When the Wimbledon tennis grand slam and The Open golf major were called off within days of each other in early April, the usually cluttered British sporting summer suddenly looked in danger of completely drying out.
By that stage, those over at Silverstone were already working to ensure that the last of the UK’s three annual major sports events slated for July would not suffer the same fate. But Stuart Pringle, the managing director of the iconic Northamptonshire race circuit, admits that even he had not considered that this year’s British Grand Prix might not be able to go ahead until the start of Formula One’s 2020 season was brought to an abrupt halt in Australia.
“The Australian [Grand Prix] was an eye-opening situation for many promoters,” says Pringle, speaking to SportsPro at the start of July. “We hadn’t anticipated that sort of scenario, clearly Formula One hadn’t anticipated that sort of scenario. It was an eye-opener for us as that developed – actually it wasn’t clear even at that point that we would not be able to run our race.”
As the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became clearer, the decision was taken in April that this year’s British Grand Prix would take place without fans – if indeed it could take place at all. Each passing week brought with it the cancellation or postponement of another race, leaving Formula One owners Liberty Media scrambling to form a revised calendar that would enable it to fulfil its commercial contracts for 2020. Given the various travel restrictions in place around the world at the time, the only thing clear then was that no event’s place on the original schedule could be guaranteed.
Pringle says the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix was "eye-opening" for promoters
With seven of the ten Formula One teams being UK-based, Pringle reveals that one of the more extreme proposals Silverstone made to the global motorsport series was for the championship to set up “for several months” at the circuit, during which time it would have been able to run as many races as it needed to constitute the 2020 season.
“It would have never qualified as a world championship,” Pringle notes, “but that’s illustrative of the way we were all thinking at that point.”
Yet Silverstone, which finally secured its long-term future on the Formula One calendar a little over 12 months ago, still had hurdles of its own to overcome before being confirmed as part of the revamped schedule. Indeed, it was only after the British government made those involved in major sporting events exempt from its plans to quarantine international travellers that the circuit was given the green light to host two Grands Prix, the first of which is due to take place on 2nd August, followed by a second just seven days later to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the sport.
From a commercial perspective, running the business now, 2020 is an absolute bloodbath for Silverstone - as it is for many, many businesses - and it would be worse if we didn’t have these races.
Even now, though, Pringle says there are various challenges involved in creating the ‘bubble’ environment required to stage back-to-back races behind closed doors.
“Our permanent facilities are more than capable of dealing with the relatively small number of team personnel,” states Pringle, who believes Silverstone will benefit from going after events in Austria and Hungary. “The whole element that’s new is the Covid management operation and the implementation of these bubbles that the FIA (International Automobile Federation) plan on creating for the season to manage the situation as they move around the world.
“[Also] how you deliver an event that meets the [requirements] of the FIA as the sporting governing body, but also the UK government, any national body. For us that’s the requirement of the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] and, critically, Public Health England, who are signing off sporting event plans on behalf of the government.
“So there are different elements. Not everybody’s requirements are the same, and not everybody’s priorities are the same. Administering the Covid requirements is really the big challenge, and what that looks like in getting these different bodies with a view on how things should run aligned.”
A general view of this year's paddock at Silverstone
Another area of focus, Pringle says, is preventing fans from travelling to the circuit for the two Grands Prix, which could prove difficult to monitor given that Silverstone is a 550-acre site surrounded by a fence stretching five and a half miles. The British Grand Prix was again the best-attended Formula One race in 2019, accumulating an attendance of more than 350,000 over the course of the entire weekend. Pringle says he is “very grateful” to those ticket holders for this year’s event that have rolled their bookings over to 2021 – rather than take up the option for a refund - but wants them to resist any urges to catch a glimpse of the cars or home favourite Lewis Hamilton.
“We’re talking to fans explaining that we regrettably do not want them to come this year,” Pringle (right) asserts. “They’ve been incredibly supportive, involving in large part moving their ticket bookings for 2020 over to 2021, for which I’m very grateful because it’s made a huge difference to the business not to have to refund that money. But we really don’t want people to be tempted to come up and try and take a peek at the cars, so there is a big comms plan in place there.”
Having said that, Formula One will still be hoping to connect with its fanbase remotely throughout the two races, not least during the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. Pringle certainly expects the series and its broadcasters to make noise around the landmark, but says the track’s own celebrations are likely to be more subdued until fans are able to return.
“There will be content and bits and pieces going out over the weekend,” he says. “I’m sure the broadcasters will be making a play on it and Formula One have given the race that name deliberately.
“But we’re not going to be too pedantic about things. We will celebrate 70 years of the first world championship Grand Prix taking place at Silverstone on the 71st year because this is just an exception. So things like the car displays, the gathering of iconic racing cars that we have planned, I see no reason not to run those things next year – everyone knows it’s just an extraordinary turn of events this year.”
In more ordinary circumstances, the British Grand Prix would be competing for eyeballs. Last year’s race was watched by a peak audience of 2.8 million viewers in the UK on free-buto-air Channel Four as it went up against England’s ICC Cricket World Cup triumph and the Wimbledon men’s singles final. This year would have seen the British Grand Prix coincide with the last round of The Open at Royal St George’s in Kent. But with the golf tournament cancelled, Silverstone finds itself in the unfamiliar position of having the spotlight to itself.
Pringle recognises the opportunity the upcoming double-header represents to attract new fans to motorsport, but says Silverstone usually relishes sharing the stage with other prestigious British sporting events.
“I definitely think there is an opportunity for Formula One to pick up some new fans as a result of the lack of a clash,” he begins. “I think that is an opportunity, it is something that we will be actively targeting to try and introduce people, particularly in the first race, on free-to-air, that’s really, really important.
We’re not going to be too pedantic about things. We will celebrate 70 years of the first world championship Grand Prix taking place at Silverstone on the 71st year because this is just an exception.
“We actually like that ‘Super Sunday’ feeling that we normally get more often than not being on the same weekend as the Wimbledon final. The reality is we’re not taking customers off each other because one tennis court in southwest London is not impacting on our attendance – not even on the corporate hospitality market.
“Being on a big sports weekend adds for an amazing day for people who come to the event. Yes, it’s multi-screening when you’re at home, but actually when you’re at Silverstone and you’ve watched the race, the giant screens flick over, you can really feel like you’re living part of that exciting weekend.
“I think perhaps some of the drivers would rather they weren’t up against other sports, and would rather see their story told more prominently and perhaps not be a couple of pages back from the men’s tennis final, but I don’t think we suffer for publicity too badly on those days.”
But while Silverstone might be in line for added exposure simply by virtue of being able to stage two Grands Prix in August, the races will not be able to mask the impact of the pandemic on the historic venue’s wider business, which is normally at its busiest between March and November. Talking to SportsPro back in October 2018, Pringle spoke of how Silverstone was looking to diversify away from being completely reliant on major events such as the British Grand Prix and towards becoming a daily attraction throughout the year. However, those plans will likely have to be put on hold for now.
Home favourite Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas during the drivers' press conference ahead of Sunday's British Grand Prix
Despite the challenges already presented by 2020, the upcoming races will at least preserve Great Britain’s heritage of featuring in every Formula One world championship year. And while Pringle is clearly proud of the part Silverstone’s has played in that record, he is in no mood to sugar-coat what the future might hold if the pandemic causes further disruption in 2021.
“The bloodline of the sport maintaining the uninterrupted record of having had a world championship round every year in this country means a lot,” he says. “The fact that we’ve got two in one year, I think we’ll look back and say it probably adds a bit more credence to Silverstone’s claim of being a cornerstone of the championship.
“From a commercial perspective, running the business now, 2020 is an absolute bloodbath for Silverstone - as it is for many, many businesses - and it would be worse if we didn’t have these races. But it’s still going to be a fairly horrific year, and that’s just the way it is.
“It’s bad for everybody, we’re all taking our pain, but actually it’s been heartening in one way to see various parts of the sport try and pull together, recognise that we’re all in the mire together and we’ve just got to try and knit something together. We need the sport to be healthy, and the sport needs the circuits to survive, and the circuits need the teams to be in business – there’s an ecosystem that we’re all part of that needs to get through this and out the other side.
“I think we’ll all manage to muddle our way through 2020, but if this significantly impacts 2021 then I do worry.”