Atlas F1 From the Banking to the Barricades:
Protest Movements and F1

  by Mark Glendenning, Australia

Part Three: Brands Hatch

The use of Silverstone as the permanent home of the British Grand Prix is a relatively recent arrangement. The race was shared between the Northamptonshire circuit and Aintree from 1955 to 1961; the latter then held on to the Grand Prix in 1962 before disappearing from Formula One world. Unfortunately for Silverstone, another circuit was already waiting in the wings to take Aintree's place. Subsequently, the British Grand Prix continued to be a shared event between 1964 and 1986. Odd-numbered years saw the race continue at Silverstone, but even-numbered years now required the drivers of the team transporters to point their vehicles in the direction of Brands Hatch. Actually, two occasions (1983 and 1985) saw Formula One visit both circuits in the same season; with Silverstone running the British Grand Prix, and Brands Hatch playing host to the European Grand Prix (a la Jerez and the Nurburgring).

Almost every Grand Prix driver worthy of the name enjoyed success at Brands Hatch during its years as a Grand Prix circuit -the winner's list includes Clark, Brabham, Rindt, Scheckter, Fittipaldi, Jones, and Piquet. Lauda won there three times, while Mansell was first to the chequered flag on two occasions. The circuit has seen its share of dramatic moments - it was here, for example, that race leader Jack Brabham embarked upon the final lap of the 1970 Grand Prix and discovered very shortly afterwards that he only had sufficient fuel to get him to the Stirling's corner; thus handing the win to Jochen Rindt. A horrifying accident in a non-championship race claimed the life of Jo Siffert in 1971; while a 1988 F3000 race here saw Johnny Herbert suffer injuries that almost ended his racing career.

The circuit's farewell to Grand Prix racing was an appropriately eventful one. The 1986 British Grand Prix began on an emotional note when Frank Williams made his first public appearance since the car accident that left him in a wheelchair only four months earlier. Meanwhile, Mansell and Piquet, who were driving the cars bearing Frank's name, were locked in a bitter struggle for both team seniority and the World Championship; the latter would eventually slip through the fingers of both of them.

Much to his disappointment, Mansell was beaten by his teammate in qualifying, and the Englishman's home Grand Prix managed to slide even further against him when his driveshaft died at the start of the race. The red flags followed almost immediately though, after a massive accident in which veteran Ligier driver Jacques Laffite sustained leg injuries that ended his Formula One career on the spot. The restart gave Mansell the opportunity to jump into the spare car, which had been set up for his teammate. The second time around, Piquet led the field into the first corner, while Mansell dropped back to third. Gradually he fought his way back, and the two teammates ran nose to tail for a number of laps before Piquet missed a gear change. Mansell slipped into the lead, and despite a series of challenges from Piquet, he held his position to the finish. The 115,000-strong crowd, already wild with excitement from finally seeing a British driver win on home soil, went absolutely delirious when Patrick Head managed to persuade Frank Williams' wife Ginny to climb the podium and accept the constructor's trophy on the team's behalf.

Now, it seems that the paths of Formula One and Brands Hatch are destined to cross once again, following an ambitious plan instigated by Nicola Foulston. Until recently, Foulston was the head of Brands Hatch Leisure (BHL), the company that controls a number of circuits around England, including its namesake. Racing enthusiast John Foulston founded BHL when he purchased the circuit from John Webb in the 1980s, and Nicola took up the reins following her father's death in a testing accident.

Among BHL's major objectives were to wrest control of the British Grand Prix, which currently lies in the hands of the British Racing Driver's Club (BRDC); the organization that has long held charge of Silverstone. The original plan was to achieve control of the race by simply buying Silverstone itself, however the attempt thwarted when the 832 members of the BRDC voted overwhelmingly against the move. To an extent, the wrestle between the BRDC and BHL represents another example of passion vs. profit - the BRDC is largely comprised of racing figures and enthusiasts, led, for the moment, by Ken Tyrrell, who stepped into the leadership role in a caretaker capacity following the resignation of Lord Hesketh. (A full-time successor to Hesketh will be elected in April). Presently, the BRDC redirect the bulk of the profits from the Grand Prix back into the sport. BHL, meanwhile, is very much a business; an organization which places great importance upon catchphrases like 'profit margin', and 'market expectations'.

Irrespective of what their motivations were, it was now obvious that the BHL were not going to muster sufficient support to succeed in purchasing Silverstone and continuing to run the race where it is. But, as the old saying goes, if Mohammed won't go to the mountain, then the mountain must come to Mohammed. So, if BHL were not going to own the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, then they had to bring the race to them. A bidding war between BHL and the BRDC for the rights to the race ensued, culminating with an announcement in mid-1999 that BHL had successfully won the rights to the British Grand Prix from 2002 to 2007, with an option for a further five years, on the back of a $115 million bid. At $20 million per year, it is approximately double the fee presently being paid by the BRDC.

The formidable combination of massive financial backing and the blessings of Bernie Ecclestone would, on the surface, suggest that the story would end there - come 2002, it would be farewell Silverstone, and hello Brands Hatch. Furthermore, BHL's already powerful hand was strengthened even further when a deal was completed over Christmas that saw the company sold to Octagon, the sports arm of international marketing giant Interpublic. Early reports stated that Foulston would remain in charge of BHL and become a member of the Octagon board, but it was announced last week that, having secured the company's future, she has actually resigned from BHL, and by extension, motorsport. Control of the company now lies in the hands of former finance director Rob Bain.

As always though, there's a catch. At present, the circuit and facilities at Brands Hatch do not meet Formula One standards. The deal is therefore conditional upon the circuit being brought up to scratch.

BHL knew this all along; indeed, the announcement of the deal to relocate the race from 2002 onwards coincided with the release of plans for a $50 million revamp of the track. By the sound of it, BHL had everything under control. And they did. Almost. The application for the necessary permits to make the required changes was submitted to the Sevenoaks District Council, who are responsible for the area in which Brands Hatch is located, and while the proposal was not due to be heard before February or March 2000, early signs were that the Council were happy to co-operate. Problems first emerged, though, when it became apparent that the proposal involved the removal of 37 acres of ancient woodland. Not surprisingly, this attracted the attention of environmentalists, and led to the formation of a coalition of organizations including the Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England to fight BHL's plan.

There are a number of modifications planned for the circuit, however the most controversial of them concerns the location of the pit area. Presently, the pit lane runs along Brabham Straight. In their proposal for redeveloping the track though, BHL have penciled a new, huge pit complex and some grandstands along the infield section of Pilgrim's Drop; construction of the facilities will almost completely replace the woodland that presently covers the area.

Ancient woodlands in England are largely unprotected by the law, with the result that the area at Brands Hatch has recently served as a popular site for activities such as 4x4 rallying. The woodland has been considerably degraded as a result, and the poor condition of the forest is one of the factors being brought forward by BHL as justification for its removal. While the Woodland Trust concedes that the area is in poor condition, they are concerned about the fact that mismanagement and inappropriate use of the woodland is being used as justification to remove it. The group's Chief Executive, Mike Townsend, said "Acceptance of the planning proposal could set a dangerous precedent when future planning applications are made in areas that contain ancient woodland.'

'We understand Brand Hatch Leisure's need to improve their facilities, but we cannot stand by and have therefore written to the local planning authority to object to the application. We think that the proposals should be redesigned, with a greater emphasis placed on alternative locations and layouts which would seek to avoid harm to the ancient woodland. This is something which Brands Hatch is legally required to do as part of its Environmental Statement."

The last comment refers to the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations of 1999, which requires:

"An outline of the main alternatives studied by the applicant or appellant and an indication of the main reasons for his choice, taking into account the environmental effects."

No alternatives plans have been presented by BHL thus far.

Brands Hatch Leisure has responded by saying that they will plant new trees to replace those that are lost. According to the environmentalists, though, this is inadequate. Replacing a tree is one thing, reconstructing an ecological system that has developed over a number of centuries is something else altogether. This is apparently a particularly sensitive topic in the area surrounding Brands Hatch, because the woodlands are home to a number of protected species. Further concern comes from the fact that while BHL have said that they will replace the lost trees, they have not outlined exactly what kind of planting is proposed, or how the remaining woodland will be managed.

Almost all environmental groups that protest against F1 state that they are not against motor racing itself, and this case is no different; except, perhaps, for the fact that they seem to mean it. The Woodland Trust have stated that they have no problems whatsoever with BHL's need to modify the circuit for the Grand Prix; it's only when the modifications require the removal of ancient woodland en masse that they find the proposals unacceptable.

A group called English Nature (EN) has lodged another objection. A similar organisation to the Woodland Trust, English Nature has protested the plans along virtually the same lines. The significant difference though, is that English Nature have close ties with the government - in fact, they serve as the government's conservation advisors. Subsequently, their protests carry rather more weight. A spokesman for EN was quoted as saying "We have no objection to Brands Hatch staging a Grand Prix, but we don't want it at the cost of destroying ancient woodland. We would like to meet the circuit owners to discuss alternative options. If the district council is minded to accept the planning application, we are empowered to order a public enquiry to investigate the case."

There is also the possibility that BHL's proposal will face objections from local residents, who are not only worried about the woodland, but also the noise and traffic problems that will invariably ride into town on the coat tails of the race. There has been talk of local groups maintaining protests long enough to delay construction work until it is impossible to run a Grand Prix at Brands Hatch is 2002, but whether this refers to official protests via objections to the council, or a civil disobedience campaign along the lines of Save Albert Park is unclear.

Also unclear, of course, is exactly how real a threat the locals and environmentalists pose to BHL. While it's quite possible that the proposal will be passed by the council without any complications, there is also the chance that it won't. This is probably another good time to wonder why organizations put such proposals together when they must know that it is going to attract outrage and may well need to be modified before it is passed by the authorities, when it would be simpler to look for a slightly more compromised alternative in the first place and save themselves a lot of time and hassle. Ultimately, it comes down to the Sevenoaks Council having to decide between the preservation of an irreplaceable natural resource, and a massive cash injection into the region. It's not a decision I'd like to make.

Previous articles in this series:   Save Albert Park  |  Save the Monza Banking

Mark Glendenning© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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