Success and failure - a week in the Midlands

Jaguar R2 Launch

Jaguar R2 Launch 

 © Inside F1, Inc.

When we were kids - and perhaps still today - if one was "sent to Coventry" it was a punishment. Being sent to Coventry meant that none of your friends would speak to you. It was not very nice. When I was a student I went to the city of Coventry for the first time. It was a weekend in August in 1982 and when I arrived I was told by my friends that Didier Pironi had smashed his legs in an accident in qualifying for the German GP at Hockenheim. I was supposed to be there for a 21st birthday party and I do not know whether it was the news of the crash or the party atmosphere but one way or another I drank far too much and left the following morning with a bad hangover and no fond memories of the place.

It is difficult to be positive about Coventry. There was a lot of modern architecture and a lot of roundabouts. It is like that because one night in November 1940 the Luftwaffe, the German air force, bombed the city from dusk until dawn in the biggest air raid in the history of mankind up to that point. There was not much left of the city by morning.

The reason that the bombers targeted Coventry was that it was at the time the center of the British automobile industry. In the early days of the British car industry there were literally hundreds of automobile companies based in and around Coventry. As the car business grew such famous names as Triumph, Daimler, Riley, Morris, Standard, Singer, Rover, Rolls Royce, Humber and Alvis emerged as big operations.

The bombing failed to destroy the industry and in the 1950s and 1960s the city boomed. There was never a shortage of jobs in Coventry. It was not very glamorous but there was also always money to be found there. Gradually, however, the population got richer and lazier. There were labor and quality problems and stiff competition from German and Japanese companies proved to be more destructive than the bombers. The car industry in Coventry contracted and then all but disappeared. Today the city boasts only one major car company and ironically the survivor was originally called the Swallow Sidecar Company, which produced a range of cars under the "SS" brand.

After World War II the SS tag was rather an embarrassment given the unpleasant Nazi organization which had shared its name - and so the SS company decided to rename itself after its most successful product - the Jaguar.

During the 1980s and early 1990s I reported on many of Jaguar's successes in touring car and sportscar racing but I never went back to Coventry. There were bad associations with the place. But this year there was an invitation to go to the launch of the Jaguar R1 F1 car. The first new car of the year and so I relented.

Coventry could not be that bad a place. Could it?

As we hurtled up the M40 motorway we overtook a truck which had "Follow me to Paradise" painted on its rear. It made me laugh. The industrial heartlands of Britain were never very heavenly. It was so horrible in fact that for many years it was known as The Black Country because of the huge industrial complexes which soiled everything.

When we arrived at the Jaguar research and development headquarters for the launch of the new Jaguar Formula 1 car the first thing I encountered as I wandered in was a German press colleague, dressed in a 1940s style bomber jacket.

I laughed.

I was not at all surprised to see that Jaguar's approach to Formula 1 publicity had been toned down dramatically after the 2000 launch at Lord's Cricket Ground in London at which the company chairman Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle spoke in clipped German terms about the company intended to exploit "ze Englische image of Jaguar". It had all been wrong. In Coventry Reitzle was nowhere to be seen. There were no exaggerated quotes. Bobby Rahal made it quit clear that Jaguar Racing was in need of consolidation. The mood was right.

After the launch I headed south to Luton Airport. The following morning I had to zip across to the Continent and back in the same day and so I ended up spending two nights in Luton. It is a town with a miserable reputation and there is no doubt that it is totally lacking in charm. Almost no old buildings have survived but one cannot blame the Germans for this. It was a working town and old buildings were simply demolished to make way for more functional concrete. The impetus for growth was provided by Vauxhall.

Luton was another motor town.

Now the men in suits at General Motors in Detroit have announced that the great Vauxhall factory which dominates the town is to be closed. At the roundabouts in Luton there are signs calling for strikes and sit-ins to stop "the fat cats" ruining the town. But Luton is not going to be saved. The British car industry cannot compete with its European rivals.

Two days later, back in Birmingham, I sat in the Motorsport Industry Association conference and listened to amazing stories about the success of the British motorsport industry. They told me that "Motorsport Valley" - an area which loops around to the north of London - is to the motorsport industry what Hollywood is to the film industry. They told me that the industry was turning over an amazing $7.6bn a year and was now a bigger exporter than steel and agriculture combined. A man from a government agency said that the industry deserves to be recognized for its successes, its flexibility and its productivity. The racing car show at which the conference was being held was a heaving mass of people when the doors were thrown open to the public. It was very impressive. But in the back of my mind there was a question that I could not answer: why does Britain have such a successful racing industry and such a dismal story when it comes to automobile companies.

Was it because motorsport is still a young industry, thrusting with energy and growth just as the car trade in Coventry and Luton once had? What happened to all that energy? Where did it go? And would the same happen to the motorsport industry?

While I was in Birmingham I did my brother-in-law a favor. He is a teacher out in the country not far away and he asked me to go to the school where he teaches and talk to the 10 and 11 year olds about life as a Grand Prix reporter. I was amazed by the enthusiasm and the knowledge of most of the children (boys and girls) and I left the school wondering how many of them might one day end up employed in motorsport. I hoped it would be so. They had the energy, the enthusiasm and the drive which I recognize in motorsport people. To them nothing was impossible.

It may not be paradise but The Black Country might one day flower a little more thanks to motor racing.

It was a nice thought.

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