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
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The Independent Online
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.