Features - News Feature

FEBRUARY 9, 2001

Why is Britain the center of the motorsport industry?


Start, Japanese GP 2000
© The Cahier Archive

Have you ever wondered why Britain is the center of the world's motor racing industry? It hasn't always been the case in fact Britain was a latecomer to the sport when compared to France, which was the cradle of the sport.

Have you ever wondered why Britain is the center of the world's motor racing industry? It hasn't always been the case in fact Britain was a latecomer to the sport when compared to France, which was the cradle of the sport. The Automobile Club de France (ACF) dates from November 1895 and all the great early racing events were organized from Paris to other European cities. The first international "Grand Prix" was organized by the ACF in 1906 and was won by a Renault, despite opposition from Fiat and Itala from Italy and Mercedes from Germany but in the early years of the sport it was the French automotive industry which dominated. There were hundreds of automobile companies in and around Paris and the best emerged as the most successful with Panhard, Peugeot, Renault, De Dion, Mors, Darracq and Richard-Brasier dominating the early years of competition. Then came an even stronger second generation headed by Bugatti and Delage and it was not until the 1930s that Italy and Germany really began to make an impact on French domination.

In the immediate postwar period the Italians were completely dominant with the Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati teams unbeaten until Mercedes-Benz returned to the sport in 1954. The British industry did not start to emerge until the late 1950s when Vanwall, Cooper and BRM became the dominant force and were joined by Lotus, Brabham, McLaren, March and Tyrrell in the course of the next 15 years. The late 1970s added Williams and a string of less-successful teams but British domination had become so great by then that even Ferrari moved the design and manufacturing of its cars to Britain.

But how did it happen? And why?

The British motor racing industry is still young and so has only just started to be studied by academics. The first surveys, carried out by academics Dr Beverly Aston, a lecturer in finance at the University of London and Mark Williams, a fellow in Economics at Exeter College, Oxford, revealed a fascinating story of how British ingenuity was translated into economic success and why the motor racing industry is clustered in an arc to the north of London, running from Woking in the south-west to Huntingdon in the north-east.

The clustering of firms with specialist skills is not unusual in other industries. If you traverse the Black Forest in Germany you will find an extraordinary number of clockmakers; financiers have long gathered in the City of London or in Frankfurt. US automobile companies were concentrated in Detroit while film companies gathered in Hollywood. More recent clustering has been seen among computer firms in "Silicon Valley" in San Jose, California.

The research into the motor racing industry concluded that the success of the British industry could be traced to the immediate postwar era. Britain and her allies had won the war. The country was proud but in a financial mess. There were shortages of raw materials and money but people wanted to have a little fun after six years of fighting. But having fun was not easy. The government wanted money to be spent on reconstruction and so imposed huge taxes on luxury items such as cars, hire purchase was restricted and petrol rationed. The importation of foreign cars was banned until 1953.

At the same time a whole generation of young engineers - who had spent six years designing, building and operating advanced military hardware with which to defeat the Axis powers - were looking for new challenges. The result was that a number of car clubs grew up as racers advised one another on how to build their own racing machinery from kits or from parts of old cars. It was do-it-yourself motor racing. The 500cc Club and the 750 Motor Club both played an important role in this although it was the 750 Motor Club which had access to the basic Austin Seven which the enthusiasts treated "as a grown-up Meccano set" with which to create racing and rally cars.

The popularity of the car clubs created commercial opportunities for those with the skills and the vision. The Cooper Car Company, for example, began building 500cc racers built from components of the Fiat Topolino and by the early 1950s was collecting large numbers of customers. Eventually the company began building "proper" racing cars.

The DIY racers of the late 1940s and early 1950s enjoyed one vital asset. Road racing in Great Britain was banned and the pre-war racing circuits of Brooklands and Donington Park had both fallen into disrepair. However, across England there were a large number of airfields which had been built in the course of the war . They were now redundant and it was not long before motor racing enthusiasts discovered that they could race on concrete runways and taxiways. Many of these have long been forgotten but Silverstone, Snetterton, Thruxton, Goodwood and Croft emerged as permanent racing facilities.

As the sport grew so did the need for car constructors, component manufacturers, engine tuners and other businesses. As they were set up by racing enthusiasts with specific aims they tended to be dedicated to motorsport and thus had to be competitive to survive as they had no income on which to fall back. When engineers came along who felt they could do better than what was available they were often proved right.

Colin Chapman was a leading member of the 750 Motor Club with Austin 7-based cars. These were so successful that in 1952 Chapman established Lotus in stables behind the Railway Hotel in Hornsey. He began to build spaceframe racing cars and as success followed success so Lotus grew. Some of the most famous Lotus designers were also 750 Motor Club men, notably Maurice Philippe, an expert in aircraft wing structures who built his own sportscar - the Maurice Philippe Special - in 1955. Philippe would bring in other aerospace engineers such as John Baldwin.

Other 750 Motor Club members who worked for Lotus were Tony Southgate, John Miles, Mike Pilbeam and Len Terry. Pilbeam went on to establish his own Pilbeam Racing Designs in 1975 and has enjoyed a great deal of success, particularly in hillclimbing and sportscar racing.

Eric Broadley was another 750 Motor Club graduate who began building his own cars in the late 1950s. The result was Lola Cars which would become one of the biggest racing car production companies in the world. He too would recruit from among his friends in the 750 Motor Club, notably Len Bailey, the designer of the Le Mans 24 Hours-winning Ford GT40.

It was not only Lotus and Lola but also companies such as Chevron, founded in an old cotton mill in Bolton by 750 Motor Club racer Derek Bennett, and Mallock, the brainchild of Major Arthur Mallock who started out racing a converted Austin Seven.

Other 750 Motor Club engineers went on to work for major racing teams including aerodynamicist Frank Costin, Brabham's Gordon Murray, Paul Owens, Richard Owen, Derrick White and even Adrian Reynard.

The growth of the British club scene in the 1960s resulted in other ambitious projects, the most famous of which was March Engineering established in Bicester in 1969 by former McLaren engineer Robin Herd, wealthy racer Max Mosley and former racer and Winkelmann Racing team manager Alan Rees. The company would be largely responsible for the concentration of the motor racing industry around the Bicester area. March proved to be a very forward-think company and helped to develop many young engineers over the years, notably Harvey Postlethwaite, Nigel Stroud, Tim Holloway, Tino Belli, Adrian Newey and Nick Wirth.

As talented young engineers were developed some flew the nest and set up on their own in competition to the companies which had trained them. There was also diversification as new opportunities were identified. Before establishing Cosworth Engineering, for example, Keith Duckworth worked as a gearbox designer with Lotus.

More recently both John Barnard and Patrick Head learned their design skills from Eric Broadley at Lola. They have gone on to create their own "schools" of design. Head has been particularly successful in this respect, teaching a whole generation of engineers who have gone to work elsewhere, notably Frank Dernie, Neil Oatley, Sergio Rinland, Enrique Scalabroni and Ross Brawn. In recent years Adrian Reynard has created a similar school of young engineers.

It was a similar story in the engine world with Coventry engines, for example, training John Judd who later teamed up with Jack Brabham to start Engine Developments in Rugby.

The most important of the engine companies was, without question, Cosworth Engineering, established in 1959 by former 750 Motor Club racer Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth specifically to tune Ford engines for the British club racing scene. These became the mainstay of the sport in the 1960s and the Cosworth DFV F1 engine enabled a number of teams to enter Grand Prix racing with a cheap and reliable engine package. Without the DFV the likes of Williams, Shadow, Arrows, Ensign, Fittipaldi and Wolf would probably never been formed.

In time Cosworth spawned Brian Hart Ltd. and Ilmor Engineering, both of which were founded by former Cosworth engineers (although Hart had also been a member of the 750 Motor Club).

Other engineering companies such as Hewland Engineering were lured into motor racing by commissions from the young racing car companies such as Cooper. They in turn spawned offshoots which went into competition with them.

It all cases it was a question of the survival of the fittest. Constant competition not only provoked constant technological breakthrough but also weeded out the companies which were not meant for success. As a result the industry was never able to stagnate. Every aspect of a racing car was examined constantly and from time to time another budding entrepreneur/engineer would say: "I can do better than that" and set themselves up in competition. The immediate post-war generation of DIY enthusiasts had to learn to live with advancing technology. Some could not cope. Today their names are largely forgotten but rather than Lolas and Lotuses we might in different circumstances be discussing the exploits of the Arengo or the Marwyn, the Beagle or the Parker Special.

Constant innovation and development meant that the team bosses were constantly looking at new areas of specialist knowledge which might help them to get ahead of the competition. It was natural that many of these would come from aerospace as there were a group of 750 Motor Club enthusiasts who worked together with De Havilland in Hatfield and later similar groups at the Royal Establishment at Farnborough.

When aerodynamics became more of an issue, after the introduction of ground-effect technology by Peter Wright in the design of the Lotus 78, aerodynamicists became men in great demand. The current crop of French windtunnel experts - Jean-Claude Migeot and Henri Durand being the most famous - came out of the European Space program in Toulouse.

In Britain Williams got ahead of the opposition thanks to work in the Imperial College windtunnel in London, which had been used by Frank Dernie. This led to the establishment of a small school of Imperial College aerodynamicists, which included Tino Belli, John Davis and most recently Egbahl Hamidy.

The arrival in F1 of carbonfiber composite technology drew in other expertise. McLaren used the skills of British Aerospace's Arthur Webb but also looked to America and hired Steve Nichols, who had been trained at the Hercules Aerospace company in Utah. Williams responded by hiring Brian O'Rourke from the US aviation giant Northrop. There was also demand for stress analysis engineers from the aerospace companies.

The rush to carbonfiber composites created another market because few teams could afford to do such expensive work in their own in-house facilities. And so they searched for companies to build their chassis for them. Advanced Composites of Heanor in Derbyshire became the market leader racing car chassis, producing an astounding 700 between 1981 and 1995. This included no fewer than 100 F1 chassis for customers Alfa Romeo, Brabham, Ligier, Arrows, Toleman, March, Onyx, Fomet, Larrousse and Pacific. The other 600 chassis included 292 Indycars for March Engineering, Penske, Kraco and Galmer, 49 sportcars for March, TWR, Schuppan, Brun, Mazda and Konrad and 53 Formula 3000 chassis for March. Inevitably, Advanced Composites spawned its own competition in the area, notably Astec, which is today part of the TWR empire.

Since then Grand Prix teams have been working towards having not only their own composite departments but also their own windtunnels. There has also been considerable expansion in the electronics and hydraulic engineering sectors while current expansion is in advanced software development such as computational fluid dynamics.

The concentration of all aspects of the industry is such that even as far out as Lola in Huntingdon and Lotus at Norwich there was a feeling of remoteness from the core of the motor racing business. Information and personnel transfer between the teams was constant and so the learning process was accelerated.

Not only is Britain the center of motorsport engineering excellence but it has also developed an impressive motorsport service industry.

The concentration of the industry is now such that the FIA President Max Mosley - he of March Engineering fame - believes that anyone seriously wanting to compete in top level motor sport needs to be based in Britain.

"The existence of a whole infrastructure of companies with motor racing as their core business means that anyone who wants to set up a team has to come to Britain," he says.

Prost, Sauber, Ferrari and, most recently, Toyota want to prove him wrong. They have to lure staff to the Continent with large salaries and better working conditions but getting the men is not the hard bit.

It is keeping them that has proved to be so difficult.