Although it’s mostly a question of hobnobbing and hats, the punters at Royal Ascot do like to see the races as well. Mark Leftly and Tom Broughton report on why its new grandstand was built with restricted views, and what’s being done to put it right

For £18, the well-to-do can snap up a premier admission ticket to tomorrow’s Allied Irish Bank meeting at Ascot racecourse. The holder of this ticket must “dress in a manner appropriate to a smart occasion”, but will be rewarded with access to the best facilities and most sought-after viewing spots in and around the £185m grandstand.

Just one problem: they might not be able to see much of the races. Over the summer, Ascot has received more than 1,000 complaints about sight lines from stand to turf, and the difficulties of navigating the 30,000-seat building. At the Royal Enclosure lawn it is almost impossible to see the race when the horses are running around the west side of the track, and the main concourse suffers a similar problem. The difficulty is that the lawn is sloped at too gentle a gradient to allow optimal viewing of the home bend.

Managers at the racecourse acknowledged that this was not good enough, and about two months ago drafted in Arup and High-Point Rendel to help the original project team, including architect HOK Sport and structural engineer Buro Happold, to resolve the problem. High-Point Rendel has since stood down, but Peter Rogers, former chairman of the Strategic Forum, has since been appointed to head the investigation.

Rogers says: “It had all started to get a bit unfriendly between the parties involved, so Ascot brought me in to get the original project team to the table to help find a solution.”

They are now costing options and drawing up studies testing the feasibility of these solutions, with Arup producing 3D models of sight lines. These could include raising the seating of the concourse or, more improbably, lowering the track.

The most likely change, though, will be to rip up the lawn and steepen its gradient from 1:20 to 1:10. The reason for the gentle slope was originally to allow wheelchairs to move around, as required by disability access laws. It seems that the lawn will be re-landscaped in the spring, during grass growing season, a process that is likely to take three months.

Rogers adds: “We will be looking at alternatives to deal with the disability legislation, such as designating a certain area of the building to cope with wheelchairs.”

Ascot’s board hopes to make an announcement before the new year on the option it has chosen and the likely timescale for implementing it. Ascot insists that, however long this takes, “what is for certain is that it will not interfere with the running of Royal Ascot next year”.

The total cost has been estimated at somewhere around £1m, although Ascot sources insist that this was not the time to talk economics. If the estimate is correct, it will not just cover the re-landscaping. There are other, more minor defects that need to be rectified. These include the need for remedial work on some of the balconies, where drainage has proved to be inadequate, the addition of a chefs’ changing room and the application of protective coatings to the walls and floors.

It is probable that the overwhelming need to finish the course in time for this year’s Royal Ascot meeting is at the root of the present difficulties. The course’s management was determined to get the redevelopment finished in time for the five-day pageant in June, with its 310,000 visitors. Contractor Laing O’Rourke duly completed the stand in 20 months, handing it over in May.

However, this meant that there was little time to test many of the facilities properly. An example is the silver ring, which is the economy enclosure on the east side of the course, near the home bend. Although the views here were fine, the short preparation time meant that the facilities were poorly aligned, and bars and cafes were located in inconvenient locations.

“There might be 25,000 people a day in the silver ring during Royal Ascot,” says a source close to the project. “For them it might be the only race they go to all year, so it’s got to be right. But that area was handed over only two weeks before the meeting, so it didn’t look as pretty as we would have liked.”

However, the source adds that people here “probably got the better end of the deal”. As The Sun scoffed, it was “the toffs” that suffered.

Another project source thinks that a certain snobbery is at the heart of the problem: “With any new venue, particularly when it’s an establishment type of venue, there will be the issue that people don’t like change.”

This might be a reasonable point. Ascot has five huge screens showing the race as it is run, and it is always difficult to see the far end of a track from the winning post area. Flemington racetrack in Australia, by comparison, is considered by many experts to be the world’s best course and is home to the prestigious Melbourne Cup. Yet, at grass level, there is an extremely limited view of the race.

“You have to remember this is different to other sports,” says an Ascot source. “It’s not like going to a football match, which is 100% about view. Stadiums to an extent are quite formulaic – effectively, thousands of people sitting in a circle. At a racecourse you meet friends, watch races, have a drink, wear the hats.”

But for £185m, Ascot is probably right to think that things should be near-perfect, even though HOK Sport is understood to have told the client that it will not realise the full potential of the building for two or three years, during which time it will be able to experiment by installing temporary bars and varying the entrance points. This will allow it to control crowd flow better, which was one of the punters’ more frequently voiced complaints. At times there were an uncomfortable number of people in popular areas such as the main concourse and galleria.

Ascot and its consultants appear convinced that any rebuilding work will not interfere with the race schedule. After this weekend there are nine more race days until the next Royal Ascot, starting 19 June. Each of these meetings will probably have about 13,000 visitors. So, if the concourse or lawn is closed for repairs, there will be ample capacity for people to sit elsewhere in the grandstand.

The real issue to come could well be who pays for the changes. HOK Sport is certainly angered by any suggestion that the problems are its fault. The firm’s principal, Rod Sheard, says: “It is to do with the track rather than the building.”

Certainly the aforementioned Rogers is supportive, insisting that Ascot is “a victim of its own success”, and that the crowd control issues are now being addressed. “I don’t want this to be seen as another project disaster,” he says. “This is not an original design problem, nobody could have foreseen this and how successful the grandstand was going to be.”

One person who is certainly not being blamed is Howard Shiplee, the grandstand’s project director. He has gone on to take over the role of construction director for the Olympic Delivery Authority. He completed the racecourse on time and to budget, and is described by Ascot as “a fantastic project director”. The course was particularly appreciative of how Shiplee got the grandstand ready for Royal Ascot despite its falling behind schedule last year.

And Royal Ascot was, and remains, the key point for the client. As the spokesman puts it: “Yes, there are still some shortcomings that we’ll have to address, which is not ideal, but the consequences of the shortcomings are minor in comparison with the reaction there would’ve been for failing to deliver the grandstand in time for Royal Ascot.”

In other words, all else is secondary to getting in the punters for five days in June.

The story of the stand

  • 2000 Ascot announces its intention to redevelop the grandstand
  • September 2004 The last race before redevelopment work begins in October 2004
  • January 2005 The demolition of the 1961 stand is completed
  • July 2005 The superstructure is completed
  • August 2005 Project director David Trench resigns having “not been getting on too well” with the client; Howard Shiplee takes over
  • September 2005 Private track trials
  • May 2006 Testing of systems
  • June 2006 Royal Ascot is held and 1,000 complaints follow
  • September 2006 High-Point Rendel and Arup are called in; Ascot chief executive Douglas Erskine-Crum resigns after 13 years, but denies that it has anything to do with the grandstand
  • October 2006 Peter Rogers called in
  • Spring 2007 Royal Enclosure lawn to be ripped up and re-landscaped?