A brief history of British motor sport: Part 1 – 1896-1916

Given the somewhat chronic condition in which British motor racing currently finds itself, the S&G has charted the history of the sport through the landmarks that have been reached at home and abroad for the past 120 years.

It appears as though Silverstone is to be reinstated on the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar with an August date for 2018, which is good news. Hopefully the Royal Automobile Club will maintain the Tourist Trophy’s presence at the event – and perhaps even make some good use of its unique stature in the sport!

This series is not intended to be definitive in describing every race or innovation, nor list every adventure and misadventure – merely to provide some landmarks for those who may seek to go back and realise why it is we do what we do. Ours is a sport whose story is ripe with brightness, bravery and joie-de-vivre that has inspired countless millions around the world.

A fact that is all-too-often overlooked today, when the financial comings-and-goings of Formula 1 are all-too-often considered to be the sum total of the sport.

Race on, dear readers. Race on…

1896

  • The Royal Automobile Club hosts the Emancipation Run from London to Brighton, celebrating the British motorist’s freedom to travel faster than walking pace.

1902

  • Dunlop begins producing specific tyres for racing based upon the experience and observation of international racing events.
  • Scottish Automobile Club organises the Glasgow-London non-stop trial
  • Selwyn Edge wins the Gordon Bennett Cup, held on the public highways between Paris and Innsbruck, on a Napier. This becomes the first British success in competition.

1903

  • As the champion nation, Great Britain hosts the Gordon Bennett Cup on a circuit of closed roads in County Kildare, Ireland.
  • City-to-city races are abandoned in continental Europe after a spate of fatal accidents during the Paris-Madrid race.

1904

  • The Isle of Man hosts Britain’s Qualifying Race for the Gordon Bennett Cup on a closed road circuit.
  • Aston Hillclimb opens on the B4009 passing through the Rothschild estate between Tring and Wendover. Eventually, this road inspires the naming of the Aston Martin motor company.
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Edinburgh Trial
  • The inaugural Blackpool Speed Trials is held on the Promenade

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1905

  • The Isle of Man hosts the inaugural Royal Automobile Club RAC Tourist Trophy, won by John Napier on an Arrol-Johnson.
  • Shelsley Walsh holds its first hillclimb event.
  • Napier employee Miss Dorothy Levitt sets a record for ‘the longest drive made by a lady’ when she drives an 8hp DeDion from London to Liverpool and back, accompanied by an official observer, her pet Pomeranian dog DoDo and a revolver. She covers 411 miles at an average 20 mph.
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Land’s End Trial
  • The inaugural Brighton National Speed Trials take place on a specially-constructed stretch of road which later becomes known as Madeira Drive. Miss Dorothy Levitt wins the award for fastest lady at the event, her 80 hp Napier setting a speed of 79.75 miles per hour

1906

  • The inaugural Grand Prix de l’ACF is held at Le Mans, replacing the city-to-city events with a closed road course. No British manufacturers enter after The Motor magazine declares that the event is being organised to glorify French motor manufacturers at the expense of international rivals.
  • Charles Rolls wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Rolls-Royce.
  • Shell begins advertising its Motor Spirit using success in motor sport as its unique selling point – starting with fuelling two successive wins in the RAC Tourist Trophy
  • The Motor Cycling Club organises the London-Exeter Trial
  • Construction begins on the Brooklands motor circuit near Weybridge.

1907

  • The Brooklands Automobile Racing Club is formed and Brooklands hosts its first event: a successful attempt on the 24-hour speed record by Selwyn Edge.
  • Shell opens the first purpose-built fuel and oil station for motor racing purposes at Brooklands.
  • On Saturday, July 6, Brooklands holds its first open race meeting. The only racing model available for creating a format for the event is that of the Jockey Club, with drivers being identified by their coloured smocks. Selwyn Edge wins the first major race for Napier, the Marcel Renault Memorial Plate, and claims a prize of 400 sovereigns in front of a crowd of 13,500 people. A total of 500 motor cars is estimated to have driven to the race.
  • Ernest Courtis wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Rover.
  • V. Herman becomes the first British driver killed in a motor race, when he fails to negotiate the Members’ Banking at Brooklands
  • Mr. V. Herman becomes the first driver killed in a motor race, when he fails to negotiate the Members’ Banking at Brooklands
  • Harry ‘Rem’ Fowler wins the senior twin-cylinder class of the inaugural Isle of Man TT on a Norton with a Peugeot engine. Charlie Collier wins the single cylinder class for Matchless.
  • At the end of the first Brooklands racing season, the motor manufacturers are graded according to prize money won – with the result being Mercedes in first place then Fiat, Daimler, Napier, Sizaire and Darracq.

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1908

  • Willy Watson wins the RAC Tourist Trophy on a Hutton-Napier.
  • Harry Reed wins the Isle of Man TT twin cylinder race on a Dot Cycle, Jack Marshall wins the single cylinder class for Triumph
  • F. Newton sets a new record of 120 mph at Brooklands on his Napier-Samson

1909

  • Brooklands hosts the successful 1km Land Speed Record attempt by Victor Hémery, raising the record to 125.9 mph in a Benz
  • In an all-comers entry for the Isle of Man TT, victory is taken by Harry A. Collier on a 6hp Matchless
  • French aviator Louis Paulhan becomes the first airman to base himself at Brooklands, having been given a roller to flatten out part of the infield to make a runway

1910

  • Louis Coatelen reveals the Sunbeam Nautilus: a Land Speed Record car that paves the way for a succession of Sunbeam racing cars.
  • Cyril Snipe wins the Modena Sprint on an Italian SPA motor car.
  • The Isle of Man TT is won by Charlie Collier, brother of the previous year’s winner Harry, heading home a family 1-2 on Matchless 5hp motorcycles.
  • Victor Surridge takes the one hour motorcycle speed record at Brooklands.
  • Brooklands ends its regular season by hosting the first Inter-Varsity meeting for motorcycles and cars entered by Oxford and Cambridge students
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Harry Collier and his Matchless

1911

  • The Isle of Man TT is split into Junior and Senior categories on the new Mountain Course, with the former being won by Percy Evans on a Humber and the main event falling to Oliver Godfrey, making American make Indian the first overseas winner of the race, claiming the top three positions. Victor Surridge is the first rider to be killed at the event.
  • While taking the Grand Prix-winning Peugeot L76 on a tour of British dealerships, Dario Resta stops off for dinner with Sunbeam chief engineer Louis Coatalen and the car is stripped by Sunbeam designers and engineers, who study, sketch and reassemble it by the time that Resta continues on his way. A dark green Sunbeam grand prix car duly appears soon afterwards, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the French car.
  • Brooklands hosts its first air race to Hendon and back. Thereafter air racing and motor racing often share the bill in the course of the regular racing season.

1912

  • Sunbeam finishes 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the Coupe de l’Auto.
  • British driver Cyril Snipe wins the Targa Florio in Sicily at the wheel of the Italian SCAT motor car.
  • The Cyclecar Club is formed at Brooklands to organise races for small cars and motorcycles.
  • Frank Applebee wins the Isle of Man TT senior race on a Scott motorcycle, W.H. Bashall winning the junior race for Douglas
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Sunbeam’s team lines up for the Coupe l’Auto

1913

  • Craigantlet hillclimb holds its first event.
  • Percy E. Lambert becomes the first man to drive 100 miles in one hour, setting the record at Brooklands on a 4.5-litre side-valve Talbot.
  • Scott wins its second Isle of Man TT senior race in the hands of H.O. ‘Tim’ Wood. Hugh Mason on a NUT wins the junior race. Frank Bateman becomes the second rider killed competing in the TT.
  • Percy Lambert is killed in the last race meeting of the season at Brooklands.

1914

  • Brooklands hosts the successful 1-mile Land Speed Record attempt by Lydston Hornsted, raising the record to 124.09 mph in a Benz.
  • Second inter-Varsity race meeting held for students of Oxford and Cambridge
  • Kenelm Lee Guinness wins the RAC Tourist Trophy in a Sunbeam Grand Prix car.
  • Cyril Pullin wins the Isle of Man TT senior race on a Rudge Multi and Eric Williams wins the junior race on an AJS. Fred Walker is killed whilst taking avoiding action after spectators crowd onto the track to greet the winner.
  • Brooklands is closed to the public upon the declaration of war, becoming a major production centre for Vickers aircraft and a research and development centre for independent aircraft factories working in tandem with the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough.

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1916

  • Away from the battlefields of World War 1, British driver Dario Resta wins the sixth running of the Indianapolis 500 in a 1914 Peugeot L45 grand prix car.
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As war raged in 1916, Dario Resta won the Indianapolis 500

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Where now for the Tourist Trophy?

The announcement that Silverstone – and therefore the UK – will be missing from the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar from now on is not a surprise. There has been much hoo-ha on social media about it from British ‘fans’ – although it’s quite likely that more people have taken the trouble to post their outrage than ever bought a ticket.

Of rather more pith and moment is the fact that at present the Royal Automobile Club’s Tourist Trophy has no home – and there is no obvious candidate to replace it. But why, after so many decades, is top flight sports car racing abandoning the UK?

In 2011, the S&G worked on behalf of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to promote the event. A phone call in mid-July basically said that there was a budget to promote the race, which was in mid-September, and as everyone in France takes August off would we mind awfully doing what we could to sell some tickets.

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The Tourist Trophy has been awarded to the winners of the Silverstone 6 Hours in recent years

It was the dream brief: a client who gives you a budget first and asks questions later. It was quite possibly the most fun that will ever be had in this working life.

Local radio stations from the Solent to the Black Country ran adverts that used Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans as the theme, with a heartbeat getting faster and engines bursting into life while a sonorous voice spoke in wonder about the world’s most advanced sports-prototypes and the elegant GT cars, Audis, Peugeots, Aston Martins, Porsches, Corvettes and Ferraris.

Every station that took the ads got pairs – sometimes several pairs – of VIP hospitality tickets to use as competition prizes. So did any local newspapers that we advertised in, which from memory was about a dozen from Herefordshire to Suffolk and Watford to Uttoxeter.

On the PR front, we realised that it was the 35th anniversary of the first Silverstone 6 Hours race, and got the winner of that inaugural race, John Fitzpatrick, to describe his giant-killing act alongside Tom Walkinshaw in a home-brewed BMW against the might of the BMW and Porsche works teams. We also got Desiré Wilson to talk to the press about being the first and only lady racer to win the event.

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The girls of the Silverstone 6 Hours with Dunsfold’s P-51D

There was a media day at Silverstone where home favourite Allan McNish took journalists round the track in a race-prepared Audi R8 GT car. Among the victims we sorted out for the day was BBC Radio 2 Drive Time sportscaster Matt Williams, who did a brilliant piece for roughly five million listeners which basically involved him asking questions in a panicked scream and Nishy laughing like a drain in reply.

Northampton railway station was completely wrapped to look like the grid at Le Mans (a little tribute to how our Bahraini friends promote their Grand Prix so well), and at every station between Euston and Birmingham there was advertising to be found on the platforms.

Finally, we found some of the finest-looking promo girls in Britain, dressed them in replicas of the iconic and much-lamented Hawaiian Tropic girls’ outfit and sallied forth to as many other motoring events as we could – armed with a barrel-load of flyers with unique 10% discount codes. At Dunsfold Wings & Wheels we took along one of Trackspeed’s Porsche GT3s and a Gulf Aston Martin DBR1/2, at Chelsea Autolegends we had the Aston and the Strakka Racing HRD that slotted in to the Le Mans-themed main display, and the ACO came and did a press conference.

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On the lawns of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea alongside a few billions’ worth of classics

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If in doubt, grab a Chelsea Pensioner.

Because enthusiasts of motor racing tend to like having models of the cars in some shape of form, we did a deal with the now sadly defunct Modelzone company to put posters in the windows of their 46 shops across the country and for each shop to have a prize draw for a pair of hospitality tickets. They also ran a competition on their website and to their email distribution list to win the opportunity to wave the flag that starts the race.

We had branding all over Autosport.com, a competition to do the grid walk on Pistonheads and yet more competition prizes of hospitality. As a final offer, we contacted the marque clubs of every brand with cars taking part in the event and offered them display parking on the infield with a sliding scale of up to 50% off the ticket price, the more cars (and therefore people) that came with them.

As a final treat to reward the hordes of people that we hoped would be coming, we got the distributor of SCX slot cars to set up a tent with a massive track in it and plenty of Audis and Peugeots to race. We got John Fitzpatrick and Desiré Wilson to come along and do autograph sessions. We got Porsche 956 chassis 001, the 1982 Group C class winner and founder of 12 years of success for Porsche, together with a BMW CSL representing the inaugural 6 Hours and a Porsche 935.

All of this was done in six weeks from a standing start. All of this was done on a total budget that would scarcely pay for a tatty second-hand Porsche. All of this reached an audience of millions and we sold… something like 8,000 tickets. It was raining at Silverstone and there is seldom a more desolate part of the world on a soggy September day than the old airfield, especially when one is wandering round looking at the fruits of one’s labours and seeing not one soul between Copse and Stowe other than the ever-hearty marshals.

With heavy hearts we reported in to the ACO folks, expecting to be informed that we’d never work in this town again. They were… coq-au-hoop! Refreshed from their month in Provence, they couldn’t believe that they’d sold around 15% more tickets than the previous year with a campaign that lasted six weeks instead of three months.

It’s Silverstone, they said, with suitably Gallic shrugs. Everything costs too much because they have to fund the Grand Prix. The Wing stood empty above the paddock because it was too big and infeasibly priced, so all the hospitality had to be done in the old units on the old start/finish straight and guests had to be bussed the mile in between lunch and the working area.

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We even had a page in The Sun – although the cars were notably absent…

The only location that could be found for the marque clubs, slot car track and historic racing cars display was exactly half-way between the two paddocks, meaning that few people bothered to get off their buses and brave the rain to come and have a look. As it was, neither the tent for the historic cars or the security person to look after them had shown up, so we had to send the Porsche 956 back to its owner and keep the BMW and 935 outside while a short-notice tent was found to house them.

When the S&G returned to the event in 2014, it was the first round of the new season and there had been much excitement on social media about the return of Porsche and all the rest of the pre-season chatter. There had been a photo call with the cars in central London but very little in the press had resulted from it, there were no adverts to speak of and no campaign of the sort that we’d done but the weather was uncommonly pleasant on the Saturday.

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Le Mans brings fans together from around the world – especially the UK

There was still barely a soul in the public areas around much of the circuit. If more tickets were sold the difference was marginal. Yet at Le Mans one can barely walk a step without falling over roaming families, all eagerly discussing the race in every accent and dialect of the British Isles. Chuck a rock into the crowd at Le Mans and you’re far more likely to be told to ‘eff off’ than you are to ‘va te faire foutre’.

So now the ACO has decided to abandon its crusade to give British fans a treat on home soil. It’s not possible (as so many of them have wished) to return to Brands Hatch because the circuit isn’t to modern endurance standards – and anyway the 1000km races there in their 1980s heyday were fairly processional because there’s no room for overtaking.

People remember those races so fondly because there were big crowds, in part due to the presence of Jaguar and Porsche’s great ace Derek Bell as national heroes… and also in part because everyone buying a ticket to the Grand Prix at Brands got a free ticket to the 1000km. Sometimes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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Brands Hatch had a packed house for Group C sports cars in the 1980s

So, a chapter closes and all that remains to be said is what the future holds for the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy, the world’s longest-serving motor sport prize? It’s only warranted a small mention in the World Endurance Championship arena, but this grand old prize was awarded to the winner of the Silverstone 6 Hours.

In 112 years it’s been awarded at a sports car race 29 times, GT races 11 times, to races for Grand Prix cars three times and for touring cars 25 times. Perhaps Alan Gow and TOCA might like to use it for a non-championship touring car all-comers race as they did 20 years ago? Or maybe the thriving British GT series should take it on? Undoubtedly there will be a lobby for reinstating Britain’s round of Formula E and using it for this purpose… it’s the in thing to do these days, after all.

Perhaps the most pragmatic suggestion is to permanently base the TT at Goodwood, where the current tribute race for 1960s GT cars can be restored to full glory. After all, there are few events in Britain that attract a similar size of crowd, and the prestige of winning it is enormous amongst a group of drivers and owners who actually care about its heritage and history.

At present, the longest-standing prize in motor racing history, a trophy that unites C.S. Rolls, Tazio Nuvolari, Sir Stirling Moss and Alain Menu is rootless. Steps must be taken fast to ensure that this grand old prize remains fixed to the greatest motor sport occasion on the calendar, the most stylish, the most glamorous and the most relevant – because if we lose our sense of identity at this moment of crisis for motor sport in Britain then we might as well all pack up and go home.

Beyond the British Grand Prix

This week’s announcement that the British Grand Prix is to cease in 2019 is not a surprise. Although it was the first country in the world to build a permanent circuit for motor racing, Great Britain has had a dysfunctional relationship with the sport right from the outset.

In the 1890s, the advent of internal combustion caught the imagination of brilliant engineers in continental Europe and North America – but not so Britain, whose Empire was built using iron, steam and the old school tie.

Johnny Foreigner’s preoccupation with noisy, unreliable new inventions became the subject of amusement in polite society.

While all but a few British folk scoffed, however, it was through competition that Johnny Foreigner refined motor cars and achieved the dream of powered flight.

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Passions were aroused on the continent: eyebrows were raised in Britain

The great city-to-city motor races at the turn of the century inspired engineers to travel further and faster, tearing off into the distance while British motoring was pegged back to walking pace – literally, with the legal requirement for a man with a red flag to walk 60 yards ahead of ‘horseless carriages’, lest they scare the horses or interfere with the good order of the railways.

It took the legal test case lodged by Farnham engineer John Henry Knight in 1895 to release British motorists from this constraint. He successfully triggered the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, which increased the speed limit for “light locomotives” under 3 tonnes to 14 mph.

To celebrate this boundless new freedom, the ‘Emancipation Run’ was organized for motorists to drive from Whitehall to Brighton – an occasion later commemorated through the Royal Automobile Club’s annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. While the 33 intrepid Britons tiptoed down to the coast, however, the Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade scampered the 1710 km from Paris to Marseille and back to win the biggest race of the year.

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Good order was enforced upon British motorists – with a flag

A few of the more enterprising British motor companies, such as Arrol-Johnson, Wolseley and Napier, began to dip a toe in the water of the European events. They soon discovered that there was much to learn not only about car design but also ancillaries such as tyres and spark plugs if they were to compete.

Thankfully, some were determined to learn, improve and win.

In 1902, the British-built Napier of Selwyn Edge triumphed in the Gordon Bennett Cup, winning the honour of hosting the race in 1903. The birth of British motor sport did not greatly interest the nation or its politicians, however, who grudgingly permitted roads to be closed in the wilds of County Kildare for the occasion.

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Britain belatedly came to the party – but soon mastered the art of motor racing

A year later, the Isle of Man was selected to become the new home of motor racing in Britain. The Gordon Bennett qualification race of 1904 gave rise to the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy in 1905, the world’s longest-running motor race whose place on today’s FIA World Endurance Championship calendar warrants not a mention in the press.

The Isle of Man was and remains a mystical place to go racing but the rest of the British Isles were still subject to a blanket 20 mph speed limit.

The British motor industry needed somewhere to drive fast and it found a benefactor in the form of Hugh Locke King who, egged on by the likes of Napier and its great showman Selwyn Edge, constructed the Brooklands motor circuit – the first permanent track in the world – and almost ruined himself in the process.

It was only after World War 1 that Brooklands became a success. Many young Englishmen – particularly the aviators – found that excitement and esprit de corps in the face of danger had become addictive. Racing around the great white bowl near Weybridge offered them blissful release from the hum-drum world of peacetime, and the ‘right crowd’ flocked to witness the thrills and spills.

Brooklands was the crucible from which sprang the Bentley Boys, John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and the first gilded generation of British racing motorists. Le Mans was conquered and Grands Prix were won. A decade later, these pioneers celebrated the rise of a second generation, including Dick Seaman and A.F.P. Fane, who punched above their weight in small but potent cars from Riley, MG and ERA.

The ambitious Fred Craner turned leafy Donington Park from a provincial motorcycling track into an amphitheatre for the Silver Arrows; hillclimbs and sprints flourished and the Tourist Trophy grew in stature to rival the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours in status.

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Brooklands, Bentley and Birkin – landmarks in British racing

Despite all this success, despite the fervour that surrounded motor racing as a spectator sport and despite the quality of engineering that had gone into every component of the cars, there was little recognition.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the body charged with promoting the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad, prohibited the British manufacturers from bringing their racing cars to the Motor Show because it believed that they were ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

Only in the aftermath of World War 2, when the next generation of racers flourished and British motor racing sat at the top table of the sport worldwide, did the entire nation take notice.

The defining moment came at Silverstone in 1950, when His Majesty George VI and Queen Elizabeth led a quarter of a million people to Silverstone for the Grand Prix d’Europe, the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Motor racing hit the tabloids and the elitism of Brooklands was replaced with the grassroots movement from which produced raw young talent both at the wheel and at the drawing board.

The workmanlike bomber training airfield at Silverstone hosted its first Grand Prix in 1948. Meanwhile on the south coast the Westhampnett fighter station at Goodwood provided a more convivial atmosphere for the old ‘right crowd and no crowding’ set to party on in the grand old manner.

They were joined by more former airfield venues – from Boreham to Croft. The parkland circuits followed – Oulton, Cadwell, Brands Hatch – and Aintree set out its stall as the ‘Goodwood of the North’ with its blast around the fabled Grand National racecourse.

For the next 30 years, British motor sport expanded into a bona fide industry – and a successful one at that. Even the press took notice – The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Times were all sponsors of races and teams in all categories. Right through to the 1980s, they reflected the public’s passion and sold the sport with vigour.

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The triumph (and tragedy) of motor racing folklore: Hawthorn and Jaguar in action

When the British Grand Prix’s financial troubles began, the industry in this country was still riding high in strength and depth, interest and involvement across the board. British teams not only dominated the Formula 1 world but also every international discipline.

Moreover, pretty much every Indycar, F3000, F3 and junior category chassis was designed and built in Britain by Lola, Reynard, March, Ralt and Van Diemen. Meanwhile, young drivers from around the world had to come and compete in Britain if they wanted to make a name for themselves – driving the reputations of the specialist teams who ran their cars.

 

Yet over the past 20 years, most of that thriving industry has been burnt as fuel in order to keep the British Grand Prix shunting along towards the buffers. We watched it happen. Some of us reported on it happening and warned of the outcomes… but many did not.

The prevailing attitude of “I’m all right, Jack” has indeed meant that the seven UK-based Formula 1 teams have prospered – although all but one is now under foreign ownership and remain here only for as long as it is financially and logistically beneficial to do so.

In the meantime, pretty well every major manufacturer team outside Formula 1 has migrated to Germany – and that includes the Japanese and the Koreans. The notional ‘motorsport valley’ that is claimed to nestle half way up the M40, from where it pumps billions to the British economy, hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense for years. Brilliant businesses are there – but in many ways to their detriment.

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Britain is one big ‘motorsport valley’, apparently

In 2013, a rescue plan was put forward by the Welsh government. It was a dedicated hub for the high-tech motor sport sector in a Tier 1 Enterprise Zone where their utilities would be subsidised, salaries funded up to 50% and every wind tunnel and laboratory would be built for them.

Such a stiff resistance was put up by the British Grand Prix lobby and the ‘motorsport valley’ brigade that the only issue upon which press and the public could fixate was the Circuit of Wales, adjoining the technology hub. What was the point of building a circuit when there was Silverstone? Who would travel to Wales for the British Grand Prix?

The fact that the Circuit of Wales was never designed for Formula 1 did not matter. Nobody wanted to understand what the project was about and now the idea has died. The proponents of the ‘motorsport valley’ myth believe this to have been a victory – but they are deluded.

If you want to buy a single-seater or sports car chassis these days, you don’t call ‘motorsport valley’. Most likely it will be a Tatuus or Mygale from France or an Italian Dallara.

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Fleets of one-make series cars are now built overseas

Young British drivers, if they really want to get ahead, must plan to hop out of their karts and straight into European championships if they are to stand a hope of getting noticed – increasing their annual budgets by up to 50% and reducing the strength and depth of the talent pool by a similar factor.

And of course the well of talented young foreign drivers following in the footsteps of Piquet, Senna, Häkkinen and Magnussen has dried up completely, seeing teams close down for the want of talent and funding to employ them.

The Scarf & Goggles celebrates the ripping yarns of earlier eras, but it exists in the here and now. The spirit and the achievements of those times have been betrayed many times over in the name of preserving the unworkable British Grand Prix and, as a result, the ‘motorsport valley’ myth.

Perhaps the final, belated loss of the Grand Prix will be the jolt that knocks a bit of sense into people. Facts must be faced and plans must be made. We hope that, finally, they might at least be valid ones.

We still have the Tourist Trophy. We still have the Isle of Man. Goodwood is thriving. The British touring cars are still wowing people and nobody holds better rallies, rallycross or short track races.

The landscape is changing but the most valuable bit of real estate in any sport – that of historic racing and our motor sport heritage – keeps going from strength-to-strength. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is not the end.

 

Gordon Bennett! It’s Zalonso!

The S&G has infinite enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500 and its admiration for Fernando Alonso is similarly effusive – your scribe interviewed him in Minardi overalls a lifetime ago, and he was later very helpful on a book project – so perhaps a few more S&G stories might have been expected during the past month.

In fact, the whole circus that sprang up around Alonso’s mission to Indy rather precluded writing about it. The spirits of Jimmy Murphy, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and all the other transatlantic travellers have been endlessly summoned, so it was better to watch the rodeo and provide something from the S&G’s perspective when the dust settled: so here it is.

Of all the apparitions from motor sport’s past who may have appeared around the Alonso 500 it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who most often sprang to mind. For it was he, as the owner of the New York Herald, who lavished funds upon a race from Paris to Lyon for the cream of motor manufacturers from Europe and the USA.

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James Gordon Bennett Jr. – the first promoter of global motor racing for profit

Starting in 1900, the three fastest cars from each competing nation would be entered for the Gordon Bennett Cup – with Gordon Bennett’s newspaper getting all the exclusives throughout the build-up and raceday.

This was enormous news – a circulation blockbuster.

For nearly a decade, motor racing had whipped the public’s imagination into a frenzy of daredevils breaking new technological boundaries. By insisting that the Gordon Bennett Cup cars were painted in national racing colours, the press magnate’s race also tapped in to the zeal and fervour which would ultimately fuel World War 1.

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The zeal which greeted motor racing was given a nationalistic fervour by Gordon Bennett

This was no longer a contest between athletes or even motor cars, but rather a measure of the virility and might of the world’s proudest nations. The 1900 race saw competing cars line up painted blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white for Germany, and red for the USA. Fernand Charon crossed the line in Lyon first on a Panhard, to a volcanic roar of approval across la République.

In 1901 the French had the race to themselves and a Panhard headed the charge from Paris to Rouen. In 1902 the Gordon Bennett Cup moved from France to Austria and the British challenged the French with some lightweight, less powerful cars from Wolselely and Napier – with Selwyn Edge taking the honours for Napier.

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On that occasion the British cars had been painted red, but with the return of all nations for the 1903 race this meant that a permanent colour needed to be ascribed to British motor racing. In the end green was chosen, as a tribute to the race’s hosts in Ireland (then a part of the United Kingdom). It was a white Mercedes driven by Camille Jenatzy that won, however.

French honour was restored by victory on German soil in 1904. As a result the 1905 race moved back to France where, with more motor manufacturers than anyone else, the hosts chafed at being pegged back to only three manufacturers. Having failed to win concessions to enter more cars, the French celebrated one final triumph before they pulled up the stumps and planned to stage their own race instead for 1906 – it would be called the Grand Prix.

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French national interests ended the Gordon Bennett Cup races – and created the Grand Prix

So what was it about Fernando Alonso’s enterprise in 2017 that reminded the S&G of that enterprising old rogue Gordon Bennett? Well, much has been made of the media hoo-ha that has accompanied Alonso’s month of May in the USA and, most of all, in the UK.

We have been treated to daily, hourly and minute-by-minute reportage from the moment that the project was announced until Alonso’s pitch-perfect acceptance speech for his Rookie of the Year award. Access all areas – and then some. Technical diagrams, race histories, videos – all the fun of the fair.

And all of it has done a fine job of blotting news from elsewhere in the motor sport world – particularly McLaren-Honda’s ongoing woes. Well, right up to the moment when Alonso’s Indy engine went ‘pop’ at least.

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What many observers have forgotten is who now owns the news. Because, in a move of which his countryman James Gordon Bennett Jr would wholeheartedly approve, it is none other than Zak Brown, the Executive Director of McLaren, who sits as CEO of the Motorsport Network, which owns pretty well everything these days.

Zak’s media empire, funded by Miami-based Russian billionaire Mike Zoi, embraces the Motorsport.com global portal, the former Haymarket publications Autosport, Motorsport News and F1 Racing together with Motors TV (rebranded as Motorsport TV), as the only non-subscription channel for motor sport. It also picked up the Amalgam brand of high end scale model racing cars.

So, with his McLaren hat on, Zak was confronted with the problem of a slow and unreliable car together with Alonso, still widely regarded as the finest racing driver on Earth today. In other words: a potential PR disaster, given Fernando’s habit of speaking his mind and playing up to the camera when things go awry.

But when one owns the news, PR disasters can much more easily be avoided. Thus sticking Fernando in an Indycar was strategically very sound. It also must have done the ratings across Zak’s network a power of good, with American racing fans trying to find out more about Alonso and F1 fans trying to find out more about Indy.

Zak had a one-stop shop for all and he worked it well. Having placed a number of stories to McLaren’s benefit since buying the media outlets, the Alonso-to-Indy showstopper has broken all previous boundaries between news and PR.

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The ‘Zalonso’ show starring Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown has enjoyed a successful run on both sides of the Pond

Of course the difference between the past month’s mania for ‘Zalonso’ and the days of James Gordon Bennett Jr is that the Gordon Bennett Cup was effectively owned and administrated by the mogul himself. That might be an investment too far for Zak – in the immediate future at least – but he might not be too far off.

With the sea of New Zealand racing orange across the motor sport coverage this last month, James Gordon Bennett Jr would doubtless be chuckling. If in the back of his mind Zak Brown had wanted to serve notice upon the sport’s owners, he picked the hell of a way to do it.

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Heads-up for hydrocarbon heritage

BP-Castrol’s return to Formula 1 as a partner to McLaren-Honda has been announced.  This news has got the F1 community rather excited – let’s face it, any new sponsor announcement is a novelty in F1 these days – but it’s perfectly simple and logical step to have taken.

Castrol is arguably the most prolific partner to motor manufacturers in competiton, attached to Ford in GT racing, V8 Supercars and the World Rally Championship; Volkswagen Group in the World Endurance Championship, World Rally Championship*, World Rallycross Championship, German Touring Car Championship and European Rally Championship; Volvo in the World and Swedish Touring Car Championships and Kia in Global Rallycross.

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Kia is among the multitude of brands supported by Castrol

It is also partnered with Honda teams in the World and British Touring Car Championships, MotoGP and World Superbike championships.  Adding Honda’s F1 programme to the roster comes as Audi withdraws from Le Mans and, crucially, allows partner brand BP the chance to produce high-tech superfuels, which it couldn’t in sports car racing because arch-rival Shell is the official fuel provider.

Is all of this going to generate excitement in the grandstands?  Probably not.  Fuel and oil are distress purchases, even to the die-hard motoring enthusiast.  The key to selling more product is therefore either to have more filling stations, which are costly to maintain, or to have lots of motor manufacturers bulk buying your products at the source.

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Castrol and Honda have a history dating back to the 1959 Isle of Man TT

Ultimately, then, BP-Castrol is moving the chips around in the high stakes game of its commercial relationships with the motor manufacturers.  If the contract to supply lubricants to Honda’s customers worldwide comes up for renewal in a year or two, it’s rather handy to have already agreed three years’ sponsorship of the crown jewels, is it not?

Nevertheless, the drums are already beating with heritage stories, so let’s have a little look, shall we?  Charles Wakefield founded his lubricants company in 1899, and in 1906 developed new, lighter products for the growing number of cars and aeroplanes by adding castor oil – hence Castrol.  Meanwhile, BP began as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909.

Wakefield Castrol Motor Oil, Vintage Land Speed Record poster. S

During World War 1, Castrol was vitally important to many of the engines being put to work in the world’s first fully mechanized conflict, with rotary aero engines needing liberal amounts of castor oil to operate at altitude.  Shell cornered the market on high quality fuels for aviation and Burmah and Anglo-Persian produced the heavy oils needed for shipping.

After the war, Castrol focused upon motor sport to sell its brand: witness the world record breaking aeroplanes and cars and the associated advertising, be it Amy Johnson’s flight from London to Australia or Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird on Daytona Beach.

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Ever since those times, the scrap between Castrol and Shell for hearts and minds has been played out through promoting the sporting successes of their partners.  On balance, Shell has held the upper hand in motor sport thanks to 60 wins at Le Mans plus a heritage of Grand Prix wins with Auto Union, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and McLaren-Honda (amongst many others).

Castrol’s strongest associations have often been in rallying; a legacy of having former BMC and Ford team principal Stuart Turner heading up its communications programmes.  It has also focused on the Land Speed Record (although many of the cars and aeroplanes have been fuelled by Shell). In contrast, BP has only played a minor role in developing successful competition fuels.

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Since the merger of BP and Castrol in 2000, there has been BP branding for its Ultimate branded premium fuel on Ford’s World Rally Championship cars and the BMW and latterly Audi DTM cars but little real technical endeavour.  It is certainly going to have to work hard and fast to get up to speed in developing the sacred 1% difference between pump fuel and race fuel permitted in modern Formula 1.

The fuel and oil brands are undoubtedly going to trumpet their heritage of success in the months and seasons ahead, which should at the very least make for some interesting diversions at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Le Mans and the more important Grands Prix of the year. It’s all part of the game, and means that there should be plenty to look out for at the S&G when it comes to historic hydrocarbons!

*Edit: Since this post was published, Volkswagen has announced its withdrawal from the WRC, effective from the end of the year.

Hispano-Suiza: kings of engineering

As the 19th Century drew to a close, the automobile was a thing of wonder that preoccupied many brilliant minds in Europe and North America. Among those who saw an opportunity was a Spanish artillery captain named Emilio de la Cuadra. He began to work primarily on electric-powered machinery using batteries from a Swiss engineer based in Barcelona, Carlos Vellino. It was very soon clear, however, that electric cars had issues in terms of range and practicality that did not afflict their internal combustion-powered rivals.

As a result of this, de la Cuadra began looking into a gasoline-electric hybrid solution. The problem was that the batteries were unwieldy and the engines were poor, leading Vellino to engage a fellow countryman – a watchmaker who had turned his attentions towards internal combustion, by the name of Marc Birkigt.

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La Cuadra developed a hybrid operating like a 21st Century car

The first engine that Birkigt produced for the La Cuadra motor company was a hybrid, with an electric motor whose charge was maintained by a single-cylinder internal combustion unit. At its unveiling the car broke down, however, which was a mortal blow to the company. With de la Cuadra and Vellino’s coffers empty, their creditors moved in for the kill during 1901.

The company ended up in the ownership of one J. Castro – of whom little is known, barring his good sense in retaining Birkigt, despite the failure of his hybrid. With de la Cuadra out of the picture a new name was required for the business, and to reflect its Spanish-Swiss heritage the name Hispano-Suiza was settled upon.

Birkigt built a four-cylinder internal combustion-powered car that worked very well but, in J. Castro’s efforts to make money, the company priced its products out of reach. By 1904, the business had run aground once again.

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J. Castro tried and failed – but gave Hispano-Suiza its name

Birkigt then reached into his own pocket to save Hispano-Suiza, while attracting investment from a successful industrialist called Don Damian Mateu. Two new Hispano-Suiza cars were revealed at the 1906 Paris Motor Salon – both effectively the Castro-era four-cylinder models of 3.8 and 7.4 litres respectively. The young King Alfonso XIII ordered the first of many Hispano-Suiza models that he would come to own and additional funds were raised by selling off shares in 500 peseta chunks.

Suddenly Hispano-Suiza was moving fast. Patents on the four-cylinder cars were sold to companies in Switzerland and Italy, while opulent six-cylinder models were readied in 1907. The company grew as fast as its reputation and range of products, with a talented young Italian engineer by the name of Paolo Zuccarelli joining Birkigt’s technical team from the minor marque of Florentia.

Zuccarelli pushed on with the development of small capacity ‘voiturette’ cars and with nudging Hispano-Suiza into the greatest shop window of them all: motor sport.

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Paolo Zuccarelli became the leading light for Hispano-Suiza in motor sport

The factory built cars, called the 45CR, featured 2.4-litre engines developing 45 horsepower from what was then the standard configuration of a ‘T-head’ sidevalve with intake valves are on one side of the engine block and the exhaust valves on the other. The cars made their debut at the 1909 Copa Catalunya, with Zuccarelli driving the lead entry and an Italian mechanic named Ravelli alongside him. Two more cars were entered for Louis Pilleverdier / Castanera and Louis Derny / Reus.

The race was over 13 laps of a course of closed roads measuring 28 km and the Hispano-Suiza entry was impeccably turned out under Birkigt’s watchful eye and with Isidoro de Salazar, the company marketing manager, in tow. Pilleverdier finished fourth but the other two cars both retired with broken crankshafts – not before Zuccarelli had led a significant portion of the race, however.

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The Hispano-Suiza 45CR – a racing car par excellence

A few weeks later the Hispanos returned to action in the Coupe des Voiturettes in Boulogne, in which the trio finished fifth, sixth and seventh. The team grew in experience and confidence through successive races into 1910, with the main competition coming from the French entries of Libor, designed by a brilliant young engineer called Ernest Henry, and the Lion-Peugeot of the Frères Peugeot company.

The latter team relied heavily on a brilliant Italian driver by the name of Giosue Giuppone. At the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto, all three of the major teams – Libor, Peugeot and Hispano-Suiza – used 3.0-litre four-cylinder T-head engines and were very evenly matched. Giuppone’s story ended when he encountered two cyclists making their way around the course during the race, one of whom darted across to seek cover on the left hand side of the road.

Despite throttling back the engine and braking hard, Giuppone clipped the bicycle, which was thrown into the ditch, while the Peugeot went into a lurid spin and threw Giuppone and his mechanic Péan out into the road. The mechanic was uninjured but Giuppone landed on his head, suffering a fractured skull that was to prove fatal.

The race was won by Paolo Zuccarelli’s Hispano-Suiza, marking the team’s first international victory. The second Peugeot followed him home, driven by Georges Boillot, while Pilleverdier’s Hispano-Suiza finished third. The event was filmed for posterity, with Zuccarelli’s drive attracting significant renown for the Hispano-Suiza marque.

Much was to change as a result of the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto. Boillot established himself as Peugeot’s new team leader and Zuccarelli was recruited to join him, with another fine driver/engineer called Jules Goux completing the line-up. The ‘superteam’ was completed when Ernest Henry became Peugeot’s technical mastermind.

Hispano-Suiza retired from competition – but the success of the 45CR led to demand for production versions of the car. The result has become regarded as the first purpose-built sports car: the Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII, named after the Spanish king (who added one to his ever-increasing fleet). This dapper little car with its race-winning pedigree caused a sensation, and Birkigt’s expansion of the Hispano-Suiza marque continued apace.

New factories were built in the Parisian suburbs of Levallois-Perret and, later, Bois-Colombes. Hispano-Suiza assumed dual nationality – French and Spanish. The range of cars also made their way across the English Channel, with a service depot opening in Fulham and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.

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The world’s first sports car: Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII

In motor sport circles there was considerable ill-feeling directed towards Peugeot, which had begun to dominate the greatest races on both sides of the Atlantic using engine designs that many believed were ‘stolen’ from Hispano-Suiza by Zuccarelli. Yet such concerns were soon to be trampled into the dirt by the headlong rush into World War 1.

Hispano-Suiza became a prized asset for France, building trucks and aircraft engines. Traditionally, aircraft engines were manufactured by machining separate steel cylinders and then bolting these assemblies directly to the crankcase. Birkigt believed that it would be much more effective to make the block from a single piece of cast aluminium, into which thin steel liners were secured.

Manufacturing an engine in this way simplified construction and resulted in a lighter, yet stronger more durable engine that was capable of significantly more power than its predecessors. Thus was born his V8 ‘monobloc’ engine, one of the most significant advances in achieving air superiority over the Western Front and beyond.

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Marc Birkigt (left) and colleagues with a ‘monobloc’ V8 engine

The enormous potential of the single overhead camshaft ‘monobloc’ V8 was finally revealed when if was fitted to the SPAD S.VII fighter, which reached front-line squadrons in the late summer of 1916. It was faster and more rugged than any other type on the front line, and was to seal the legend of France’s leading ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer.

The SPAD series was developed right through to the end of the war, by which time the Hispano-Suiza was pumping out 220 hp in the last of the S.XIII fighters to see service, piloted by men such as Eddie Rickenbacker. The versatility of the engine also allowed for the construction of a small number of S.XII models that featured a Hotchkiss cannon mounded between the two cylinder heads and firing through the propeller boss. When it worked, the effect on the wood-and-canvas aircraft of the time was astonishing.

In Britain the best-known recipient of Birkigt’s engine was the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, which in many of the later S.E.5a models featured a modified version of the ‘Hisso’ engine built under licence in the UK: the Wolseley Viper. The S.E.5s were used as high-performance, high-altitude interceptors working in tandem with vast fleets of Sopwith Camel fighters flying below – the equivalent of the Spitfire and Hurricane during World War 2. Operating together in vast fleets, they did much to sweep the German Air Service out of the skies.

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Georges Guynemer’s SPAD S.VII on public display, 1918

Hispano-Suiza returned to car production in peacetime, with a new series of cars powered by a smaller V6 design based upon Birkigt’s wartime ‘monobloc’. Hispano-Suiza became the byword for performance and innovation, and licences for Birkigt’s engineering were much in demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even Rolls-Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents through the 1920s and 1930s, such as servo-assisted brakes for all four wheels.

The sleek, elegant lines of the Hispano-Suiza coupés by stylists such as Hibbard & Darrin and D’Ieteren between the wars were groundbreaking, and directly influenced the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and other prestige marques. Most often they would be crowned by the radiator emblem of a stork in flight with its wings dipped, the emblem of Escadrille 3 of the 12th Combat Group: Georges Guynemer’s squadron.

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Style et luxe: the Hispano-Suiza stork adorned some amazing engineering

This high summer was not to last, however. Birkigt was among the Hispano-Suiza holders to receive lawsuits from the French authorities in the early 1930s, who decided that the money paid for the tens of thousands of ‘monobloc’ engines in the war was effectively profiteering.

Lawyers settled that argument, but with the rise of a Spanish republic Hispano-Suiza’s longest-serving patron, King Alfonso XIII, fled into exile. The firm’s celebrated factories became a state holding for the construction of military trucks and aircraft engines. No more of its sumptuous cars would ever be seen.

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Hispano-Suiza went out on a high: 1938 Dubonnet Xenia coupé

In 1938 the story of Hispano-Suiza, the builder and innovator of automotive excellence, came to an end. Never again would it take leadership in aviation technology either. Marc Birkigt lived on until 1953 and his legacy remains that hint of Hispano-Suiza that resides in the best automotive engineering of today – both in luxury cars and utilitarian hybrids.

Once or twice attempts have been made to revive Hispano-Suiza as a modern brand. Thank God none have yet succeeded. It was a truly unique chapter in engineering history.

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A modified Audi R8 is the latest attempt to relaunch Hispano-Suiza cars

Manufacturers, privateers and balderdash

Some fatuous nonsense is being spouted at present regarding a perceived requirement for Formula One to encourage low-rent engines to keep under-funded teams on the grid. “The power must again be put with those people who support the independent teams, because they are the backbone of the sport,” said former privateer, Eddie Jordan.

Au contraire, Eddie. Looking back over 110 years of Grand Prix racing, it is the brief superiority of the ‘garagistes’ that is anomalous. The real backbone of Grand Prix racing has always been, and should long remain, the motor manufacturers.

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Racing cars develop technology that sells road cars, requiring manufacturers to invest pride and hard cash to improve the breed

 

From the first Grand Prix of 1906 until Cooper’s first world championship in 1959, the racing departments of motor manufacturers exercised almost complete dominance over the sport.

We are talking about industrial giants here: the likes of Renault, Fiat, Mercedes, Peugeot and Auto Union. The specialists who rose up in their wake such as Ferrari, Vanwall and Lotus never whined about inequality; they simply engineered their way to the front. Others tried, failed and faded away. Such is the nature of the sport.

It is of course true that, after Cooper, a generation of ‘garagistes’ came and went thanks to the brilliance and ubiquity of off-the-shelf engines like the Coventry-Climax and Cosworth DFV – but those days died at the onset of the turbo era. In the 33 seasons since then it has been imperative for teams to form an alliance with a major motor manufacturer if they dare to dream of winning the title, be they McLaren, Williams or even Jordan.

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Jordan was saved by Yamaha’s largesse rather than a ‘spec’ motor

 

Eddie Jordan’s team enjoyed brilliantly competitive debut season in 1991… but it needed free engines from Yamaha to help shore up the team’s perilous finances in 1992. By the time that Jordan came closest to winning the world championship, in 1999, he was firmly cosied-up with Honda, but for some reason Eddie is choosing to overlook this at present.

Yet it is the manufacturers whose investments have always made the sport what it is. They have created the amazing technology that was driven into legend by men blessed with other-worldly skill – and eventually handed down to us, the consumers.

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Mighty manufacturer efforts have bestowed much magic upon Grand Prix racing

 

Sadly, modern Formula One is little more than an unashamedly a gilt-edged revenue stream. Those who scoop up the proceeds that it generates require little more than for 22 cars to be on the grid and then tootle round for 60 laps or so while they count the cash. The sport’s owners appear hell bent on pushing out the manufacturers – the real backbone of the sport – and are heedless of the cost.

Perhaps, rather than waddling through Baku airport next June with their wallets groaning under the weight of manats that have been harvested, the great and the good of Formula One should take a weekend off and go to Le Mans, near where the first ever Grand Prix was staged. Here at the 84th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours they will see motor racing in the grand tradition of encouraging manufacturers to build amazing cars.

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Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Sir Philip Green, Eddie Jordan and Donald Mackenzie at the Monaco Grand Prix.

They will also see that there is an incredible appetite to witness it – 260,000 happy campers in the stands, tens of millions seeking out the fairly arcane TV coverage and nine manufacturers basking in the glow of excitement about the wondrous technology that they have produced.

Compared to that little lot, surely, even the attractions of joining 25,000 bewildered Azerbaijanis to sit through a chorus of disapproval about nations buying respectability through hosting Grands Prix might seem rather anaemic. With or without customer engines.

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Audi, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, Aston Martin, Dodge and Ferrari will all be represented at Le Mans in 2016