Monday, 26 October 2009

Industry Structure – The F1 World Tour – The Shared Traits of Donington Park & Dr Parnassus

The globalisation model has always relied on the seemless interaction of the 'new world' merging successfully with the 'old world'. That interaction became increasingly frictionless with Marshall McLuhan famously stated that since the 1960s we have lived in the 'global village', such is the technological inter-connectedness of the modern-world.

Beyond the more ethereal realm of telecommunications and into the physical, that marriage of a 'global village' and of advanced technology is perhaps best exemplified by Formula One. A now high exposure, highly commercialised 'sports-entertainment complex' which has created its own hyper-reality-world. An alternative reality in which the human psyche sits mid-distance between physical tangibility and the more remote yet powerfully immersive regions of cyber-space and the human imagination. For motor-sport enthusiasts and the public alike it is hyper-reality (see Baudrillard & Eco), engendered by its history, myth and expectation; a background presence that regionally comes alive only once a year with a weekend bonanza, and where dreams become reality.

Without doubt, F1 is the spiritual successor of the traveling circus. With that showmanship in mind, the show much be ever 'bigger and brighter', drawing inspiration from all quarters to for 48 hours present the biggest show on earth.

Presently the century old silver-screen serves-up 'The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus' at cinemas. On-screen the central character, the good Doctor leader of a famtasy show for the mind, finds himself peddling via horse and cart a show from a bye-gone age that has become evermore ineffectual and irrelevant to the expectations of the modern ausience – even though the esoteric offering is in itself a wonderful delight.

Dr Parnassus is lost between old and new worlds, that is until the new arrival of a 'johnny-cum-lately' with better commercial instincts and new ideas to update the show.

The film's plot serves as an analogy to the 'old-world' vs 'new-world' situation facing the owners of British motor racing circuits – none more so than Donington Park, the poor cousin to Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Goodwood.

In the world of Formula One, the iconic names of Monaco, Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring, Silverstone and Suzuka trade on a combination of their international repute and inter-continental accessibility. Whilst the newer global tracks such as Sepang (Malaysia), Shanghai (China), Sakhir (Bahrain), Istanbul (Turkey) and Yas Marina (Abu Dhabi), are able to offer a 21st century experience thanks largely to hefty government funding seeking a recognition and status on the global stage.

Within the UK, the fight for the modern home of motor-sport has been an ongoing process since Brooklands lost its monopolistic lead in the late 1920s with in I933 Donington Park heralding the first sealed-track. As the best of its type at the time it hosted the British round of the World Grand Prix through the 1930s until its WW2 closure and Silverstone's effective over-taking of Donington Park in 1948 and its secured F1 title since 1987.

For decades Donington Park found itself in the same constrained circumstances as Dr Parnassus, an offering – centered on its asset-base - that was initially slowly but now quickly becoming outdated compared to the modern ilk, enjoying only periodic small infrastructure adjustments limited to the those only strictly necessary to maintain basic BRDC club standards.

The motorcycle, car and truck race loyalist crowd maintain a core audience, and so revenue from gate-receipts, restaurant covers and commercial leasee rents provides an income; but it seems this is a low level of revenue compared to its international peers. In truth, given the history and nature of the circuit-loyal crowd, the basic provision service has worked, since those who typically attend for “the machines and the action”, not the odd spectacle and social schmoozing. They generally have lesser disposable incomes and so lower levels of personal expenditure. In retail parlance, Donington is more of a provincial Morrisons than a city-centre Waitrose. Indeed, those who have historically attended Donington Park prefer the fact that 'the Park' is anything but 'slick' and retains an innate 'pantina' of a yesteryear heyday. To them Donington feels to be 'theirs'.

Yet beyond the sentiment, economic and corporate ambitions effectively demand a 'sweating of assets' and so the idea of business re-modeling has been a constant part – if less than a reality - of Donington's past. The interactive circle of event-type affects crowd demographic and crowd-capacity, a formulae in which hiked consumer expenditure on a per capita basis is reasoned to against multiple revenue streams to provide a new business rationale.

This process has been as much part of Donington history as the wheels that circumnavigate the track. But the reality has been somewhat different, and so the incumbent circuit operator has instead been forced to exploit the differing crowd type's cultural affinities. Thus since the 1980s, “Donington Park” itself became as recognise for hosting 'The Monsters of Rock' concerts, and the latter-dau spin-off 'Ozzfest'; aswell as ad-hoc events for other musical genres. Efforts to host other event types, nominally fairs and conventions, have been less successful relative to the powerful offerings of conventional event halls which have increased in number, ground space, inter-rivallry and so reduced the per metre squared hosting costs to exhibitors (ie Manchester Arena, Birmingham Exhibition Centre, London O2 Arena, Docklands Arena etc).

So although additional service provision to attract other types of customer has been tentatively tried, the improvement in income in recent times was as a default consequence to a social / consumer trend. That of the rise in sports-bike popularity and ownership between 1997 and 2007 amongst the deep-pocket 'mid-life crisis' male from the suburbs. Unfortunately with the economic downturn and re-shifting of social perceptions that crowd has been diminishing of late as disposable expenditure becomes constrained and 'Boys Toys' became unaffordable luxuries.

So for all past hopes and temporary gains, Donington is typically viewed as the 'working (wo)man's' circuit, its populist association perhaps more so with 2-wheels than 4-wheels (even with BTCC & other events). 'The Park' is home to World Championship Superbikes, the British Motorcycle GP and 'Revivalist' Classic machine races. So, in bike terms a combination of both Silverstone & Goodwood's as per cars.

However, that seemingly ever-present ambition to regain the 1930s Grand Prix glory-days – echoing names such as Nuvolari, Rosemeyer and Shuttleworth - has been a long-held draw. Especially so since the circuit, estate & house's 'Laird' Tom Wheatcroft, moved his large collection of GP cars into a specially build exhibition space in 1973.

However it took 34 years, when in 2006 the newly formed company Donington Ventures Leisure Ltd (DVLL), led by Simon Gillett and advised by the Wheatcroft brothers, took up the 'dormant opportunity'. A 150 year lease on the circuit was agreed and an agreement with Bernie Ecclestone's FOM (Formula One Management) to host the British F1 event for 2010 and the following 10 years.
Critically this was subject to the facility's major upgrading.

This as many observers have noted gave Ecclestone - as the effective F1 operations puppet-master - the ability to play Silverstone against Donington (& vice versa) relative to the world-class infrastructure standards required to ensure to maintain and raise the glamourous reputation of F1.

However, progress in developing the Donington circuit by DVLL proved slow and painful; a cost to the company's credibility. The Q109 DVLL debenture flailed, months after it was cited by the Wheatcroft estate as having fallen into rent arrears; thus seeking re-payment or repatriation of the circuit. Though an out of court settlement was reached this negative episode undoubtedly made any additional 3rd party investors sensitive to questioning the innate shape and health of the company. This realised when the company, facing breach of contract with FOM, set out on 14.10.09 to secure a further funding via issue of £135m corporate bonds with Citi acting as the book-runner.

Even though the offer was promising to pay a 15% coupon over 7 years and was presented at a 10% discount investors shied away. Beyond the sizable immediate problems, there is surely a belief within the investment community that

a) the circuit development could not be completed within the given timescale to host the 2010 British GP
b) even if miraculously built would have incurred diminished scope & scale of required facilities,
c) 'skimped' build-quality
d) high potential of full project completion cost over-runs.

All of which blight the investment equation.

Furthermore, to the external observer, it is rational to expect Mr Ecclestone's contunation as a 'utility maximiser', thus to better service FOM's own interests by possibly switching between his effective suppliers (Donington vs Silverstone). FOM could have re-negotiated that claus at an future time with DVLL, both knowing that Silverstone was FOM's fall-back position. Ecclestone would have presented it as only reasonable, to maximise circuit rivalry and so raise the bar of British F1's competence and international standing.

Thus it seems that DVLL, if financially sound, may be forced to simply run Donington 'as is', dispensing of the ambitious future CEO Simon Gillett sought. There is of course the option of selling the 148 year lease it holds – or a portion thereof - to another 3rd party; if indeed one is at all interested. For its marketable value must incur heavy discounting given the present low valuations of commercial property (esp within the leisure industry), the strain put on the FOM relationship and the realistic level of yield and capital growth available from the circuit.

In all probability, the circuit will return to the Wheatcroft estate, either sold-back for a nominal sum or returned by contractual default. Thus, to be managed by a small events team of in-house staff until at future point in time, possibly beyond a decade away, a new business-buzz can be attached to the circuit's future potential, so attracting new lease-holders and their campaigning for infrastructure investment.

In lieu of a new F1 Donington era, the Wheatcroft Estate, may simply have to book the circuit to its long-term assets section of the balance sheet, probably doing so as 'development class land' which though heavily discounted in the present market, should bounce-back in due course proving useful addition in due course to the Wheatcroft capital-base.

The Donington loyalists will be happy at the unchanged state of their home circuit, much of the patina remaining, and the F1 circus will carry on at Silverstone.

In the 'Imaginarium of the F1 Business', the innate complexity, politics and alliances of the machine means that perhaps not everything is as its seems. But, unlike the Dr Parnassus analogy, at least Donington's soul remains intact.