With Silverstone on the horizon, Mobil 1 The Grid’s Jennie Gow waxes lyrical on the often underappreciated success of British Motorsport – A booming industry which continues to provide a home (both geographical and spiritual) for all within the sport.
Moments after the Austrian Grand Prix finished, Lewis Hamilton climbed onto the top step on the podium to celebrate his win, flanked by Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen. In doing so, he claimed the 250th Grand Prix win by a Brit – the most for any single nation in F1 history.
Germany is next on the list, with 164 wins, making the UK the most successful nation in Grand Prix racing by quite some margin.
So why, then, in a week where England got knocked out of football’s European Championships and the country voted to take themselves out of the European Union, are we – the British – so successful at Formula One?
The answer isn’t some fluke of nature; nor is it that Brits are necessarily more skilled at driving than the rest of the world (although I always like to think that we are!). Indeed, it’s far more simple than that; Britain is the base for Formula One – its home, its heartbeat.
The sport’s entire life support exists within a 20-mile square in the rolling Oxfordshire countryside and, without that little mecca to motorsport, the numbers might look very different.
McLaren, Mercedes, Williams, Force India, Red Bull and Toro Rosso, Manor, Renault and even Haas have all established their bases in the heartland of the UK’s racing industry, and they all nestle around the Mothership that is Silverstone Circuit.
The old airfield was opened in 1943, with three runways that still lie within the outline of the present track. In September of 1947, it held its first motorsport contest as a group of friends met up for an informal race known as the ‘Mutton Grand Prix’.
Silverstone has come a long way since then and, in 2011 – at a cost of £27 million, standing three stories high and 390 metres long – the new Silverstone Wing was opened, giving the slightly dated and rather romantic setting a more sleek and sexy look. Taking the old track, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.
Regardless of this costly face-lift, and more plans in the pipeline for hotels and further infrastructure around the track, it’s Silverstone that holds the key to our success in Formula One. For without her, there would be no great pooling of minds, no gathering of technology and no playground for the often ‘mad ideas of men with pencils and paper’ to experiment on.
There have been (and still are) some amazing British Constructors whose developments and successes have forged the way in Formula One. Williams, McLaren, Lotus, Brawn, Brabham, Vanwall and Tyrrell have all set the world alight with unique concepts in motorsport and the technology which drives it. Furthermore, when those teams started out, those teams – for the most part – had Brits behind the wheel.
Vanwall had Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks. Lotus had the great Jim Clark and Graham Hill. Tyrell was famous for the Scottish tartan of Jackie Stewart. And, more recently, you have Williams whose alumni includes Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, David Coulthard and, of course, Jenson Button.
It reads as a ‘Who’s who?’ of British talent in motorsport. An industry that is respected and cherished by many, all within the confines of the UK.
‘But hang on a minute there’, I hear you say, ‘We are the home of football too! Look at Wembley Stadium – which could be described as the birthplace of modern football. After all, there are more clubs in spitting distance of its hallowed turf than constructors on the doorstep of Silverstone, right?’
Well, sort of. This is where the difference lies between British success in F1, and the sad record of England’s footballing failures on the world stage: Investment and ownership.
While football clubs have been bought by foreign investors from around the world, with principles and ideas around the sport being cross-pollenated by millionaires from as far afield as Thailand and the USA; in Formula One, most of the companies have retained a very British core, with Bernie Ecclestone presiding over the F1 circus from his base near Harrods, in London.
The identity of F1 is a very British thing. All press conferences are conducted in English; team radio is spoken (with the exception of the odd rant by Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vettel) in English and, as a driver or senior team spokesman, the thought of communicating in anything but English is near-on unimaginable.
The wider social context around this should not be underestimated. Indeed, within the confines of the tarmac at Silverstone also lives the heart of British Racing – the BRDC – the British Racing Drivers Club. The club was founded in April, 1928, by Dr. J. Dudley Benjafield, one of an informal group of British racing drivers known as the ‘Bentley Boys’.
The BRDC started out as a socialising club for Benjafield and his chums. Yet, by the time of its inauguration, its 25 members had devised a set of objectives for the club that are, in my opinion, still to this day crucial to the continued success of motorsport in this country;
• To promote the interests of motorsport generally.
• To celebrate any specific achievement in motorsport.
• To extend hospitality to racing drivers from overseas.
• To further the interests of British drivers competing abroad.
And, with this, the BRDC is still going strong today. Not only do they provide a nice place for members to sit and watch the action at the track, enjoying a glass of something cold and wet while they are doing so, but they also have the remit of maintaining the grassroots of motorsport within this country.
The BRDC Superstars and Rising Stars schemes are fundamental to the success of motorsport in Britain. Make no mistake, without the support of the BRDC, the likes of Lewis Hamilton may never have succeeded in Formula One. It’s a breeding ground for a whole host of top-line talent coming through, currently including the likes of Williams reserve driver Alex Lynn and GP2’s podium man at Austria, Oliver Rowland.
And that brings me onto the final part of the formula for success: The drivers. What legends (a word I don’t use lightly) we have been lucky enough to have in this country. From Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees, to James Hunt, Jackie Stewart and – more recently – the likes of Button and Hamilton. Old and young, past and present; these men and their machines inspired many a young driver to take to the wheel of a go-kart to see if they could become the next F1 Champ.
No doubt, they are the heroes of our sport. Even last weekend at Goodwood Festival of Speed, the likes of Sir Stirling Moss and his troupe continue to circulate among the fans of F1, taking time to meet, greet, take selfies with and sign autographs for those in attendance.
They are the perfect elder statesmen of the sport. Seeing the excitement of the British public when they have the chance to meet their heroes, is something unique and magical. It makes you proud to work in F1, and proud to be British
With continued investment, a pool of future champions coming through the ranks (none of whom think they are too big to sit with the stars of yesteryear and shoot the breeze about the sport they love) and continued success on track, led by the likes of Lewis Hamilton – the cream of the current crop and now a worldwide brand in his own right – Formula One in the UK will continue to create champion after champion, car and man alike. It’s just a shame more people don’t recognise this feat. If they did, perhaps some of the nation’s other national sports could be calling one of their own a World Champion, too.