Heartland of Formula One

British Grand Prix: Leading hope of the new generation looks to Silverstone for signs of a golden future while business is thriving in the English countryside where the dreams of the Grand Prix world are built

THE ADJOINING hamlets of Westcote Barton and Steeple Barton in Oxfordshire are Joanna Trollope territory. Thatched cottages and long, low stone barns line the narrow high street. Pale cows and piebald ponies laze in the sunny meadow beside the 12th-century church, where the parish choir meets on Monday evenings at 7.45pm. Welcome to the home of the world's hottest grand prix racing team.

Benetton, whose spectacular modern headquarters perch discreetly in a former quarry just outside the Bartons, are not the only grand prix team based in the English countryside. A circle with a radius of 45 miles drawn around Oxford would also include the Williams, McLaren, Arrows, Jordan, Simtek and Tyrrell teams. Pacific-Lotus are in Norfolk, and even Ferrari, the focus of Italy's national obsession with automotive excellence, have a design office at Shalford in Surrey.

More than 60 per cent of the cars on every grand prix grid will have been designed or built in England, and most of the rest run engines built in Northampton. The industry employs thousands of people and earns Britain pounds 600m a year. It is practically impossible for the home teams to get a bad result at Silverstone this week. But why are they all here?

"The major factor is the labour source," Ross Brawn, Benetton's technical director, said. "The right type of labour. Because of the way things have evolved over the past 40 or 50 years, a lot of the expertise and experience we need is in this part of the country." The skills of the builders of Vanwalls, Connaughts, Coopers, BRMs and Lotuses have been passed on to the present generation. While the once-powerful motor racing industries of Germany, Italy and France have found the pace too quick, British manufacturers have gone from strength to strength. The first nine world championships, from 1950 to 1958, were won in Italian or German cars. Since 1980, the world champion has always driven a British-built car.

"If you were starting a team from scratch," Brawn went on, "you'd have to start it in this vicinity. It's a self-generating thing." Brawn is a dapper, ever-so-slightly Blimpish man in his early forties. He is mild- mannered and very neat - on our way to his office he paused in a corridor to tidy away a leaf that had had the temerity to fall from a potted plant. So it seemed natural that he should feel there is something in the British character that is particularly well-suited to the febrile world he inhabits.

"Our attitude and approach are very appropriate for motor racing," he said. "Ferrari, for instance, being Italians, are always very flamboyant, but also very excitable. The Italians have a great character, but they always look like they are on the verge of being out of control." It is safe to assume that he would exclude his bosses, Alessandro Benetton and Flavio Briatore, from such a definition.

Benetton as a company first became involved in grand prix racing in the late 1980s. Realising that Britain was the place to be, they bought a British team, Toleman, then based in Witney, in Oxfordshire. The Turin- born Briatore, installed as managing director in 1989, decided that the team should stay in Britain, and authorised the building of the Whiteways factory.

Harvey Postlethwaite, now the managing director (engineering) of the Nokia Tyrrell team, was the first foreigner to be appointed to a management position at Ferrari when he joined the Maranello team in 1981. He believes that Britain's strength in the sport is as much a product of political culture as national character. "It's straightforward economics," he said. "In Italy, Ferrari stifled all the competition at a political level. Here we have absolute cut-throat competition."

Postlethwaite cites the way that the best British component companies are constantly spawning offshoots, providing more choice in the market and more opportunities for bright young engineers. Dr Postlethwaite's political views are not onrecord, but this is a Thatcherite argument, and it stands up. Government support has eventually weakened teams in Italy and France, but lack of official backing has forced British teams to work harder. As Postlethwaite says: "We've simply gone abroad for the money."

But in such a fierce free market there have to be losers as well as winners. Fifteen minutes' drive from Benetton's factory, on an industrial estate in Banbury, is the headquarters of Simtek Grand Prix, until recently Britain's most promising newcomer to the sport.

Benetton Formula One employs around 200 people; Simtek two. Penny, the receptionist, led the way through a warren of empty offices to where Charlie Moody, the team manager, sat contemplating his desk. On it were a few scraps of paper and a pack of playing cards. "There is no future for Simtek," he said. "This place, and everything in it, is up for auction on 20 July."

Simtek Grand Prix was the brainchild of a gifted young designer named Nick Wirth. They made their debut last year, and faced the grimmest reality of the sport when their driver Roland Ratzenberger was killed at Imola. Their cars were slow and good results were hard to come by - but they survived, and entered 1995 with a faster car and a promising driver in Jos Verstappen. They also thought they had a healthy enough budget to make it through the year. But they were wrong: promised funds never materialised, and, as the team packed for the Canadian Grand Prix, Wirth felt he had to call a halt. The receivers moved in.

Nick Wirth and the 60 colleagues he and Moody had recruited were made redundant. Now only Moody and Penny remained in the factory as the auctioneers' men bustled about cataloguing the lots.

"We made these benches," Moody said, his voice shaky with emotion as he wandered around the silent rooms that until recently had echoed with the sound of machine tools and mechanics' jokes. "We made all the pit equipment. We did everything as cheaply as possible." Now and then he'd stop by a box of bits and reminisce about where they were made, trying to summon again the energy which once drove the team. "These are the parts we fabricated when we were in trouble in Brazil," he said softly, turning the little oblongs of metal over in his fingers. "Who's going to buy those?"

In the design office, where Nick Wirth drew the cars he hoped would take his team to glory, the auctioneers had been around with their tags: a steering wheel was Lot 72, an office fan Lot 79. The cars were the saddest sight. Pristine in their purple livery, they looked magnificent on the track. But sitting driverless in the garage they seemed pointless, absurd. Nick Wirth's overalls hung on the wall. On the blackboard, between scribbled diagrams, someone had scrawled: "It's all turned to bollocks."

The sport's organisers and the establishment teams shed no tears for Simtek. They respect Wirth's talent and Moody's diligence, but suggest that their enthusiasm got the better of them. "If they didn't have the money to get through the season," a marketing man with one of the biggest teams said, "they shouldn't have started it." But even now Charlie Moody can't understand why no one was prepared to step in to save the team: "I can't believe that there's nobody in the world who wants to go Formula One racing."

Simtek were the victims of a particularly vicious circle: little teams can't attract big sponsors; if you don't attract big sponsors, you won't get to be a big team.

Charlie Moody doesn't know if he'll be around when his little team is sold off in bits: he's got one or two other jobs to look into. Earlier in the day, Ross Brawn had said: "People stay in this area because there are four or five good teams here, and if they are not happy with one team, they can often find a position with another fairly easily." Good luck, Charlie.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor


Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there