The British GP has been saved, at least for the next two years, thanks to a last minute deal with Silverstone. But what of the future? Surely the biggest motorcycle race in the country deserves better than to be passed around and re-homed like a problem child?
Since the advent of world championship motorcycle racing in 1949, the British Grand Prix has been as dependable as the British summer. It might have a wash-out, it might have been blazing hot, it might have been somewhere in between, but it has always happened. But for a worrying few days in mid-February, that inevitability started to look very shaky indeed as a home for the British Motorcycle Grand Prix could not be found.
The problem arose when the powers behind the Circuit of Wales facility in Ebbw Vale secured the rights from Dorna to host the British GP for a five-year period (with a further five-year option after that) starting in 2015. Unfortunately, the proposed £315 million circuit has yet to be built so the rather ludicrous situation arose of a party being awarded the rights to stage the biggest motorcycle race in the UK despite having no race track to stage it on.
A deal was reached with Donington Park to host the race as a stop-gap measure in the hope that the Welsh venue would be up and running for 2016. But that fell through on February 10 when the two parties announced they could not reach an agreement over the funding of upgrades Donington required to host a round of the MotoGP world championship (Donington is currently undergoing a £1 million revamp but would need further work to be homologated for MotoGP).
That left Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire – host of the event for the last five years – as the last remaining option as no other circuit in the UK has the facilities to run a Grand Prix. If Silverstone had not agreed to stage the race in 2015, there simply would not have been a British Grand Prix and, for the first time in 66 years, the greatest motorcycle racers on earth would simply have bypassed the UK on their 18-date world tour.
Thankfully, Silverstone came to the rescue and agreed to step in as a temporary host for two years. The Northants circuit let the Brit GP rights pass to the Circuit of Wales after last year’s race, blaming the high cost of Dorna’s hosting fees. Presumably, those fees have now either been reduced or are being subsidised as part of the new two-year deal.
This is not the first time the location of the biggest bike race in the country has given cause for concern. The very first British GP actually went under a different name and was not even contested on the UK mainland. It was staged on the Isle of Man – a British Crown Dependency – and was known as the Senior TT. From 1949 until 1977 the Senior TT counted as the British round of the 500cc world championship and points were awarded accordingly. This was also true of the smaller classes (125, 250 and 350cc) until the TT was boycotted by most of the sport’s top names in the early 1970s due to increasing fears over the inherent dangers of the 37.73-mile public roads course. The FIM (Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme) eventually bowed to the pressure and dropped the TT from the world championship calendar following the 1976 event.
So the first British Grand Prix to actually go under that name, and the first to be held on the British mainland, was in 1977 and the chosen venue was the former World War II airfield of Silverstone.
Ever since that inaugural race in 1977, only two circuits have hosted the British GP – Silverstone and Donington Park on the Leicestershire/Derbyshire border. Silverstone ran the race from 1977 until 1987 when the event moved to Donington and was regularly voted by riders as the best Grand Prix of the year in terms of circuit facilities. But as other countries began to build far more modern facilities, those at Donington eventually came under fire for being out of date and below standard and the GP moved back to its original home at Silverstone in 2010 in what was a five-year deal. By that time, Silverstone had undergone a multi-million pound revamp (mostly paid for by the cash cow that is the Formula 1 car Grand Prix) and the British Grand Prix once more had a home that was up to international standards.
The revamped and re-designed circuit is the longest, and one of the fastest, on the world championship calendar and, by all accounts, the riders love to race it. From the paying public’s point of view (and that’s surely the most important point of view), Silverstone ticks many boxes too. There’s great access roads, plenty of hard-standing bike parks, grandstands all the way round the course, and far more toilets and food retail outlets than Donington ever had. But despite all this, Silverstone has one major Achilles Heel – it’s arguably the worst circuit in the UK to watch a race at. The spectator experience is not helped by miles of chicken wire fences and the sheer distance between the riders on track and the spectators themselves. But worst of all is that, being a former airfield, it’s so flat you could watch your dog running away from you for two days and still see it.
But perhaps we shouldn’t pick faults. Thanks to Silverstone, at least we’re going to have a British GP in 2015 and 2016. But what of the future? If the Circuit of Wales doesn’t ever get built (it’s currently preparing for a public inquiry in March over the de-registering of common land and hopes to begin construction once this is concluded), will the team behind the project find their five-year contract with Dorna is void? What then? Will Donington ever find the funding, or the inclination, to make all the upgrades required to stage a race of this magnitude? Or will Silverstone remain the only circuit in the country that’s deemed fit to host the biggest race of the year? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter where the British GP is held, only that it is held.
Since the advent of the British Grand Prix proper in 1977, a British rider has never won the main 500cc/MotoGP race. Even the late, great Barry Sheene never quite managed a home win. With British riders securing ever more competitive rides in MotoGP the chances of a home win seem to be increasing, but whether we ever get to witness that long-overdue moment will depend on there actually being a British Grand Prix to win. Let’s hope it finds a loving, stable home soon so we can all make plans to attend without having to worry about ticket refunds and cancelling hotels.
* The British Grand Prix will be held at Silverstone over the weekend of August 28-30. Tickets will eventually be available from www.silverstone.co.uk once pricing has been decided upon. If you have bought tickets for the cancelled Donington race through SeeTickets you will receive an automatic refund. If you bought them direct from Donington then email firstname.lastname@example.org to get a refund.
Stuart Barker is a freelance motorcycle journalist and author. A former MCN reporter and features writer, he is now editor of the Official Isle of Man TT and Classic TT programmes and has contributed to most major UK motorcycling titles including MCN, Bike, Ride, Superbike, Two Wheels Only, Fast Bikes, Classic Bike and Classic Racer. His books include biographies of Barry Sheene, Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, David Jefferies and Evel Knievel as well as a centennial history of the TT races.