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.

 

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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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1905 RAC Tourist Trophy Race Report

The Royal Automobile Club has announced that this April’s British round of the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 12-14 will be given the name RAC Tourist Trophy and the winners presented with the oldest active trophy in motor sport. It’s a title that has passed from sports to saloon and GT cars over the years, but remains one of the most evocative in the sport – so here’s a little taste of the TT’s first edition, back in 1905:

Action from the 1905 TT, now the world's oldest active event

Action from the 1905 TT: now the world’s oldest active event

The RAC was not yet Royal – still being the humble Automobile Club – when it laid out its plans for the inaugural Tourist Trophy race. The event would comprise four laps of the fearsome 52-mile Highroad Course: an open road loop around the Isle of Man, used the previous year in selecting the British entry for the Gordon-Bennett Cup.

The course was daunting: climbing from near sea level in Douglas to 1,384 feet at Brandywell, with many sections on what were then rough tracks and featuring more than 420 corners. In addition to this challenge, the Club also decided that there was to be a fuel allowance of one gallon for every 22½ miles driven.

The prospect of achieving victory against such odds drew a total of 54 entrants, of which 42 would eventually line up to take the start on 14 September 1905.

Predictably there was heavy attrition, with the first run at the loop accounting for four cars – most notably the Rolls-Royce of C.S. Royce, which was the first retirement with a broken gear. Five more cars retired with mechanical problems on the second loop. On the third loop the calculations made regarding fuel consumption came in to play and the first car to run out of petrol – a 14-16hp Argyll – rolled to a halt after just 143 miles and 3 furlongs of running.

Five cars failed on the fourth and final loop of the course, of which all but one ran out of petrol. Meanwhile a three-way battle for victory featured the 14hp Vinot et Deguingand of Norman Littlejohn, the 20hp Rolls-Royce of Percy Northey and the 18hp Arrol-Johnston of John Napier.

Ultimately it would be Napier who triumphed and, in so doing, set a new lap record of 1 hour 31 minutes 9.6 seconds which stands to this day – an average of 34.2mph. In total he drive for 6 hours 9 minutes and 14 seconds, averaging 33.9mph and consuming his fuel at an optimum 25.4 MPG.

Two minutes and nine seconds behind Napier came Northey’s Rolls-Royce while Littlejohn was forced to slow in order to reach the finish, coming in three minutes behind Northey with just 2.6 pints of fuel left in the Vinot’s tank. It would be another 20 minutes before the next finisher – Cyril Roberts in another Arrol-Johnston – came by the line, with only 18 cars being classified as finishers.