Breakfast and the British Empire

Now it may sound odd, but there is one thing you always hear the European media discussing when they come to Silverstone - the Great British Breakfast. Bacon, egg, sausage etc. It plays a major part in every British Grand Prix weekend.

The old airfield - stuck as it is at the end of leafy lanes - seems somehow to be associated in the F1 mind with early mornings. If you stay in your hotel and guest house for breakfast, you will end up spending half the day in a traffic jam, trying to get into the circuit. Every year there are rumors that one day there will be fast new road and lots of entry and exit gates, but every year it is the same as ever. F1 people hate traffic. Even with their mobile phones glued to their ears, sitting in a queue of cars is a waste of time. And so at Silverstone each year, everyone except the rich and famous - who travel by helicopter - gets up very early and drives in before the crowds arrive and clog all the pretty lanes of Northamptonshire. This means that there is life in the F1 paddock much earlier than normal and so it is that wandering Frenchmen end up eating English Breakfasts... if only to kill time.

It is a curious fact - but a fact nonetheless - that a lot of Europeans think that England's only contribution to decent cuisine is the mixture of bacon and egg. Some even go so far as to say that the English breakfast is the only thing they actually like about going to Silverstone. Yes, the countryside in July is very pretty and all that, but the traffic is so bad, the weather so uncertain, the girls so white-fleshed and the hotels so creaky that even Brazil is more inviting.

Of course, there are some who find no value in the British breakfast.

"Ow do you eat zese disgusting back-ed beans?" they ask.

"What is in ze Breet-ish sau-sage. Mad cow meat?"

For these folk, I have found that the best justification of the British Breakfast is the theory about bacon, eggs and the British Empire.

In the days when Europe ruled the world - hard though it may be to imagine - the Brits had the biggest empire. This was because they started every day with eggs, bacon, fried bread and black pudding. They then marched all day long, stopping only to claim bits of land and shoot locals who complained about being invaded. The French, so the theory goes, ate only croissants and tiny little cups of coffee. By the time they had hoisted on their back packs they were out of energy. Half an hour marching and they would start to discuss lunch. A big lunch, however, meant that they needed a sleep in the early afternoon and that meant that it was not until late afternoon that the French were in the mood for a bit of invading - by which time all the juicy colonies belonged to other people.

The Germans never really got off the ground with empire-building. They ate such disgusting things for breakfast that they had to spend the rest of the day doubled up with stomach pains. The Spanish were going to bed when everyone else got up - and so had no chance in the construction of empires.

It would be interesting to see if such theories would stand up to scrutiny by academics... although such folk are few and between in the F1 paddock, where a good education is rare indeed.

F1 folk have a tendency to look only to the end of their noses and thus it was fascinating to see the results of a study into British motor sport - released at Silverstone - by a group called the Institute for Public Policy Research. The IPPR is an independent body which aims to explain economic, social and political issues to a wider audience by way of research.

The Institute wanted to try to explain to the man in the street why the British dominate the motor sport industry while the British car industry has been a complete disaster and is now largely foreign-owned. They commissioned a couple of academics to produce a report called "Playing to Win".

My initial thoughts were that it probably had something to do with the fact that the British team always start the day with a big English breakfast, but the academics concluded that bacon and sausages were not as important in the development of the motor sport industry in Britain as the complete lack of money and facilities. In 1945, they argued, Britain was broke having spent six years and lots of money winning a war. What was left were a lot of people with no money looking for a good time; a lot of empty airfields and, very quickly, a lot of small, cheap cars. The effect of this was a sudden boom in grass roots racing - do-it-yourself motorsport. The large numbers involved created commercial opportunities for individuals with particular skills. Competition was fierce and the industry was driven by performance and innovation which meant that the pressure was on for engineering companies to act quickly, with flexibility and with the highest of standards. Only the winners survived... Excellence was rewarded so very rapidly a network of competing companies sprang up, exchanging ideas, racing one another. That culture has grown to such an extent that today there are 633 specialist suppliers in Britain, with a turnover of around $2 billion and jobs for 50,000 people.

Without the old airfields - like Silverstone - and without the post-war austerity this would probably never have happened.

This does not mean that other countries cannot produce successful racing industries. The entire racing industry in Italy is based around Ferrari's headquarters at Maranello, just as the British motor racing "Silicon Valley" is based around Bicester - where March Engineering was established in 1969. French motor racing success has long been based around Renault and Elf, but in Germany things are rather less easy to explain.

Porsche, BMW Motorsport and Mercedes-Benz have all produced many fine engineers but none has won in F1 without the help of British chassis builders.

There are exceptions to these rules, of course, and one of these was at Silverstone, taking part in the British Touring Car Championship event. The Schnitzer team from Freilassing, in Germany, close to the Austrian border, has been winning touring car races for three decades, despite the fact that people like Tom Walkinshaw and Williams Touring Car Engineering have tried everything possible to unseat them. So what is the Schnitzer secret?

Years ago I was a touring car reporter and I knew then that Schnitzer's strength lay in the fact that it was a family business. Everyone was someone else's brother, father or cousin. There was constant stability. On Friday - F1's boring day - I found myself wandering off down the old concrete runways at Silverstone, looking for the touring car paddock to say "Hello" to old friends from that world. It has changed enormously in recent years - and wandering amongst the trucks I was quite shocked by the scale of the hospitality and the obvious professionalism. Finally I found the Schnitzer truck and there was Roberto Ravaglia - with a strong of touring car titles to his name - and team manager Charly Lamm, who Gerhard Berger has tried many times to lure into F1 because he is probably the best team manager in the business. Both had a few more grey hairs than in the old days but otherwise nothing much had changed. Then, suddenly, I realized that there was Klaus the truckie. The same Klaus who had once tested the Schnitzer racers because the drivers had failed to turn up; there was Dieter and Hans - all the old faces. It was the same old team - solid as a rock.

Ravaglia was full of life and humour, but seemed rather sad that he could not easily get into the F1 paddock to see his old pals like Gerhard Berger.

"How come," he said, playing with my FOCA plastic pass, "you can walk in this paddock, if we cannot go walking in your paddock."

He had a point. F1 seems to be hell-bent on keeping everyone out of its hallowed paddock. This means that working conditions inside are easier - which is good - but that one can go entire weekends without ever bumping into members of the public. Some in F1 say this is a good thing. It adds to the image of F1 being an exclusive world inhabited only by team bosses, film stars and hugely-rich sponsors.

There have to be some limits on the restrictions. There is a point at which F1 is taking the risk of losing popularity because it is such a closed world. Having said that one has to accept that one cannot let everyone into the paddock to say "Hi" to Damon. But sometimes it seems there is a little too much security in the paddock. Now we have swipe cards to get into the paddock with mini-cameras watching each person as they come and go. Perhaps the future will be electronic tagging...

Personally I see nothing wrong with a few fans getting into the action. If they are smart enough to figure out how to get in, why not? If the film world had employed the same ideas as currently exist in F1, Steven Spielberg would never have got started. He simply went into Universal Studios on a tour, found an empty office and set up in business. The men on the gates got to know him and soon he had easy access in and out of the studios - and gradually he managed to convince people that he would be a great film maker.

Today race fans can only dream and, it seems, that is extending even to those who pay for the sport. Teams complain that there are never enough passes to keep their sponsors happy.

On Friday at Silverstone I happened to be walking past the swipe card machines when Gianni Agnelli - the honorary president of Fiat and one of Europe's most important businessmen - tried to get into the paddock. The swipe machines kept refusing him. The Ferrari men with him were pulling their hair out in embarrassment and frustration.

Perhaps swipe cards are not the best way to build a stronger racing industry in the future.

We can only hope that as soon as he got through the gates, someone gave him a nice big English breakfast...

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