"I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” says Stuart Pringle, the boss of Silverstone who has worked so hard to ensure that a full-capacity crowd of 140,000 will be back in the grandstands and on the banks this weekend to cheer on Sir Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris, George Russell and the rest at the British Grand Prix.
“Getting the crowds back was not the work of a moment and was finely balanced throughout,” says Pringle from his office overlooking the National Straight. “Silverstone without the fans is just soul-destroying.” The experience last year, when Silverstone hosted two behind-closeddoors grands prix on consecutive weekends, due to the pandemic, taught him that. “It was great for our profile, but if you go to all the effort of running a grand prix and nobody can come in and watch, it’s a pointless exercise,” says Pringle. “In fact, it became known here as the ‘penis’: pointless exercise not involving spectators…”
It’s going to be quite an occasion after a year that none of us will ever forget. Live crowds returning to watch sport in recent weeks, be it snooker, football, tennis, cricket or motorsport, has been heartening – but there has been nothing near the scale of what we will see at the British GP.
The reason that a crowd can attend is that the race has been accepted, after much lobbying by Pringle’s team and Formula 1 management, as a key test in the UK government’s Events Research Programme.
“It has helped us enormously that the race takes place the day before national Covid restrictions are due to be lifted [19 July],” explains Pringle. “As part of the programme, it’s the ultimate, final test event. It makes sense right at the end of the process to gather data around a proper event at scale. There’s a possibility that Covid certification might be needed to keep domestic football alive this winter, so that’s really what’s driving the need to understand what practices can be implemented, that there’s a system, understanding and confidence in case there’s a Covid spike when the weather gets colder. Then they won’t have to stop people doing what they enjoy.”
Not everyone is delighted by crowds returning so soon, of course, especially given the still-worrying daily number of new Covid cases affected by the spread of the Delta variant in the UK. Critics point to inconsistencies and contradictions in the approach, and even Hamilton, while acknowledging his excitement to see fans back at his favourite race, suggested it might be “premature”. Pringle understands his concern. “I strongly suspect he isn’t familiar with the detail of the Events Research Programme, which has been a very tightly controlled, science-led, government-run programme taking the data and learnings from every stage of the increasing attendance at sports events and analysing it to make informed and considered judgements on the risk,” he says. “I understand why he’s concerned. He’s always fair and always a supporter of the fans. He loves them. He’s also a man with a big heart and a good moral compass, so I’m not surprised that he might articulate concern. But this wouldn’t be happening if the government’s public health officials weren’t entirely comfortable and hadn’t signed it off.”