Relief all round as Silverstone secures British GP
Monday's announcement that Silverstone has signed a 17-year contract to host the British Grand Prix brings to an end one of the longest-running and, frankly, most tedious stories in Formula 1.
In more than 15 years covering the sport, I cannot remember a time when there was not some doubt about the future of the race that started the first F1 world championship in 1950.
In all that time, it was always assumed that, somehow, there would always be a British Grand Prix, that eventually F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone would swallow his heavy criticism of the track and come to some kind of a deal.
But as Silverstone managing director Richard Phillips said in Monday's news conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, "with Bernie, you just never know".
Now, though, with a 17-year-deal in its pocket, Silverstone and its owner the British Racing Drivers' Club have the security they always said they needed to bring about the improvements to the track and its facilities that Ecclestone has been so publicly demanding for so long.
The reasons there was always so much doubt about the race are, fundamentally, to do with money. And the uncertainty was not good for anyone - not for Silverstone, not for Ecclestone and not for F1.
It's all very well having countries in Asia and the Middle East queuing up to throw money at you for the honour of hosting a race. But they - and F1 itself - are diminished without the context provided by the classic tracks such as Silverstone, Spa, Monaco and Monza that have formed the history of the sport and which continue to provide the greatest challenge for the drivers.
The owners of spectacular new facilities such as those in China, Malaysia, Bahrain and most recently Abu Dhabi - where the new track that ended this year's championship has a grandstand that sits over a run-off area, and a tailor-made harbour - all recognise that. And with this contract Ecclestone has finally made it clear that he does, too.
Silverstone cannot hope to match the investment poured into spectacular new facilities such as Abu Dhabi
To be fair to Ecclestone, he was always faced with a difficult balancing act when it came to making contracts with the various circuits.
It is a task that includes weighing the above concerns with the desire to ensure the calendar did not go stale, to extend F1's global footprint, and, most recently, to maximise the profits for the private equity company that owns the sport's commercial rights.
The new tracks, without exception, have been created by governments who want to use F1 to raise their global profile, and are prepared to invest whatever it takes to make an impression.
First it was Malaysia in 1999. Since then each new track on the calendar has progressively raised the bar and built ever more spectacular temples to those ambitions.
But the historic tracks in Europe are working to a different agenda. Most of them - but not Silverstone - are funded by local or national governments who, being democracies, cannot justify the huge amounts of money being spent elsewhere simply to host a Formula 1 race.
Silverstone does not even have the luxury of government money. It is a private members club, and it has to work like any other business. So spending £200m plus simply to build a track, and then another £20-30m year to host a race was out of the question.
Donington Park, which signed in 2008 a 17-year contract to host the British GP from 2010, proved just how difficult it is to make the race work financially when it failed to raise the funding it needed and its contract was made void, at which point Silverstone started its talks with Ecclestone.
And even after two months of negotiations, which included strings being pulled by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, the numbers Silverstone will be paying are still eye-catching.
The figures are closely guarded, but it seems that Silverstone has a contract which means they will pay £12m for the race in 2010, with a 5% escalator year on year.
Assuming the contract runs its full 17 years - and there is a break clause that either party can operate after 2019 - that will be a total spend of £310m. And that's before any of the work redeveloping the circuit is taken into account.
Raising money will not be easy - with ticket prices the only direct way of doing so over the grand prix weekend, given that Ecclestone's companies have the rights to all trackside advertising.
Phillips said he wanted to keep ticket prices affordable, saying he was determined to provide "value for money", and emphasising that "we don't want to increase ticket prices just to pay the race fee". And BRDC president Damon Hill added that he felt Silverstone provided enough options on ticket packages to suit most pockets.
Beyond that, they were vague, talking of expanding the site and increasing the number of businesses that rent space on it - Silverstone hopes to create a kind of high-tech motorsport-leaning centre. Pressed for further detail, Phillips repeatedly used the word "creative" to describe the methods they would use to raise money.
One thing can be taken as read, though - the BRDC would not have signed the contract if they did not think they could make it work.
However they do that, the plans are ambitious: a new track layout for the brand new MotoGP contract in 2010, which will also be used for the F1 grand prix if it can be homologated in time; turning temporary grandstands into permanent ones; improving the sight lines for all spectators; better campsites, and so on.
I asked just how far Ecclestone was expecting them to go with the track and its buildings.
"We're going to build a harbour, aren't we?" Hill said, looking at Phillips. "It'll be filled with barges."
The fact that, after years of anguish and uncertainty, he is now able to joke about Silverstone and the British Grand Prix is a relief to all concerned.