecclestone will say enough is enough - if we are going to give a chance for the event to be a success for 2010 then Silverstone has to do it.

There is not much we can do about it, other than keep saying that we are ready to go, willing to go and capable. But at the end of the day, I think there must be a contractual issue there to be resolved. At that stage, Donington Park will not have to stick its hands up, they will already be up.

Q. How much discussion have you had with Donington Park about the situation, and you being on standby?

RP: Well there was a suggestion at the grand prix that we should have a conversation with Donington Park, and we have tried to get into dialogue with them to see what can be resolved. But nothing has really come of those conversations to be honest, because they are still quite bullish in their attitude in terms of raising the money and organising an event for next year.

To be honest, what I thought would probably happen was that they would put their hands up and say they cannot organise it in 2010, but try to work with Bernie to get an extension. Then I thought there might be a conversation about what will happen for one year. But even that seems to have gone quiet - so what is all this insistence about having to do it in 2010?

Q. What about the race fee situation, because Silverstone lost the British GP because it was too expensive?

RP: We are anticipating that a resolution can be achieved. I think if we knew where we were with Donington Park, then all these things can be resolved and amicably done so between parties. We certainly don't want to get ourselves in a position where we cannot afford to do it. That was the case originally, that it was just too expensive for us to do at that time. And what has happened with the economy and with land prices, it was probably the right decision to have made then. Nevertheless we are doing reasonably alright, so we are fairly optimistic that a resolution can be gained to any fee exercise - but hasn't been yet.

Q. So how heavy is the British GP issue weighing on you and Silverstone?

RP: We have diversified the business, we have MotoGP coming now which is a nice event that we want to build up. So, it is not critical for us in terms of survival as a venue, but on the other hand, in terms of planning, we own about 30,000 seats and the other 30,000 we lease in and they are here pretty permanently, and for a MotoGP event I think 30,000 seats are enough because a lot of the people there like to stand on the banks.

There is a point where you have to ask yourself, what is the nature of Silverstone? Is it the big international 60-70,000 seat stadium, or is it a bit more conservative? Should the extra grandstand be there or not?

Q. And that is the decision that needs to be taken in six weeks, then?

RP: Six weeks from now, we will start taking down grandstands. They have to be taken down anyway because we are moving stuff around and putting in new gravel traps and run offs. So what do we do with them? Do we keep them here and keep renting them? Or do they just go?

From October onwards, that is what will start to happen. That is when the issue really starts to bite. We certainly don't want to get to December to try and sort it out, because then we will be trying to reinvent the wheel, and we don't need to because it is all here now.

Silverstone: Critical weeks for British GP
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