By Alan Baldwin
BARCELONA (Reuters) - The British Grand Prix is set for a record 150,000-strong crowd in July with home hero Lewis Hamilton an even bigger draw after recent setbacks, Silverstone circuit managing director Patrick Allen said on Thursday.
The Briton's Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg is chasing his eighth victory in a row at the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, while Hamilton has not won since taking his third Formula One championship in October.
"We are heading north of 150,000 on the Sunday," Allen told Reuters at the Circuit de Catalunya of current estimates.
"I think now there’s the factor of Lewis having to come from behind and there’s nothing the Brits like more than to get behind their man coming from the back of the pack," he said. "And he’s done it before.
"I think it makes it that much more exciting. I think if he was still winning race after race after race, it might be the opposite effect from last year.
"But this time he’s had misfortune ... and there’s been car issues and all of that. The Brits will really get behind him and that’s what they seem to be doing right now."
Last year 140,000 people saw Hamilton win from pole position at Silverstone, the biggest Formula One crowd of the season with only Mexico (134,000) coming close.
Allen said Silverstone -- a former World War Two airfield that hosted the first Formula One world championship race in 1950 -- was creating extra capacity, with more general admission tickets and grandstands available.
Some 130,000 tickets had been sold so far.
Silverstone agreed a 17-year contract with Formula One in 2009, with hosting fees rising every year and a break clause for both parties from 2019 that would have to be activated the day after next year's race.
Formula One's commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone has played hardball with Silverstone in the past, periodically suggesting that Britain could lose its race or that London could host one.
The 85-year-old returned to a familiar theme this week when he told Britain's ITV television that London could be a possibility.
"There is a small technical issue, who is going to pay for it, but other than that I can't see any dramas," he said.
The comment produced predictable headlines but Allen doubted it would happen or pose a threat to Silverstone.
"Maybe he (Ecclestone) is softening us up for something, I don’t know," he smiled. "It (London) would be great but it’s the cost and the upheaval to Londoners ... and it’s the age old question of who’s going to pay for it," he said.
"Never say never but I doubt it will happen. And if we make our grand prix bigger and better, and more and more successful, why would you go to London?"
Allen said Ecclestone, who in years gone by compared Silverstone to a rundown house and a "country fair masquerading as a world event" before major upgrades were carried out, had been supportive of his race.
Ecclestone had also provided 20 coveted paddock passes to be offered as a 'text to win' prize with the chance also of watching the action from a team garage.
"I’ve had a different attitude in how we deal with him. A lot of people in the past went to him with a begging bowl saying we can’t afford it, please lower your fee," said Allen.
"My tack has been 'The contract is signed, whether I like it or not it’s a done deal. Right now Mr Ecclestone, how are you going to help me make more money out of the contract so I can make you more money?'"
(Editing by Catherine Evans)