Between tents and caravans in a field on the edge of Silverstone, the great and good of sport’s most elite members’ club are gathering for their annual British Grand Prix barbecue.
Champagne corks pop while the sausages sizzle, however, as the British Racing Drivers’ Club is celebrating its – and Silverstone’s – seven-year recovery from doom to boom.
“BRDC may have been seen as an old-school, stiff upper lip, straight jacket, fairly square sort of place,” says one of the camper-van arrivals, former F1 driver Karun Chandhok. “But it’s pretty relaxed these days. They’ve done a fantastic job of energising the whole place.”
Luminaries such as Sir Jackie Stewart and Damon Hill are former presidents of an 850-strong membership club which had been cast as outdated when it ran into major financial difficulties in 2015. But, given the recent success of the circuit it has owned for 60 years, this invite-only organisation can now justifiably claim to be as relevant as ever.
While even Wimbledon has struggled to fill its stands this year, Silverstone is, for the first time, a 402,000 sell-out across the three days, despite prices in excess of £250.
Netflix’s Drive to Survive viewer popularity has turbocharged the turnaround, but BRDC’s astute decisions have ensured Silverstone fully benefits from F1’s revival.
Nobody has witnessed the transformation with more glee than Stuart Pringle, the long-serving former BRDC secretary who is now managing director at Silverstone. “We were surviving on an overdraft facility, not even real cash,” he admits of the dark days.
Annual turnover was worth around £50 million, but it was £60,000 worth of the bank’s money that kept the entire operation running. “We were there thanks to the support of the bank – there was no sustainable basis for operating unless there was a substantial and immediate change in our approach.”
BRDC’s cash reserves had fallen to just £9,000 at the end of 2015, but, in the latest available accounts, there was £10 million in the bank and rising.
Critics who said the organisation was foolish to fail to agree a Silverstone sell-off in 2016 are now muted. Two potential buyers, Jaguar Land Rover and entrepreneur Lawrence Tomlinson, who owns the Ginetta car company, walked away frustrated as it became apparent the vast majority of BRDC members opposed a deal. “We all voted to not sell,” Chandhok said.
One of the key selling points of the potential deal with Jaguar Land Rover was that it could invest in a heritage centre for the site, but prudent efforts to diversify the Silverstone offering has allowed the BRDC to get the work done itself. The new Silverstone Interactive Museum appears to have been paid for with the help of at least £2.5 million of loans from BRDC, according to the 2020 accounts. There is also a £10 million overdraft facility if needed.
John Grant, BRDC’s chairman, David Coulthard, elected BRDC president in 2019, and Pringle have been the key players in diversifying the offering. Along with the new heritage centre, there are improved conference facilities, with a new bridge across the track to a new hotel.
Amateur race days and stag-dos are already popular, but a planning application has recently been submitted to build a new karting circuit. Race-day hospitality, meanwhile, has been transformed beyond recognition. Capacity of grandstands has been scaled up since 2006, with improvements to the campsite and access around fan zones.
Pringle admits life is a great deal sweeter for BRDC post-Bernie Ecclestone, the former F1 supremo who squeezed them for every penny.
“During Bernie’s era, we believed his propaganda that we weren’t very good as a race organiser and weren’t very good as a venue,” he says.
Prohibitive staging costs reached breaking point in 2017 when the club activated a break clause on a 17-year circuit contract for F1 racing until 2026. But Liberty Media, which acquired F1 in a deal worth $8 billion (£6.6 billion) that year, moved quickly to iron out issues, agreeing new extended terms within the next two years.
“We pulled ourselves out of that rut [under Ecclestone] and recognised that actually, we’re not just as good as any other organiser on the calendar, we’re probably better and the venue is second to none,” Pringle said.
Last week, the BRDC quickly kicked out one member of the old guard, Nelson Piquet, over his racist comment on a podcast about Lewis Hamilton.
“The evidence actually is that it isn’t an old boys’ club,” Pringle said. “The president is 51, Karun is in his early forties, two of the board members are active professional racing drivers, still very active in their careers. The board is younger, more dynamic, and more involved in current motorsport.”
Despite the drama around the Hamilton furore, this weekend’s barbecue is as relaxed as it has ever been. “Our kids can run around the campsite together and we can all have a barbecue together,” Chandhok, a Sky Sports pundit, adds.
“It’s such a big part of the grand prix for us. But, this year is as good as it gets – we know Silverstone is as safe as it ever has been.”