JUNE 27, 2002
Alarm bells in Motorsport Valley
FOR the last 25 years Britain's "Motorsport Valley" has dominated the global industry with the specialist teams and racing car manufacturers and suppliers selling their products across the world. This has created a pool of highly-skilled labor in Britain, particularly in composites and aerodynamics. But the rise of the manufacturers in Formula 1, the dominant sector of the motorsport industry, is beginning to be seen as being under threat.
The logic is simple. As the manufacturers push the competition to more and more extreme solutions, the technologies involved are beyond the realms of all but the biggest research and development departments in the motor industry and in the aerospace business. Britain's automotive industry has been steadily eroded to the point at which there are no major players left on the global scene. Specialist sports car companies are still doing well building the eccentric kind of cars for which the British are famous but in the increasingly high-technology motor racing sector the British are falling behind because there is not the research and development support from automotive and aeronautical companies. One of the reasons cited for Ferrari's current success is that it has the support of some major high-technology companies in Italy while German car makers Mercedes-Benz and BMW are able to rely on the precision-engineering businesses for which Stuttgart and (to a lesser extent) Munich are famous. Germany has three major car manufacturers: Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes and the impressive small-scale operator Porsche and these firms all have their own networks of specialist suppliers. For many years there was almost no involvement in international motor sport beyond the factory operations and the local racing scene was never as developed as in Britain but since German drivers and engine makers began to be more successful in F1 the popularity of the sport has boomed and with it has come growth at grassroots level. A motor racing industry has been gradually growing and what is known as performance-critical engineering has been developing.
A couple of years ago Toyota Motorsport was pilloried for deciding to set up its factory in Tokyo (we were one of the Toyota's critics) but as time passes it seems that perhaps the decision to base the team in Cologne was not as foolish as it once appeared.
The world is in recession at the moment and so all racing companies need to be careful. In Britain we have seen a number of bankruptcies across the industry, notably Reynard. The French have lost all their major racing teams in recent years because of unfavorable legislation but Germany has been quietly growing.
For now the worries are concentrated on the engine business while Britain still rules the waves in composite skill and knowledge but how long will it before others decide to follow Toyota and set up chassis-building businesses?
Aside from F1, the British motor racing industry is not looking that healthy. There is Lola but Reynard has gone out of business and Italy's Dallara is completely dominant in F3 markets. In the smaller formulae, where once there was a wealth of UK firms, the competition is intense from foreign firms.
There is not a crisis as yet but the British industry needs to stop and have a think about the way things are developing...
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