As racing circuit Silverstone prepares to host its 50th British Grand Prix, Scott Birch looks at plans to develop the venue into more than just motors.
As the sport of Formula 1 begins a new high-tech era, with fuel limitations and disarmingly quiet engines, some fans will be forgiven for looking back to the good old days. Nowhere will this nostalgia manifest itself better than at Silverstone, which will host its 50th Grand Prix on 6 July.
While the sport itself has constantly evolved due to technological advancements and safety concerns, the same can also be said of the airfield turned racing circuit near Northampton.
In the last five years alone the track has been partly redesigned, new sections built, the impressive Silverstone Wing constructed and, new for 2014, there will be an outdoor arena built in the centre of the track with capacity for 60,000 people.
Could this signal the evolution of this great sporting institution into a significant player in the festivals market?
“Our licence is for 90,000-plus which is the highest category of licence, so we are only limited by physical constraints,” says managing director Richard Phillips. “It will be a ‘live action’ arena capable of accommodating music, festivals and automotive shows. We are unlikely to do festivals, but won’t rule them out.”
The British Grand Prix is one of the biggest annual sporting events, attracting close to 300,000 people over a race weekend, and 120,000 (in 2013) on the day itself. In terms of paid for sporting spectacles, only Wimbledon can ace that (with almost 500,000 fans but over 13 days of competition).
However, although Silverstone is synonymous with the Grand Prix, Phillips has been diversifying events at the track in his 10 years in charge, bringing back motorbikes and other events that pack the calendar. So, what happens for the other 51 weeks of the year?
“Silverstone is probably the busiest circuit in the world,” says Phillips. “Even in January and February we are looking at 70 and 80 per cent occupancy, which is good considering the weather we get.
“From March through to the end of October we are virtually 100% occupied on track – from testing to drive days, events, club meetings.
“A number of years ago we became aware that the GP was such a large part of the business that we needed to de-risk ourselves from the vagaries of the sport.”
One move to diversify the business, and also appease Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, was to build a new pit building. Ecclestone once famously described the British Grand Prix as “a country fair masquerading as a world event”, so you imagine Phillips is pretty pleased with the Silverstone Wing building that they created to placate Bernie and secure the current 17-year contract to host the event.
The striking building houses the pit teams, the media centre, even the podium – and has become a state-of-the-art centrepiece of the all-new Silverstone circuit.
“Since The Wing has been built there is a lot more we can do there,” said Phillips. “There are five halls in there, with five kitchens capable of producing 4,000 meals at any one time, and we are building up a good conferences and banquets business.
“We are also keen to build a new hotel, and there are already plans for three hotels on site. Having the hotels on site would also give benefits on the exhibitions and conference side of the business, close to The Wing, across the track.
“We also build a lot of temporary facilities for hospitality, as facilities like The Wing are taken over by F1, so probably we are going to build a more permanent structure.”
When a GP rolls into town, Silverstone is responsible for building it up, and providing all of the infrastructure. A lot of the pre work is done well in advance so there is a lot of planning involved.
“The general build up of the venue is completely down to us,” said Phillips. “When the paddock club turns up, we vacate the Wing, we even take the kitchens out, and they move in, probably a couple of weeks before the race. We take all of our signage out and all of theirs comes in.
“By the Thursday before the Grand Prix, the venue is in lockdown, but the two bodies work together.”
Although the relationship between the circuit (the only privately owned Grand Prix circuit in the world) and the F1 bosses has had its twists and turns, since the new contract was agreed and changes made to improve facilities, both parties seem happier.
“We have been doing this a long time and we get along, it is in everyone’s interest to do so,” said Phillips. “I do feel sorry for new circuits some times as they have not had the benefit of years of understanding how people work, and why they work like they do.
“I know Bernie used to be critical of us in the old ‘country fair’ days but we have moved on from all that now and I think he is quite proud of Silverstone now, and quite rightly so. They appreciate that we are trying to do the best job we can.”
This year is another landmark for Silverstone, as it prepares to host its 50th Grand Prix. There are a number of special events and celebrations in the pipeline that will all add to the festival atmosphere over race weekend.
The Kaiser Chiefs will kick off the weekend in style with an outdoor gig overlooking the track on the Thursday evening (3 July).
“Over the years the British Grand Prix has become so much more than just a race on the Sunday,” said Phillips. “Fans now come for the entire weekend and make the most of the entertainment that we have on offer.
“As part of putting our 50th together we will be putting some emphasis on trying to tell the public more about our history, so there will be an exhibition, interactions, and so on.
“We have a preliminary agreement from Bernie to allow us to use the national pits for an exhibition. We have a variety of things we are going to put in there. We are hoping to get some of the 50-odd cars that have won in that time. I think Bernie might actually have the first one.”
New races – notably in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, China and the United States – have added to F1’s global footprint in recent seasons, and while it is no doubt good for the sport to reach out to new audiences, it is also important to retain roots like those at Silverstone.
The first race was held here in 1948, with other tracks at Aintree and Brands Hatch sharing hosting rights until 1987. Since then, the British Grand Prix has remained at Silverstone, despite officially losing the race to Donington Park in 2008 (for the 2010 event). However, late in 2009, it emerged that Donington had failed to secure the funding required to host the Grand Prix, and Ecclestone awarded Silverstone a new 17-year deal.
With the medium-term future of the circuit seemingly secured, how does Phillips view Silverstone’s position on the global podium?
“Depends which way you look at what a circuit is,” said Phillips. “We have a massive heritage, and have been here for more than 60 years. We have one of the best tracks in the world – it’s fast and ballsy, with tight turns and the rest of it. I would put it in the top three.
“It is very popular with the drivers and with the fans, and it makes a great spectacle for television. Our facilities are much better than they were. We don’t have billions of dollars thrown at the circuit like in Abu Dhabi but we have a lot of the other ingredients that they don’t have, and we’ve got the fans – which makes the whole thing at the end of the day.”
British F1 fans are seen as some of the most knowledgeable in the world, which can prove to have both positive and negative implications for Silverstone, which relies on ticket sales as its sole source of income for the Grand Prix.
With the new season just a race old as Access goes to press, the signs are looking promising that British drivers may do well this season and that it should be a competitive championship – both factors that can swing ticket sales.
“If you’ve got British drivers doing well then that is the ultimate,” said Phillips. “If you have a competitive Grand Prix season, that is almost as good.
“The British fans are renowned for probably being the best in the world, the most knowledgeable and they appreciate good racing. When it gets boring and you have the same person winning all the time, they get a bit cheesed off with that.
“In 2012, for instance, when there were seven winners in the first seven races, things went meteoric. From a ticket sales point of view, 2012 was fantastic. At the end of that season, Vettel started to win more races and you started to see the excitement tailing off.
“Although everyone appreciates he is a great driver and Red Bull are a great team, it just isn’t what people really want to go and watch.
“I think people now are looking at the testing going on ahead of this season with Mercedes and thinking it might be a better season. There have been so many rule changes, we don’t even know if anyone will finish the first race bearing in mind how little fuel they can carry.”
2012 was also a memorable year for Silverstone in a less positive way, as it fell victim to the great British weather. With around 400 other events cancelled in the UK over Grand Prix weekend, admirably the show did go on at Silverstone, but not without having to turn people away on the Saturday and refund tickets. Since then, certain lessons have been learned and money has been invested in improving infrastructure, maintenance of existing drainage and also changing how people arrive at the circuit.
“2012 was extraordinary,” said Phillips. “It was the wettest summer on record, and we got caught – there was no doubt about that. But since then we have invested a heck of a lot of work, redone our ditches, and we are fairly confident that we won’t get the same sort of problems, even in the same sort of conditions.
“We have also added more space into our campsite so there is more room to get people in. More people are also car sharing and using park and ride. The number of cars on site was massively down on the year before with similar attendance, so I think we are moving in the right direction.”
There is no doubting that. Silverstone is developing as a circuit and as a venue – as the addition of new facilities like The Wing and the planned outdoor arena show. With a year-round calendar of motorsport events, expanding into related territory would seem like a sensible step for owners the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC). However, with those owners, it is unlikely that many large events held at Silverstone are going to veer too far from the track.
“One of the issues for any sport is attracting the next generation and to make it affordable for them,” said Phillips. “We will be looking to put on our own events, something family orientated, to give us another dimension.”
An obvious fit for the circuit would be an event like CarFest – the cunning mix of music, food and fast cars which currently has an edition in the north and the south each summer. Would there be space for a third, Midlands-based CarFest at Silverstone?
“Whether they would come here I don’t know, but we would love to have them,” said Phillips.
“We are trying to make Silverstone more than just a Grand Prix racetrack. Although it is a private business, people don’t think of it as such. It is a national institution.”
This was first published in the April issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson