Columns - The Youth of Today
We need the self-preservation society
BY NICK GARTON
Britain could and should deserve a Grand Prix, for the mechanics of a great and glorious industry that is to world motor sport what Hollywood is to movie making is without doubt in place. It's kept me and many thousands of others enthralled and employed throughout our lives, yet decades of infighting and inertia among those who controlled the domestic sport left it in a bedraggled state.
Something had to change and, recently, that change has taken place: the old guard has been elbowed out of the way for corporate ownership to now call the shots over the running of the professional sport, of the venues and of the exploitation of its commercial rights. Far from being a saving grace, however, this has only accelerated the impending disaster, and Britain's Motorsport Industry Association has proved it beyond any doubt.
The MIA report published this year stated that the British motor sport industry numbers over 2,500 companies employing around 125,000 people and reaches the much-quoted turnover of £5 billion. Yet of that pulse-quickening sum, the MIA points out that £4 billion can be accounted for by just 50 companies.
That accounts for the British contingent in Formula 1, plus a handful of companies exporting technology around the world - so what about the other 2,500 British firms living off what they can take as profit from just £400,000 per year? The answer is that they're struggling.
Teams are unable to pay mechanics as much as they could even a year ago, and there are well-founded fears that more and more of the skilled engineering talent on which motor sport depends will be lost to Britain forever. Once-healthy championships are dying on the vine and spectator figures are - despite what the circuits may claim - in freefall.
Yet rather than act to save the industry from collapsing in on itself, the pressure is merely being increased to carry the costs for those who run the sport, which the industry cannot sustain for much longer.
Circuits are hosting three and four promoted meetings a month at increased ticket prices, making it increasingly unviable for the small community of race fans to attend, and adding further disincentive to the casual racegoer to back up persistent clashes with the Formula 1 calendar that continue to plague spectator and media attendance.
To make up for this shortfall, the few remaining motor manufacturers involved in the domestic sport are being charged a fortune for the privilege of playing to empty houses, and the competitors are being forced to pay more in circuit hire and championship registration fees.
And where are these funds being spent? Why, to subsidize the British Grand Prix of course, where almost four fifths of all the money generated by British motor sport already exists - and which has as much to do with the day-to-day business of the British motor sport community as it does with the ecosystems on Mars.
Formula 1 must embed itself in that culture, use its political and financial clout to ensure that there is a through-flow of new designers, technologies, drivers, engineers and genuine ticket-buying, TV viewing fans. Only in that way can the sport survive, and only in that way will the British Grand Prix happen as a right.
As an example of the lunacy currently sweeping the sport, I quizzed one leading light about improvements to be made at British circuits, and was proudly told that Silverstone had received a grandstand design from Sir Norman Foster - he of Lloyds Building, Charles de Gaulle airport and wobbly Millennium Bridge repute - that cost tens of thousands of pounds per seat.
What then, I asked, if such funds were to be lavished on the Grand Prix, was going to be spent fulfilling the long-promised upgrades at the rest of Britain's circuits? What of a sensible paddock at Snetterton or extra run-off and basic facilities at Oulton Park? Oddly enough, there was no answer.
Spending money on the Grand Prix and expecting that to filter down to the domestic sport is deeply misguided. The Grand Prix is an expensive irrelevance to the culture of sporting and technical excellence in Britain that provides for it, and its profits more likely to be invested in football clubs, bigger motorhomes and private jets than anywhere else.
All of Britain's circuits need millions spent on them, and Silverstone is well down the list of urgent cases. Efficient organization of the calendar, of the component series of Britain's professional sport and the encouragement of the grass roots essential as is the need for efficient media liaison and worthwhile promotion.
Originally I was going to suggest that next year's British Grand Prix be scrapped and instead the circuit owners, organizing clubs, promoters, team bosses, championship officials, media owners and manufacturer representatives be locked in the Silverstone press office for the four days scheduled for the event and not allowed out until a coherent plan was achieved for the benefit of all.
Such a Utopian ideal is unrealistic, however. Getting them to decide on what sort of sandwiches to have would take six months and, to put it bluntly, we don't have the time. The success of Formula 1 under Bernie Ecclestone, the British Touring Car Championship under Alan Gow and even the Goodwood historic events under Lord March has shown that motor racing can only work with a benign dictator at the helm.
The sport has as much to offer as ever it did to spectators, competitors, investors and the media alike and Britain really can be the genuine world leader. First though it needs to find a leader of its own. An industry czar with a barrel load of business acumen, an armor plated will, fearsome negotiating skills and above all an abiding passion for motor racing, its people and its future.