Silverstone pleads with Grand Prix ticket holders not to demand refunds, as quarantine rules put race at risk

The Northamptonshire track is due to stage the race again in July
  • By Christian Sylt for ITV News

Silverstone is facing a catastrophic financial double whammy in the coming weeks - so much so that its chairman has written to leading ticket buyers and asked them not to demand refunds for this year's British Grand Prix.

The Northamptonshire track is due to stage the race again in July - behind closed doors in the rescheduled Formula One calendar - but even that is under threat because of the government's new quarantine rules.

That means that not only does Silverstone potentially have to hand back tens of millions of pounds in advance ticket sales but also could miss out on a multi-million pounds fee from F1 for holding a Grand Prix.

Formula One's flagship race attracted a record 141,000 spectators at the Northamptonshire track last year.

It is planned to take place again in July but late last month Silverstone's managing director Stuart Pringle announced that spectators will not be able to attend due to the government banning mass gatherings to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Now he says if shareholders do request refunds the track is set to "lose a lot of money this year".

He added that ticket holders could either transfer their booking to 2021 or get a full refund.

ITV News can reveal that this fuelled concern from the members of Silverstone's owner, the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC), a group of 850 motorsport luminaries including reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the GP at Silverstone in 2019. Credit: PA

In a letter to the members following the announcement about refunds, the BRDC's chairman John Grant said: "A number of members have asked 'how badly does the club need the money?'"

Their concern has been driven by a note in the Silverstone's accounts which states that "the company relies on cash received from advanced ticket sales to fund its operations".

Tickets for the 2020 British Grand Prix went on sale in July last year and by February, Silverstone reported that there had been a "record number of advance bookings" with many grandstands already sold out.

During that period Silverstone had to pay costs such as utility bills and the salaries of its 150 staff, the majority of whom are now on furlough.

Silverstone also had to pay off the arrears of its fee for last year's British Grand Prix which came to an estimated £18.6m and was only cleared in March.

The turbocharged cost of the race led to Silverstone breaking its F1 contract seven years early before signing a much cheaper deal which began this year.

Usually packed scenes at the Towcester racecourse. Credit: PA

In his letter, Grant said: "There is no question that 2020, after looking promising only a couple of months ago, will now be a very difficult year for the club.

"We are fortunate to have entered the coronavirus crisis in the strongest position we have been in for years but, in any likely scenario, we will lose a lot of money this year."

It isn't known how many people have requested ticket refunds but the total could come to as much as £29m. This is because Silverstone's latest accounts state that the British Grand Prix generates "approximately half of revenue," which came to £58m in 2018.

In his letter to members, Grant said: "We currently have cash, our bank will support us and, with the help of the government-sponsored furloughing scheme and rates holiday, we are confident we can get through it but, like a lot of businesses, we are having to be very careful about minimising costs and conserving cash."

Grant asked members to help with this by not requesting a refund on tickets they have bought to this year's British Grand Prix.

In his letter, he said that "if any members who have purchased extra guest passes are in a position to help, it would be very much appreciated if you could [...] keep your 2020 passes to support the club’s finances".

He added that failing that, members should request that their "2020 guest passes are exchanged for 2021 guest passes at no extra cost" rather than asking for a refund.

By early June it is expected that inbound travellers to the UK will have to stay in quarantine for 14 days. Credit: PA

Although Silverstone hopes to host its F1 race without spectators, it needs to get the green light from the government's department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

This is because F1 and its ten teams require more than 1,000 staff at a track in order to host a race.

In itself that could be considered a mass gathering and concerns have also been raised that the event could drain medical staff who may be needed in the community. They aren't the only obstacles in the way of the race.

By early June it is expected that inbound travellers to the UK will have to stay in quarantine for 14 days in order to prevent a second wave of coronavirus outbreaks.

This affects F1 as although seven of the ten teams are based in the UK, the three outside include its most famous name, Ferrari.

The quarantine rule in itself wouldn't put the brakes on the British Grand Prix.

However, it would prevent F1 from hosting races in different countries on back-to-back weekends which it hopes to do in order to cram in as many as 18 events before the end of the year.

The quarantine rule could be a hurdle for all international sports and despite fierce lobbying, it appears that they won't be given exemptions.

The government reportedly fears that it would open the floodgates to other companies asking for the same treatment.

It could also stir up tensions if highly-paid sportsmen are allowed to travel freely in and out of the country to attend events whilst the public still aren't able to meet more than one member of their family at the same time.

Ironically, if Silverstone manages to navigate these hurdles, its fortunes could get a boost from hosting a race without spectators.

Unlike the hosts of most sports, F1 race organisers don't get a cut of the revenue from broadcasting or the official hospitality and advertising at the events.

Those revenues race in F1's direction meaning that Silverstone has to cover its hosting fee and running costs largely from ticket sales alone. So if the British Grand Prix is held behind closed doors, F1 may need to pay Silverstone to host it rather than take a fee from it as usual.

Silverstone recently announced that it has reached financial terms with F1 over the compensation. However, it doesn't appear to be any closer to getting an exemption from the government and with only two months before the Grand Prix is due to take place it is now in a race against time.

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