Welcome back to the 1930s

Every once in a while the S&G chucks an anachronism into the mix. This is a blog, after all, that has its roots in the age of adventure when land, sea and air were conquered by internal combustion, rather than the comings-and-goings of today.

One thread to have run continuously between our present age and that described on these pages has been the commercial sponsorship in motor sport  – and that thread is about to be broken. No longer, it would seem, do feats of derring-do appear to be properties of interest to people with products to sell.

Earlier this month it was announced that the quest to run Bloodhound, the vehicle intended to elevate the Land Speed Record beyond  1000 mph, was going on indefinite hiatus with a £25 million shortfall. This after 10 years of hard graft and the construction of a ‘viable racing car’ for the job from the team that had built the world’s only supersonic car… it was very sad news indeed.

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Bloodhound’s funding has stalled achingly close to the 1000 mph barrier

It seems that the sheer achievement embodied by Bloodhound, the pinnacle of arguably the motoring world’s longest-held honour, was simply lost upon our risk-averse society (and, of course, there would always be someone with a placard and corduroy headwear who would bark that the project’s carbon footprint was unforgivable).

Meanwhile, in November this year, a marathon Formula 1 season will drag wearily to a close in Abu Dhabi and it will mark the last time that we will see cars carrying the colours of a company, Martini, which is only there for the association with the sport. One or two very expensive stickers may yet cling to the caché of Ferrari, but a remarkable era has now closed.

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It’s the end of the line for bold corporate liveries in international motor racing

Commercial sponsorship began in America, when manufacturers of engine components, fuel and lubricants paid teams to put their name on the cars that used their technology. Soon other products began to appear and cars became candy-coloured advertisements whilst in Europe the tradition of national racing colours was preserved for more than half a century.

It was when these cultures collided in the late 1950s that things began to move on a little. At the Race of Two Worlds, Stirling Moss drove a Maserati that was sponsored by Eldorado ice cream. Shortly thereafter British teams like Lotus, Cooper and Lola went to the States and found life rather more lucrative than it was in Formula 1 in return for placing a few stickers on their coachwork.

The FIA permitted overt corporate branding to be on cars from 1966 onwards, and one of the earliest beneficiaries was Porsche, which very soon sported Martini colours on its cars at races like the Targa Florio. Meanwhile in Formula 1, Lotus took the final step into the unknown when it repainted its green-and-yellow cars as Golf Leaf cigarette packets.

 

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Ever the trend-setter: Stirling Moss’s ice cream-toting Maserati

 

For the next 30 years, the global motor sport economy became based on the two founding pillars of corporate sponsorship: booze and fags.

These were products that sold aspiration and lifestyle, thus they were quickly followed by fashion houses, parfumiers, glossy magazines and property companies. Greed was good and by the zenith of the 1980s there was the rise of personal technologies – hi-fi stereos, cassette tapes, computers, dishwashers, microwaves – that lavished funds on jostling for space in this most rarefied of soukhs.

Look at any car in any series from the 1980s, from Formula 1 to rallying, sports cars to NASCAR, and be amazed by the carnival of colour, bravado and money that was circulating on that gleaming coachwork. But then as the shoulder-padded 1980s emerged into the plaid-shirted 1990s, cigarette advertising was finally stubbed out and the Internet happened.

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No platform rivalled the glitz appeal of motor racing in the 1980s

People suddenly became more interested in describing what they had for breakfast on social media rather than being amazed by mankind’s bravery and ingenuity. Meanwhile, motor sport tried and failed to replace its lost sponsors.

Banks briefly filled the void but then most of them went bust, while telecoms companies were briefly wooed only to decide that creating ad broadcasting their own ‘content’ was better than providing cash for somebody else’s carnival.

Time and again in the last couple of decades, smart and sassy marketing men have been hailed as the people to usher in change and new fortunes to motor racing. But they they’ve simply been over-remunerated and over-hyped passengers who have taken out far more than they’ve brought in.

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A Mercedes-engined car in the colours of Mercedes’ global water cooler supplier

Look again at the brand names that appear on competition cars today, and almost without exception they are suppliers to the motor manufacturers. It’s called defensive spending: maintaining multi-million dollar global contracts by investing a couple of those millions back into supporting their customers’ sporting ambitions. Our world has got smaller and within it motor sport has dwindled to a point where the impact of sponsorship is measured in the ringbound files of procurement policy.

National racing colours may not have returned, but strip away today’s jazzy graphics and 99 per cent of what’s left is the same sort of sponsorship that would not be out-of-place on a Duesenberg at Indianapolis – while the only major investment in motor sport is being made by governments who wish to employ four-wheeled ambassadors.

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Snazzy graphics mask the paucity of outside investment in modern racing

So if the departure of Martini can be seen as the end of an era that goes back to the mid-1960s, it appears that in many ways the sport’s future is to be rooted somewhere closer to the 1930s (aside from breathtaking Land Speed Record attempts, of course). It seems that a circle has just completed itself.

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They Shall Not Grow Old – Review

Tonight the S&G attended the premiere of Sir Peter Jackson’s eagerly-awaited new film, They Shall Not Grow Old.  The film’s trailer told us all that we needed to know: in 60 seconds we saw the familiar jerky, grainy silent images from the Western Front transformed into warm colour, played at real-life speed in modern high definition.

With the footage thus transformed, lip readers could easily see what was being said and actors with the correct dialect for each regiment brought their words back to life against a background hubbub of the genuine noises of war.

Our screening was not the ritzy all-star affair at the British Film Institute with Prince William, Mark Kermode and some former Hobbits in tow. This was just one of 250 simultaneous screenings taking place across the country, which gave a telling snapshot of those for whom this film will have the most resonance.

The majority of our sell-out audience was white haired and, as we waited in the lobby, appeared somewhat nervous looking. No doubt they were remembering their own grandfathers, if they had survived, and all the others of that generation whom today’s pensioners had known doubtless as nurturing figures but equally taciturn and seldom willing to address their war with younger generations.

One sensed that they knew this film would be a chance to glimpse into the shadows under the stairs and into the uneasy silences of their childhood.

Of today’s children there were very few to be seen. The youngest members of the audience were generally 40- to 50-year old men: some bookish, some city types fresh off the 17:30 from Waterloo, some shaven-headed reprobates juggling plastic beakers of beer. Some brought their wives but few could induce their children along. Across the auditorium there was an air of quiet reverence long before the lights went down.

Before the main feature there was a short intro to 1418now.org, the Lottery-funded council of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport that has presided over the centennial arts programme since 2014 and commissioned Jackson’s film. We were treated to an abundance of make-believe Tommies with one’s eye being drawn to the smattering of Afro-Caribbean faces placed rather ham-fistedly in their midst, whilst women in brightly-coloured hijabs looked on in wonder.

Mercifully, this festival of inclusiveness and reversed cultural appropriation only lasted for a few minutes. That’s not to say that the archive footage in Jackson’s film was lacking in colour of any kind – battalions of Sikh infantry, Chinese labourers and West African supply troops were all present and correct. But when youngsters do come to watch the film, they will doubtless wonder why the token black soldiers are not there among the Sussex Yeomanry and Lancashire Pals, as they are whenever Doctor Who visits the Western Front.

The colour palette of the restored footage will be familiar to anyone who has seen the great battles of Middle Earth that Jackson has conjured on screen. The Tommies’ waterproof capes melt into the earth like Frodo and Sam’s Elven robes. The mud, blood and rain have been recreated so well in the movie-maker’s most celebrated trilogies… mainly because J.R.R. Tolkein himself lived as a soldier on the Western Front.

There were moments of beautiful humanity when German and British soldiers met after battle; belly-laughs at the soldiers’ absurd sense of humour and always the threat of the raw violence and fleshy carnage that they created. When it was all over and the credits rolled, some in the audience applauded – but not many. It was too stark and powerful for that.

After the film came a Q&A with Sir Peter Jackson, hosted by Mark Kermode. He described They Shall Not Grow Old as probably the most personal film that he has ever made, inspired by the awe in which he held his own veteran grandfather who served from 1910 to 1919, and the lifetime Jackson himself has spent learning as much as he can about the war.

Quite rightly, he lamented the fictional movies that persist in imposing a sense of victimhood upon the soldiers of the Western Front that we have bestowed upon them. He had much more to say as well although at our screening there was an interruption by a young woman who stood with a clenched fist and barked out some slogan or other (it sounded like ‘object and you rule’), until she eventually ran out of the theatre, while we all looked at each other and said ‘what?’

Probably a Cambridge under-graduate, they seem to go in for that sort of thing these days. There will be a second screening and Q&A tomorrow purely for schools and colleges. We wish them all the luck in the world.

The film will now go on a limited cinematic run and will then be screened by the BBC on 11 November. If you can, go to the cinema and drink it in at full size. No matter what, please take the time out to sit and watch it on TV. It is only a snapshot of a very limited part of the war but it is real and heartfelt and, for that, it is truly astounding.

Farnham Remembers Hawthorn

This Sunday, if you have a chance, please head for Farnham for a celebration of the life of Britain’s first Formula 1 world champion, Mike Hawthorn.

A free-to-attend event will be staged when the roads are closed and a vast array of racing machinery will hit the streets of the attractive market town that became home to the Hawthorn family. While the viewing opportunities will be free, please bring plenty of sending money as the event, marking the 60th anniversary of Hawthorn’s title, will be raising funds for local children’s charities via the Hedgehogs charitable organisation.

The S&G cannot attend but will try and post a report with a little help from the organisers. It should be an unmissable event – and you can even follow our guide to find the TT Garage, plus all of Hawthorn’s favoured haunts and hangouts in the town.

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Donington Collection to close

The collection of historic racing cars amassed by the late Tom Wheatcroft is to be closed to the public from Monday, 5 November. It is hardly unexpected news, but nonetheless rather a sobering thought that this, one of the world’s finest collections of racing cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, will soon disappear.

Wheatcroft fell in love with motor racing as a child in the 1930s, when he visited the recently-opened Donington Park circuit. As an adult at the helm of a highly profitable construction company, Wheatcroft indulged himself by collecting cars and then becoming the backer of rising British talent Roger Williamson, seeing him all the way through from Formula 3 to Formula 1.

After the death of Williamson at the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, Wheatcroft walked away from such a close involvement with the professional sport and put Williamson’s cars in pride of place in his new museum. Then he set about restoring his beloved Donington Park circuit, which had been used as a depot during World War 2 and subsequently fell into disrepair.

Ever since the venue reopened in 1977, a visit to the Donington Collection has been an essential part of the experience for many people. Thanks to the loan of additional cars by other collectors, and a decent chunk of the McLaren historic car collection, a truly incredible array of machinery has awaited every visitor.

7. Replica of 1937 Mercedes Benz W125 Grand Prix Car (24 Sep 2014)

Originally there was a genuine Mercedes W125 in the Collection, brought back from behind the Iron Curtain by Colin Crabbe. This is a toolroom copy that replaced it from Crossthwaite & Gardner

Some of the cars had astonishing stories. There was the ‘1939 Auto Union’ that Wheatcroft brought back from Russia (in fact a Cisitalia 360, the post-war realisation of what the Auto Union engineers were creating for the abandoned 1940 Grand Prix season).

There was also what could well be statistically the most successful chassis in the history of the world championship: Alberto Ascari’s primary Ferrari 500 F2 from the 1952-53 seasons (pictured at the header). As a child, this was a particular favourite and, later, the sight of it being driven with a wildly enthusiastic grin by McLaren principal Ron Dennis in Bahrain will live long in this author’s memory.

After Tom Wheatcroft’s death in 2009, the Collection passed to his son, Kevin. It has been an open secret that his wish has been to reduce the number of racing cars that he has to look after, replacing those that have been sold from the museum with his own collection of prized military vehicles and other militaria.

The closure and, most likely, the dispersal of the Donington Collection is a sad prospect for those who appreciate the extraordinary passion for motor racing that flowed through Tom Wheatcroft’s every fibre. But by goodness it was a remarkable achievement.