Silverstone. Home of British Racing. Steeped in history, the iconic track has been at the heart of the British motorsport scene for nigh on 70 years. Beloved by drivers, teams and fans alike, Silverstone faces a watershed moment in its long and illustrious history.
While there may be a question mark over whether Formula 1 cars will still be racing there after 2019, life does not stand still. There is much to do to tackle the big challenges associated with managing a modern day motor-racing circuit. And what exactly does the future hold as Silverstone plans ahead for life with or without its flagship event?
Badger’s very own Emma Thomson paid a visit to Managing Director, Stuart Pringle to find out.
It’s hard to imagine Silverstone without Formula 1. Host of the first ever World Championship race in 1950, the former WW2 airfield has been home to the British Grand Prix on 51 occasions and the race’s permanent home since 1987. But all that could be coming to an end. During the summer, Silverstone took the painful decision to activate the break clause in its current F1 contract meaning no more F1 after 2019, unless Silverstone can come to a mutually agreeable deal with new commercial rights holder, Liberty Media.
Making the circuit economics work
It is a complex business running a motor racing circuit, even tougher to do so profitably. Being part of the global Formula 1 circus is a major challenge, especially when circuits have no real control over the ‘entertainment factor.’ Silverstone’s Managing Director, Stuart Pringle explains: “Fundamentally, people will only come and watch if the championship is interesting. Having a successful British champion like Lewis Hamilton helps, but when Schumacher was dominating for years and years, our gates took a real hammering. If the show is boring, if there’s no overtaking or the noise isn’t right, all these things have a big impact.”
What’s more, the gate money is the only major revenue stream (along with a small percentage of hospitality income) Silverstone can use to try and cover the considerable cost of hosting the prestigious event. This is not a ‘high margin’ activity, especially when you are the only circuit on the current calendar not receiving any form of government help. “However you slice or dice it” says Pringle, “the economics of running a circuit are very expensive. Managing that can sometimes feel like trying to throw a treble top, dart after dart after dart.”
But managing it they are. And Pringle is adamant that the business can continue on the current upward financial trajectory by extracting more value from its two greatest assets: the land and the brand. How exactly can the business extract more value from its land asset? Pringle is convinced the answer lies in thinking beyond the boundaries of the sport. “Let’s stop talking about motor-racing and start talking about a prime 550 acre site in the middle of the country, with excellent road access right to the front door and a global brand name above the main gate.”
Blueprint for the future
The BRDC (British Racing Drivers’ Club and circuit owners) and Silverstone Boards have been thinking along these lines for many years. The most recent iteration of the Silverstone Masterplan received planning consent in the summer, paving the way for the circuit to develop out its land portfolio and spread the turnover across a more diverse range of business interests. Proposals are wide ranging and include a much needed hotel (earmarked for opening in late 2019), luxury short-stay lodge accommodation, automotive brand centres (similar to the Porsche Experience already located at the circuit), an Adrenaline Centre and a long awaited educational visitor attraction (which Pringle is at pains to avoid calling a museum despite the fact that it will tell the history of the circuit – more on that later).
Pringle acknowledges the business probably hasn’t always done enough to lever the potential of the Silverstone Wing, the flagship Pit & Paddock building opened in 2011. But that will certainly change with the arrival of a hotel, a vital piece of the jigsaw for the circuit’s conference, banqueting and exhibition business. He says, “The Wing is better described as the largest covered conference and exhibition facility between London and Birmingham, not an F1 Pit & Paddock.” He goes on, “we have a strategy in place to extract to more value from the building and really make a difference to the bottom line. If we get that right and link it to a brand new hotel, the sky’s the limit.”
He is equally enthused about how the business can use the Silverstone brand to maximum effect, even if F1 is no longer a fixture on their calendar. “We have spent a lot of time and effort on F1 over the years; it’s time to extract the value that has built into our global brand.” Pringle believes this approach is already opening doors. “The brand is how we will be able to build a hotel which will get people to stay here longer and will help grow our conference and exhibition business too. That’s why we can cross-market on other products like our driving experiences. There’s a real sense of momentum behind all this.” Silverstone is also becoming more proactive at exploring global consultancy opportunities through trade missions and selling its expertise to new circuits. Pringle is bullish about pursuing this. “Why can’t we sell our know-how? Why can’t we sell that ‘Powered by Silverstone’ tag to lend authenticity to new circuit set-ups around the world?”
Something for the fans: the Silverstone Experience
One new development, which is already forging ahead, is the Silverstone Experience. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the surrounding local authorities, the arrival of a museum at Silverstone is a long overdue attraction for motorsport fans. Just ask anyone who has turned up on a wet Thursday afternoon in February when there’s no action on track. Apart from taking a souvenir photo under the ‘Welcome to Silverstone’ sign, there’s nothing to show or do with the casual, drop-in visitor. Due to open in Spring 2019, I ask Stuart what visitors to the Silverstone Experience can expect.
“This will be the motor-racing equivalent of Harry Potter World. Except the motorsport world is real! It will talk about the history – the sporting success, the technical battles, the rivalries and innovation. But it won’t just look back. It will be forward looking too, explaining new innovations in motorsport like how aerodynamics and tyres work. It will be immersive, interactive and very educational.”
Pringle believes this new facility will be a point of national interest that people will make a point of coming to see, motorsport fan or not. “ These ideas have been designed to attract people who don’t have a strong interest in motorsport. It will open their eyes to what it’s all about.”
The BRDC is forging ahead with all these new plans to create a strong and sustainable future for the track. “They [the BRDC] love being the guardians of the circuit and of British motorsport,” says Pringle. “I think they are the best people for this as they don’t get any personal benefit from it. They are fixing things themselves and we are unquestionably on the right road to strengthening our business model for the future.”
Stuart sounds particularly buoyed by how things have progressed in the past few months. “We have a convincing plan and critically, we can deliver on that plan and people have the confidence to back us.” Not only that, but the business has crossed some big ticket items off their ‘to do’ list. “We have been talking about doing so many of these big developments for the last ten years. Now we can make them happen; we are making them happen in fact.”
A positive vibe for the future
With so much going on, Pringle is looking to the future with tremendous positivity. 2019 will be a big year for Silverstone when a number of the key developments contained in the Masterplan will come to fruition. “That’s when the rest of our life starts,” he says.
But will the rest of Silverstone’s life have Formula 1 in it? I ask Stuart how all these plans stack up in the sad scenario that 2019 is the last ever running of the British Grand Prix. “None of this is contingent on keeping F1,” he explains. “Life would be easier with it in many ways. We’re all petrol heads here, so of course we want to keep it, but not at any price.” Pringle believes the legacy of having Formula 1 will endure at the circuit. “People know what Silverstone is and what it’s for. We have a great brand, we are still the home of British motor racing so will people still come? Absolutely they will.”
Stuart is sanguine about 2018 too. Plans are already well advanced for promoting next year’s Grand Prix, which happens to coincide with the circuit’s 70th birthday year. “We want to give the fans a really special event for our birthday,” he says.
It’s clear that the Silverstone management is sharply focused on delivering lots of exciting new developments to keep motorsport lovers coming through the hallowed gates for many years to come.
With many thanks to Stuart Pringle and Katie Tyler (Marketing & Communications Manager) for their time.