Motor Racing: Britain's myriad marques of distinction: Derick Allsop reports on how one country has remained at the very heart of Formula One as the world prepares to focus on the Silverstone grand prix

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The Independent Online
IT WAS Flavio Briatore, the very Italian driving force of Benetton- Ford, who captured the reality with a typical flourish: 'For prosciutto you go to Italy, for champagne you go to France, for Formula One you go to England.'

Britain's sport in general and its car manufacturing industry may have taken a battering in the recent past, but the building of grand prix machines, the running of racing teams and the support businesses to these operations continue to thrive in the Old Country.

When Simtek-Ford and Pacific- Ilmor took their first, tentative step into the heady arena of Formula One at the start of the season, Britain provided the base for nine of the 14 teams in the world championship. Most of them are concentrated in a central area: the heartland of motor racing.

Even those teams playing away in Sunday's British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, have significant links here. The Ferrari is designed at John Barnard's technical centre, near Guildford; Ligier, now under Briatore's control, are to have a technical base close to Benetton's Cotswolds factory; the Larrousse chassis is created at Bicester and its engine is a Ford Cosworth, built at Northampton; the Minardi is also powered by a Ford Cosworth, and Sauber's Mercedes engine is prepared at Ilmor's Northampton factory.

Hart, engine suppliers to Jordan, are a Harlow firm; Yamaha, partners to Tyrrell, develop their engine jointly with John Judd at his Rugby factory; the Mugen Honda unit on the back of the Lotus is rebuilt at Slough; Goodyear, who provide tyres for all the team, have their European distribution and servicing headquarters at Wolverhampton. For spark plugs, brakes, clutches and a myriad other essential parts, the chances are the teams will shop for goods made in Britain.

For quantity read also quality. And results. Benetton, who put their shirt on Toleman, a small team from Witney, in a 1986 takeover, are now homing in on their first championship success. The constructors' title has gone to a British team every year since 1983, when Ferrari were the winners. The last driver to take the individual prize in a non-British car was Jody Scheckter, of Ferrari, in 1979.

The tradition of the pre-eminence of British motor racing is established on engineering expertise and competitive instinct. An infrastructure has been assembled, giving drivers from all over the world the opportunity to pursue their dreams and teams the equipment to race all over the world. The Lola and Reynard chassis used in IndyCars are built in Britain, and Cosworth and Ilmor supply the majority of the engines for the American series.

The base is the lower formulae, raced on modest circuits up and down the country, throughout the season. Eddie Jordan, a Dubliner, was one of these who came to Britain in search of a motor racing career. He now runs a Formula One team from a modern factory next door to Silverstone.

He said: 'When a racing driver wants to make it to the top, irrespective of what country he is from, his dream is to come to England. Certainly that was my dream. You don't go to America, you don't go to Japan, you don't go anywhere else. You go to England.

'It starts a long time before Formula One. It starts in Formula Ford and Formula Three. We must be mindful that the British Formula Three Championship is the best and we must preserve that.

'It is a lot easier for a Formula One team to get set up and properly served in this country because of the little satellite firms here: high-quality, high-technology specialists. You might reasonably assume it would be be better to run a team from France, because it would be cheaper and, logistically, easier. But that is clearly not the case.

'This is a specialist career. We are not engulfed in unions. These guys work the way they do and the hours they do because they are career-minded and make quite good money. You need total dedication, absolute commitment and the determination to succeed. The guys who work here have these qualities.

'Britain must not underestimate itself. When it comes to mass production we can learn from the Far East, but in the area of prototype design I don't think there's any country better.

'I would never say Britons are very flexible, which is why I have an Irish team manager] But the British person is calmer under stress. He has a mere balanced viewpoint, he's more rational. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the Latin blood, but it can let them down.'

Briatore, as Latin as they come, reinforced the potential of Benetton by taking on board the Scotsman Tom Walkinshaw, the no-nonsense head of a racing and business organisation at Kidlington, as his engineering director.

Walkinshaw said: 'Formula One in this country benefits from the support companies, which go back to when the British car industry was set up in the Midlands, basically between Oxford and Coventry, and which have adapted to the needs of Formula One. Access to the different tracks is also important. British engineers are very innovative and creative, and that's what is required in Formula One.'

Even the bigger, wealthier teams, with state-of-the-art facilities and 200 employees, still depend on the creativity and productivity of those small support businesses.

Ken Tyrrell, the veteran team owner, said: 'It may surprise people to learn most teams are not, by a long way, self-sufficient. I think you'll find even McLaren and Williams put quite a bit of work out to sub-contractors. Smaller teams put almost everything out. The UK has many places which can produce small quantities, or the one-off, of special parts in a relatively short time.'