Silverstone is far more than a racing circuit. It is a central hub for motorsport in Great Britain and well beyond. No other track worldwide hosts Grand Prix races in all four of Formula One, MotoGP, World Rallycross and World Endurance championships. It is a unique quartet and one that reinforces the strength of one of sport’s most historic venues.
That said, Silverstone is a business in a state of flux – in the process of regeneration. The venue has hosted Formula One’s British Grand Prix every year since 1987, while previously biannually sharing the hosting rights – first with Aintree, and latterly with Brands Hatch. However, as has been widely reported in recent times, the race’s future at the iconic track is in doubt.
The British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) – Silverstone’s ownership group – activated a break clause in its contract with Formula One in July 2017, meaning that – unless a new contract can be agreed – the 2019 race will be its last.
As the circuit’s managing director, Stuart Pringle, explains, the current situation is complex – not simply financially, but in placing the predicament facing Silverstone into a wider perspective.
“I very much hope it will remain at Silverstone,” he says of the Grand Prix. “We don’t want to lose it. The British fans don’t want to lose it. It has a huge audience. F1 are on record of saying that they do not want to lose it. That is a very good starting point.”
Despite this, Pringle emphasises, there is no element of holding aces in positively concluding an agreement so complicated. The arrival of Liberty Media on the scene as the series’ new owners, ending Bernie Ecclestone’s 40-year command, has brought fresh impetus to a business that was struggling to move with the times.
“I would never underestimate the precarious position that we are in as regards to F1,” Pringle explains. “I certainly would no way diminish the pressures and challenges that are on the guys at Formula One. They have some significant challenges and pressures on them, and I fully understand and respect those.”
He adds: “I don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge that Formula One have got on their hands to reshape the sport into something more equitable, more entertaining. The good news is that Formula One is in the hands of people that understand it.”
However, Silverstone’s hosting of the British Grand Prix has become an annual loss-maker for Britain’s home of motorsport. Event deficits of UK£2.8 million in 2015 became UK£4.8 million in 2016 – results that led to the decision to trigger the contract clause. As Pringle stresses, that decision was by no means a snap judgement, with the BRDC – whose presidents have included both Damon Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart – well aware of the race’s significance.
Before Sebastian Vettel's 2018 win for Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton had won the British Grand Prix every year between 2014 and 2017
“It isn’t easy in that Silverstone is not alone as a promoter in complaining that things have got terribly expensive,” he says.
“We exercised the option that existed in our contract with a very heavy heart. Nobody wants the Formula One to be at Silverstone more than the BRDC.
“But, we have to be sensible, and we are being sensible now. We have a clear strategy that will allow our business to thrive, and we don’t believe that our business will be damaged with the loss of F1 – if that is what has to happen.
“We have got a good spread – we just want to keep the cherry on top if we can possibly afford to do so, but not if we can’t.”
What is crucial to note – as Pringle highlights throughout – is that nothing has been decided, and that there still remains a possibility that the historic race will continue at its iconic venue. Only in July, Ross Brawn, Formula One’s managing director of motorsport, backed Silverstone as the series’ long-term British home.
At the same time, though, Pringle is well aware of the need for a contingency plan. More pertinent, however, is his desire to open eyes to the circuit’s existence beyond the sphere of Formula One.
Pringle points out – as the managing director of a year-round business – that the Liberty Media product is a carnival that takes up just a single weekend in the track’s calendar. It is this factor – the necessity of maximising a 550-acre stretch of land, complete with a globally recognised sporting brand – that has led Pringle to focus on a shift in the venue’s strategy.
We want to keep the cherry on top if we can possibly afford to do so, but not if we can’t
The emphasis, he says, is on turning a brand previously centred on weekend racing into a daily giant, appealing to new generations of motorsport enthusiasts, while offering more to those already affected by the sport’s bug.
With car-parking for 20,000, toilet facilities for 65,000 and 75,000 grand stand seats, the on-track opportunities are endless for a circuit with unparalleled infrastructural options. Silverstone’s two-hour catchment area comprises more than 20 million potential visitors.
However, Pringle’s ambitions extend well beyond racing, itself. After all, Silverstone’s track is already busy 90 per cent of the time between March and November.
“We want to be seen as a nationally recognised family-focused leisure destination with motorsport at its heart,” Pringle says of the diversification that his circuit is undergoing.
“Fundamentally, we need to change Silverstone. One of the challenges – and there are many when you change the direction of your business – is that we must never lose sight of the fact that Silverstone is the home of British motor-racing.
“It is owned by a private members club, who are the most knowledgeable and passionate in the world on motor racing. But, they collectively recognise that we need to be more than just a 3.66 mile world-class circuit.”
One key aspect of the strategy comes in the form of a hotel. While Silverstone hosted its first British Grand Prix in 1948, there has been an official on-record desire to add a hotel to the facility since 1971. The long-held plan has finally come to fruition, with the Hilton Garden Inn Silverstone set to open in 2020.
Although the move will come with its advantages on race weekends, the capacity to accommodate visitors and conferences – previously restricted by a lack of on-site accommodation – is paramount.
“It is all a major part of our plan to moves ourselves away from being solely reliant on weekend sporting activity,” he says. “We are a very seasonable business and a functioning conference centre can fill a lot of gaps in our calendar.”
The Silverstone site comprises 550 acres with over 100 buildings and more than ten miles of paved roads, including tracks
The hope is that the added customer intake brought through by the combination of conference centre and hotel will be supplemented by a push towards a family audience and away from the traditional race-fan demographic of the middle-aged male.
A UK£20 million Silverstone Experience attraction is in the works and readying itself for a 2019 launch, while a family entertainment park is also under construction. The reasoning is simple – to utilise a global sporting brand to bring more – and different – people both to motorsport and the circuit.
“We are not talking about starting an attraction from scratch, but rather building on one that already attracts more than one million fans every year,” Pringle explains.
“We are currently world-class at attracting middle-aged men on Sundays in July.”
The family entertainment centre has been aided by Sally Reynolds, the chief executive at Silverstone Heritage, whose background includes time spent as the sales and marketing director at family theme park Legoland. The entertainment park will be hands-on and age-specific, allowing young and old to get behind the wheel of appropriate karts.
Of the Silverstone Experience – designed as an educational tale of far more than simply the legend of the circuit, Pringle says: “It will tell the history of Silverstone, the sport’s races, the technical innovations, the human battles.
“But it will also be very forward-thinking, with science, technology, engineering and maths at its heart. It is probably best described as a motor racing Harry Potter world; it will bring us in the region of 400,000-500,000 visitors, of which three quarters of those will be new visitors.”
We have a clear strategy that will allow our business to thrive, and we don’t believe that our business will be damaged with the loss of F1 – if that is what has to happen
The importance of maintaining the balance between the circuit’s legacy and adapting to the future of the motorsport industry is crucial for Silverstone’s survival and ability to thrive. It is an equilibrium at the heart of the venue’s regeneration, as well as its efforts to renegotiate its Formula One deal.
“Silverstone has something that you can neither buy nor make up,” Pringle stresses. “It has heritage. You can’t allow the heritage tail to wag the contemporary dog. We don’t, because we are a Grade 1 FIA circuit. We are the international circuit in Great Britain.
“The motorsport industry is incredibly important to UK PLC. It is a significant player – it’s worth more than coal and steel combined to Great Britain. So, we want Silverstone to remain at the front of that. Our name and our brand does that naturally. We just need to keep pace with modern expectations.”
He admits that August’s MotoGP debacle failed in that regard. 90,000 spectators were left waiting in torrential rain for a delayed start-time that never materialised. It was caused by a waterlogged track – the incident coming just six months after it had been re-laid. That, tests have shown, was coincidental. Conditions were simply too torrential.
Nevertheless, there was a level of embarrassment for Pringle, a custodian of one of sport’s most highly-respected theatres. He is the first to acknowledge that it must never happen again.
The future, he admits, is a curious one. For Silverstone, he remains adamant that the power of the brand already extends well beyond Formula One, with Brands Hatch proving that – should a new deal with Liberty Media prove unattainable – the venue’s reputation as Britain’s premier motor-racing hub would remain comfortably intact.
“If you ask anybody what happens at Brands Hatch, the majority of them will tell you that it’s a motor racing circuit,” he points out. “Brands Hatch hasn’t hosted a Grand Prix since 1986. It is a good example of a 30-year tale without damage to brand.
“None of the Silverstone Experience or the entertainment park are conditional on us having Formula One.”