Full throttle: David Thompson, Silverstone

This weekend’s British Grand Prix finds Silverstone’s legal director David Thomson raring to go. But competition from Donington means the legendary circuit is battling to keep the race.


Full throttle: David Thompson, SilverstoneOne day David Thomson could be found decked out in traditional lawyers’ attire, busy slaving over contract agreements for the next big event at Silverstone. The next, the suit might give way to jeans as Thomson gets out on the circuit.

“Unfortunately, most of the time it’s not to test out the latest Formula One car but for health and safety checks,” jokes Silverstone Circuit’s legal and procurement director. “I can seriously say, though, that there’s no other job for a lawyer like mine, and I love the variety.”

Although he was employed initially for his legal skills, Thomson’s role has taken on a life of its own and now he sees his job as more about “managing risk”.

“An average day would see me spending about 50 per cent of my time on legal issues that are pressing for that week, while the other 50 per cent is spent on HR issues and ensuring the venue is up to scratch,” explains Thomson.

Starting on Friday (4 July), this weekend will be one of the busiest in his calendar as the Formula One British Grand Prix comes to the Northamptonshire racetrack. More than a quarter of a million people are set to attend over the three days – in addition to the 1,200 staff that man the stalls and provide services.

“It’s important for these sorts of events to work like clockwork, which means we need to be proactive in our lawyering,” says Thomson. “We need to make sure the right contracts, for instance, are in place, so there’s no fallout too big that it can’t be handled.”

Taking the view that a preventative approach is much better than litigation means that Thomson has managed to keep Silverstone out of any major disputes. “There have been a few low-key squabbles when people have refused to pay their bills, those kind of credit issues,” says Thomson.

For sports issues, Thomson often turns to Clarke Willmott‘s Bristol practice, while enlisting Howes Percival in Northampton for other specialist advice.

Bespoke ;IT ;specialist ;the Technology Law Alliance is also one of the firms Thomson often turns to in sector-specific squabbles, although Denton Wilde Sapte works alongside Thomson on employment issues that he cannot get to the bottom of himself.

Thomson is also working closely with Norton Rose, which is advising him on the construction issues concerning the revamp of Silverstone’s pit and paddock. The pit and paddock complex is the first proposal in a 10-year programme that will see the construction of a new manufacturer test centre, business park, extreme sport and leisure complex, two hotels, a new university campus and new homes near the circuit.

The overhaul of Silverstone is one of the biggest challenges Thomson is facing. The largest, however, has to be Formula One magnate Bernie Ecclestone debating whether the British Grand Prix should continue at Silverstone.

Just this month, Ecclestone was reported to have admitted he had been in talks with Donington to host the British Grand Prix after the Silverstone contract runs out in 2009. Ecclestone has not ruled out Silverstone. Ecclestone believes its management has a better chance than Silverstone of coming up with the £11m annual fee and the large capital investment required to stage the race.

Thomson will not be drawn on discussions with Ecclestone, but says: “We’re utterly determined to keep the Grand Prix at Silverstone and the new developments will be key to us securing the event.”

He adds that Silverstone has recently secured planning permission for a new pit and paddock complex, which is a joint venture with the East Midlands Development Agency. “When it’s approved it will take Silverstone to the next level,” he claims.

Even if Silverstone ends up losing the Grand Prix, it will not put the full-time staff of 80 out of work. In addition to the event, there are more than 40 weekends each year where something is going on.

“The Grand Prix is the pinnacle event,” admits Thomson. “But there are also seven or eight promoted events, as well as British Superbikes, the British Touring Car Championship and the Silverstone Classics, which is a weekend where around 80,000 people attend.”

Thomson’s job will still be varied, but helping Silverstone keep the Grand Prix will be the most difficult piece of risk-management Thomson and his fellow directors have so far encountered.

Name: David Thomson
Company: Silverstone Circuits
Position: Legal and procurement director
Sector: Sports events management
Reporting to: Managing director Richard Phillips
Turnover: £32mEmployees: 80 full-time; 1,200-1,400 part-time
Legal spend: £200,000-£250,000
Legal capacity: One
Main firms: Clarke Willmott, Howes Percival, Technology Law Alliance
Education:1986-89: Law/LLB, Kingston Polytechnic
1990-91: Finals, Guildford
Employment:1992-98: Solicitor, McKenna & Co
1998-2000: Senior legal counsel, Rolls-Royce
2000-01: General counsel, PSEG Europe
2002-04: Consultant, Interpublic Group
2004-present: Legal and procurement director, Silverstone