Paddock politics are never too far away in Formula Ford 1600, but motorsport in the United Kingdom also often mixes with parliamentary politics, and one of the high-profile encounters between the two is in the case of the Circuit of Wales (CoW).
Intended to be built on moorland north of Rassau in Ebbw Vale, the 5.63-kilometre circuit is a noticeable absentee from the area today. In March 2014 the development company behind the project denied allegations of a crisis surrounding the project, and that “nobody’s going to remember that in five years’ time”. Five years on, FF1600website wonders what could have been.
With ‘third generation unemployment’ and ‘nothing else on the horizon’, the local reaction to the initial CoW proposal and its 6000 promised jobs in late 2011 was unsurprisingly positive, and planning permission for the circuit was then, briefly, given the go-ahead.
Residents were told that there would be a active track by 2015, and despite a complete lack of any building work by that point, the Welsh Government had already handed £9.3million over to the project, thinking private investment would follow. The money was split between a £2million development grant, and a colossal £7.3million bank loan. An investment of public money that large must have meant the government was entirely convinced CoW would be a success.
To have come to that conclusion, due diligence (i.e. research and reports) would have taken place, a job initially left to external advisors.
CoW had already signed a deal with MotoGP promoter Dorna for Britain’s motorcycling grand prix, and its failure to have a circuit built in time meant it needed further millions to pay Dorna and then Silverstone to hold the races in its place. Initial cost estimates came in around the £200million mark, but had more than doubled by 2015.
Michael Carrick, the CEO of the Heads of The Valleys Development Company behind the project, unsurprisingly came under a lot of scrutiny.
Throughout the entire sorry process of the circuit’s prolonged planning stage, Carrick was simultaneously advertising that there were investors onboard while also lobbying for the money his supposed investors would already be supplying, and writing up the documents that would allow investors to come onboard.
After the £9.3million of public money was used up, a public inquiry was launched. It turned out Carrick had lobbied multiple Welsh politicians into supporting his cause, and when a parliamentary select committee chased up Carrick on how his Head of the Valleys development company had spent the money, it reported to be “absolutely horrified”.
A £967,000 ‘slither’ of the investment was paid to Aventa, the sole shareholder of which was Carrick, to find investors for the circuit. It failed to do so, rendering the work of other contracted parties void. Many of these companies had worked on CoW ‘at risk’, starting their duties prior to contractual agreement, and it was believed north of £23million of unpaid work took place.
It’s easy to put blame on one party, especially after Aventa vainly continued its pursuit of government funding (including asking it to underwrite the whole project) and locally campaigned on the streets about the jobs it would create into 2017.
The Welsh Government wanted to save face from the “inexplicable decisions” it had already made on spending, and when CoW continued to ask for funding it produced a damning due diligence report which dispelled most of Carrick’s statements. The biggest hit was the reality that the jobs CoW would create would be closer to 100 than 6000.
Had a FIA Grade 1 circuit been built in Wales, would it have held FF1600 events?
“Teams will go to Anglesey [in North-west Wales] quite happily,” BRSCC FF1600 coordinator Ian Smith told FF1600website,
“F3 teams etc use it regularly for cheap testing. However, they wouldn’t go to Pembrey [in the South-west]. BRSCC FF1600 drivers and teams would be consulted if [CoW] did ever come to pass and whether we went or not would mainly be dictated by their response.”
FF1600website also went about asking FF1600 drivers what they thought of the 5.63km layout. Reigning Star of Anglesey champion Tom McArthur gave the most detailed answer.
“The track looks like it flows really nicely which is what creates good FF racing (think Donington, Brands, Oulton and to a certain extent the Silverstone National Circuit),” said McArthur.
“I’m not a fan of racing FF1600 on long circuits, I think they benefit from short sharp laps, but like Oulton the track looks as if it doesn’t have a stagnant section so we could probably get away with using the full circuit. From turn 8 to 16 it looks like it could become one of the best sequence of corners in the country.
“Where the proposed location is doesn’t really bother me, if the tracks good enough, people will go there to race. Certainly a National round there would be well supported, especially given the plans of infrastructure they had to surround the circuit like a couple of hotels and such.”
The grand prix layouts of Silverstone and Brands Hatch are absent in National FF1600 for cost reasons as much as the quality of racing, meaning if CoW ever came about it really would be unlikely to host FF1600. And after eight years it is still an if. The county borough council has reapplied for planning permission on the land intended for the circuit.