x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

British Grand Prix host courts Middle East investment

Several companies from the region are interested in adding the illustrious Silverstone racing circuit to the region's growing portfolio of sporting investments.

The Silverstone track has been around for many years now and has a rich history.
The Silverstone track has been around for many years now and has a rich history.

SILVERSTONE, England // Several Middle East-based companies are interested in adding the illustrious Silverstone racing circuit to the region's growing portfolio of sporting investments, the circuit owners said yesterday.

Since signing a new 17-year contract with Formula One to continue hosting the British Grand Prix until 2027, the self-proclaimed "home of motorsport" has undergone the first two phases of a three-phase redevelopment.

Last year, the track at Silverstone Circuit underwent alterations to accommodate future rounds of MotoGP and the World Superbike Championship, while this year a new paddock complex, complete with 39 garages, three scrutineer bays and a large plush media centre, has opened.

However, following substantial investment that saw the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC), which owns Silverstone, pay more than £32 million (Dh188.7m) to complete the first two stages, the private members club is now looking for alternative financing for future modifications.

Stuart Rolt, the chairman of the BRDC, told The National the final phase of development — which will include a visitor centre, three hotels and an education and high-performance engineering complex — could cost more than £32m again, but that it must be funded by private investors.

"We don't expect government funding," Rolt said. "We're not asking for it — we have asked for it [in the past], but we didn't get it, so we have been doing our own thing.

"Everything you see here is our own funding; the next stage ... will have to come from other sources. Or we will do it, but slowly."

The BRDC has drawn up a development brief and will apply for outline planning later this month. Together with administrators Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), the BRDC has been courting companies within the Gulf region to invest to help develop the 800-acre site.

Rolt said that PwC "have sent out a pack of information to potentially interested parties", and that some have responded positively and would like to talk, while "others have said this is not their scene".

"Quite a lot of Middle Eastern corporations have shown interest in what we are doing. We have talked to a number of people and are reviewing certain bidding organisations as we speak."

The Gulf has a record of investing in overseas sport. A sovereign wealth fund of Qatar's royal family have acquired French football club Paris Saint-Germain and Qatar's Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani has bought Spanish side Malaga.

Saudi Arabia's Prince Khalid Abdullah has invested heavily into British horse-racing — including the illustrious colt Frankel — and Godolphin, the Dubai based global racing operation, which has stables in Newmarket in England, is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

In 2008, Leisurecorp, Dubai World's sport and leisure subsidiary, acquired Turnberry, the historic Scottish golf resort and host venue for the 2009 British Open, while the Abu Dhabi United Group bought an initial 90 per cent stake in Manchester City Football Club in 2009 for around £210m.

Rolt declined to specify from which countries within the region the interested parties are registered, while Robert Phillips, the managing director of Silverstone Circuit, said while he was "aware of interest", he was not involved in the final bid process.

Contractual obligations with Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One Management means no potential investor could acquire naming rights of the famous racetrack, while Rolt is so adamant interested parties do not intend to compromise Silverstone's primary trade that a legal document has been drafted and provided to them.

"We have 800 members who are racing drivers and rule No 1 is that this place remains a race circuit," he said. "What happens around that is fine, but we would never contemplate getting in or doing a joint venture with anybody who has a different vision than us.

"And, actually, they would be mad to change that anyway, because what is Silverstone? If you try to change it, then you lose what you have invested in the first place," said Rolt, who added the club's preference is for a solitary investor.

Phillips said: "What we would like to do is find one investor because, I'm sure it is a similar situation in Abu Dhabi, if you lose control of surrounding areas then you get compromised as a venue. We would like to keep it all in harmony.

"We will have professional people come in and take on the development side of it, but we will not try and break it up."

If potential investors were in any doubt of the circuit's viability, the past three days of on-track action should have helped convince them.

A record crowd of 88,000 spectators attended the first day of practice on Friday, and 122,000 tickets for yesterday's race — the cheapest of which cost £58 — were sold-out in advance. The total attendance for the weekend was published by circuit officials as 315,000, an increase of 5,000 on the 2009 record for the circuit's flagship event.