Silverstone’s owners have had to defend against some heavy-hitting criticism over the years - but could an off-track success story from last weekend’s British Grand Prix finally see them turn the corner?
Ask anyone about the British Grand Prix and the first thing that will probably come into their mind is not the incredible racing that has happened at Silverstone over more than 60 years but the traffic nightmares that people seem to experience year after year.
Last year was perhaps the worst ever, with a combination of heavy rain and bad off-the-cuff traffic management resulting in the organisers actually telling people not to turn up on qualifying day.
In total over £1m of refunds were handed out to fans who took the organisers’ advice but the hangover of what was a major PR disaster resulted in low ticket sales for this year’s event.
And that is not what any British racing fan wants.
The future of Grand Prix racing at a circuit that is known as the home of motor racing has been regularly in the spotlight, with criticism from Bernie Ecclestone almost an annual occurrence for many years.
On his insistence, circuit owners the BRDC spent what relatively limited budget they have – which totals £42m so far - in upgrading the circuit, developing the new pits complex and adding business parks and even a new performance engineering school.
That’s put Ecclestone on side – he even praised them for their efforts to overcome last year’s soggy car park issues – but it didn’t make any indent on what has always been the core problem: the way in.
Legendary Grands Prix in Europe are regularly falling off the calendar – France lost their race a while ago, Germany lost one if theirs, and even the drivers’ favourite Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium was dropped for a season.
It is unthinkable that Silverstone could ever go this way – but without government support and without signs of any investment from industry, it is the fans they need to help the race survive.
A late ticket surge in the six weeks before this year’s race saved the day this time, with Silverstone expecting to total up a crowd of around 300,000 over the three days – its third highest ever - when they check all the ticket stubs.
Until an investor is found, though, Silverstone needs to keep those fans coming – which is why a new traffic system that keeps the cars away could be the key to the circuit’s future.
Silverstone introduced their ‘park-and-ride’ scheme last year but with roads clogged by camper vans and cars which couldn’t get into the circuit, it failed to function as it should.
This year, with lessons learned, Silverstone expanded the plan and delivered an unprecedented success.
Last year I spent eight hours in my car and didn’t even get into the circuit – and that was on a Friday. This year, at peak arrival time on qualifying and race days, the Park-and-Ride bus from Towcester breezed in on a traffic-free A43 and reached the track without stopping once.
It’s not just Silverstone that has traffic issues. At the Nurburgring I once had to turn on the car hazard lights and follow circuit security, driving half on the verge to pass past clogged traffic on the single entry road for several miles, to make it in time for the race.
I also spent many hours trying to fight through Turkish traffic on the single bridge that took you to the Istanbul circuit year after year; and even in China the organised media buses from the centre of Shanghai seemed to go round in circles taking two hours to reach the circuit.
Silverstone is in a rural location in the middle of the picturesque Northamptonshire countryside – but it’s not on the moon. There are major towns nearby and the ‘Park-and-Ride’ option seems so sensible it’s hard to think why Silverstone took so long to work it out.
Now, with four different locations covering all angles of the compass and buses also hooked up at both Northampton and Milton Keynes train stations, the British Grand Prix can genuinely be only just over an hour and a half’s journey from London.
On the route I took, the car parks were packed and the buses were full and flowing regularly into the track. On the way back, the last bus, at 7:30, returned to a near empty site, showing just how quickly the track had been cleared.
But there is a longer-term plan to all of this.
Silverstone has a major building strategy in place to build it into a high-tech automotive and motorsport facility. If this goes to plan, it will not actually have the parking space for as many cars in future.
But all that industry space should make it a more enticing business venture for potential investors – and that is what Silverstone needs.
So although the ease of getting into the track was great, proof that the system now in place does work is far more critical to the future of the circuit than it first appears...
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- British Grand Prix