x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

F1 may be global but its heart is British

The National visits 'Motorsport Valley' to find out how the United Kingdom serves as a base for most research and development to take the sport forward.

Britain's Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren car finished fourth at the British Grand Prix on Sunday.
Britain's Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren car finished fourth at the British Grand Prix on Sunday.

Formula One, with 19 races across five continents featuring drivers from 13 different countries, is undeniably an international sport.

And yet its epicentre lies in a quiet little province near Oxfordshire in central England, which features green fields, winding roads and signposts for places with names as enchanting as Chipping Norton, Milton Keynes and the easily mispronounced Towcester.

"They call it Motorsport Valley because the majority of the teams in Formula One are based around here," said Eric Boullier, the French team principal, whose Renault marque is based in Oxford.

"Thanks to the teams, you now have a lot of suppliers who have located and developed here too. It's amazing, really."

Eight of Formula One's 12 teams are based within a 80-kilometre radius of Oxford, while approximately 75 per cent of the staff employed by the sport reside in England. According to a report published by United Kingdom Trade and Investment (UKTI) last year, more than 4,000 British companies, which employ 40,000 people, supply the global motorsport industry.

More specifically, according to Chris Aylett, the chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA), Formula One is responsible for 4,000 jobs and generates £2.5 billion (Dh14.6bn) in the United Kingdom alone.

Aylett said the most important business clusters provide global not local trade.

"There is no equivalent concentration of high-performance engineering anywhere else in the world," Aylett said.

"Motorsport Valley is the Hollywood of the motorsport engineering business. It is to motorsport what Silicon Valley is to technology."

Such is the interest in the area that the MIA - which registered "Motorsport Valley" as a trademark - co-ordinate package tours taking prospective investors around and providing them a glimpse behind the scenes at Formula One team factories, including those of Williams and Red Bull Racing.

Adam Parr, the chairman of Williams, said there is "a high degree of ignorance" among politicians, leading businessmen and the general public as to what F1 teams do.

"Two years ago when we had a leading sponsor - the Royal Bank of Scotland - people in the media were saying it's champagne-swilling, but for every £1 of sponsorship we received from any UK company we spent £4.50 in the UK," Parr said earlier this week.

He added that over the course of six years, Williams have used 3,000 British companies as suppliers and that they employ 500 people directly.

"We are making a major contribution to the UK economy," he said.

Be it Russia, India or Malaysia, the majority of Formula One teams are owned by international businessmen and yet Motorsport Valley remains the epicentre of development.

In 2010, more than 30 per cent of the industry's engineering sales were reinvested in continuous research and development programmes and facilities, while 20 British universities and 120 colleges of further education offered a variety of programmes directly relating to motorsport.

New foreign owners investing in England-based Formula One teams often cite ambitions of moving the team factory to their native country. Very quickly, however, economic sense prevails.

"HRT are finding out how cold it is down in Spain," said Ayett in reference to the Madrid-based Hispania Racing Team, which entered F1 last season.

"Mercedes could not be a stronger German brand, yet [the F1 team is] located in Brackley, a little market town that has in the past 10 years generated more than £1bn in investment."

If the Valley is the epicentre, then Silverstone Circuit is the beating heart. When Nick Heidfeld, the Renault driver, was asked for three words to describe the illustrious racetrack, the German opted for "Home", "Of" and "Motorsport".

Rubens Barrichello, the veteran Williams driver, said the recent redevelopment of Silverstone raised it to "Asia-standard" and Robert Phillips, the circuit's managing director, admitted the new facilities were as much the result of meeting the benchmark set by tracks such as Yas Marina Circuit and Singapore's Marina Bay as they were meeting prerequisites written into the venue's new 17-year Formula One contract.

"There is a tendency for European circuits to [play] catch-up in terms of the architecture that is in the Middle East and Far East," Phillips said.

"But also from a business point of view, we had to upgrade our facilities and inject new energy into the venue."

Parr warned that if the UK becomes complacent in terms of its motorsport industry, countries such as China could be primed to pounce, taking the country's high-tech trade to the Far East.

"There are countries around the world that would saw off limbs to have a motorsport industry like we do," he said. "If we sit back and say 'aren't we good at something, brilliant and confident', we will get slaughtered."

Aylett, however, did not share Parr's concern.

He said in much the same way that Bollywood and Hollywood coexist, any new motorsports cluster would struggle to usurp Great Britain as the international hub due to what he referred to as the "tanged roots" of the industry whereby suppliers and developers are long-established in the UK.

John Booth, the team principal of the Russia-owned, England-based Virgin Racing, made clear while standing in the Silverstone paddock after Sunday's British Grand Prix what he thought of Britain's involvement in F1.

"Italy may pretend," he said. "But, look around, this here is Formula One."

Booth also estimated "about 80 or 90 per cent" of the people working in the sport are British - which means about 80 or 90 per cent of people working in the sport can likely correctly pronounce Towcester.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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