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JANUARY 31, 2000

What will happen to the British Grand Prix?

THE new owners of Brands Hatch are beginning to understand the problems facing the Kentish racing circuit if it wishes to host the British Grand Prix in 2002 and this has led to suggestions in recent days that Interpublic may try to hire the Silverstone circuit from the British Racing Drivers' Club. The stories have been denied but the move would make a great deal of sense as there are no guarantees at the moment that Brands Hatch will be granted planning permission to do the work needed to hold a Grand Prix.

Brands Hatch's planning application has been opposed by the Forestry Commission and the Woodland Trust because the work needed will destroy nearly 40 acres of ancient woodland. The two organizations are arguing that granting planning permission goes against government policy. The Woodland Trust says that the woods have already been damaged by 4x4 rallying activities but that they can be restored.

"This wood is not in very good shape," says Dr. Hilary Allison, policy director of the Woodland Trust, "but it would set a dangerous precedent if neglect were to be used to justify development."

Although there would be obvious financial gains for the area, getting planning permission is by no means certain and even that does not guarantee that there will not be further problems later on. The circuit also has problems with local residents. As recently as 1998 Brands Hatch went to court with the Sevenoaks District Council over the noise created by the NigelÊMansellÊRacingÊSchool. Environmental Health Officers had visited the neighborhood in 1997 after complaints and agreed that people living nearby were suffering from unacceptable noise levels. Brands Hatch appealed but DartfordÊMagistrates' Court dismissed the appeal and ordered Brands Hatch to pay Sevenoaks District Council's legal costs.

Many years ago - before the Foulston Family bought Brands Hatch - there were suggestions that the circuit should be sold off to make way for a major shopping center and that the money raised should then be invested in building a new circuit where there were no environmental problems. This plan was rejected at the time but it may be that Interpublic will have to look again at the idea.

Alternatively it may consider doing a deal with a racing facility other than Silverstone. The obvious candidate would be Donington Park but the Formula 1 community is now looking for tracks like Malaysia's Sepang International and it is hard to imagine that any of the existing facilities could be made to fit the bill.

It is worth noting, however, that an impressive new facility is being constructed at Rockingham in Northamptonshire. This is the first banked oval to be built in Britain since Brooklands and is due to be opened at the end of 2000. It is located between the M1 and A1(M) motorways. This is being portrayed at the moment as principally being an oval track but there will be a 2.4-mile road circuit in the middle. Rockingham will be an all-seater facility and while the area inside the 1.5-mile oval is probably not large enough to accommodate the 90,000 spectators who turn up each year at Silverstone, there are one mile ovals in America (such as Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona), which have seating capacity for nearly 80,000.