Motor Racing: Invitation only to the club of silver dreams

David Tremayne talks to the man behind the team who run Silverstone
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The Independent Online
"When I first came to Silverstone, with a Formula One car in 1973, I remember looking at the chaps in blazers from the British Racing Drivers' Club and thinking: 'What do these people know about motor racing?' And now I am in the same situation, where people are probably asking exactly the same question."

Lord Hesketh, former government Chief Whip and the man who launched James Hunt's Formula One career, is the quintessential Englishman, and the BRDC is the quintessential sporting gentleman's club, as powerful and influential as the Jockey Club.

Proposed in 1928 by Dr JD Benjafield, eminent London surgeon and one of the "Bentley Boys" whose racing exploits yielded Le Mans triumphs in the Twenties and Thirties, the BRDC keeps a guiding hand on Silverstone's tiller. Steeped in the sport's history, it numbers among its vice-presidents luminaries such as Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees, Rob Walker and Ken Tyrrell, and runs Silverstone Circuits Limited, Silverstone Estates, the Silverstone Club and the Silverstone Racing School. Membership is by invitation only, and Hesketh admitted: "The greatest honour bestowed upon me - and Hesketh Racing did have this reputation for bad behaviour and a light-hearted approach to life - was that they still made me an honorary member of the BRDC in '74 or '75. Which was jolly good of them, because I was very proud to be able to wear the badge. In a way it is my proudest thing, apart from the Daily Express International Trophy and the Dutch GP trophy (which was so cheap and nasty it fell apart on the rostrum). Those, together with James' helmet and the car. The BRDC stands for something different. It's very British."

But while history is an intrinsic part of the plot, the future is of equal importance. "It's a club," Hesketh said, "not a company with a John King-type chairman. It is a pretty collective organisation. And the one thing that I have perhaps brought was that having spent seven years in the Government one does know how the system works. And I suspect that every western country is going to be progressively less friendly to the motor car, and to racing. Now whether that's through disliking advertising tobacco in particular, or about environmental regulations, noise regulations. there's a whole range of things. And how the policy gets made and how it's turned into legislation, well, it is an advantage to know how that system works. It's much easier to defend something if you can stop it before it's been printed and signed."

Of late the much-discussed tobacco advertising ban has inevitably focused attention on the future of the British Grand Prix, and the BRDC are anxious to protect the sport's heart from attack. "We've got the grand prix and it is very important to Silverstone," Hesketh said. "The BRDC's great thing is that it is not dedicated to profit. It's got to wipe its face and it's got to be financially successful, but it's not dedicated to having to pay a dividend. It has spent a great deal of money on taking Silverstone to the top of the grand prix circuit league, and on all of its other business activities such as the driving school and the go-kart centre. It has gone a long way towards generating an income. But my one ambition is to see that the BRDC can survive without the British Grand Prix. That's very important. We have been very lucky that grand prix racing, unlike boxing, has survived as a cohesive unit. We haven't yet seen a breakaway Formula One, and what that might mean. If it fell apart, what would the value of the grand prix be? These are all speculative questions, but it's important that the BRDC address them."

The BRDC is part of the McLaren Autosport Young Driver Award, but Hesketh foresees the need for greater efforts. "I think the next stage here is to increase that investment in upcoming drivers. But we need to have some cash to do that, because as we all know it is very difficult and expensive to give someone support that is meaningful. If we can get to that point, I will be a happy man."

Silverstone has changed immeasurably since the day in 1974 when Hunt's Hesketh swept by Ronnie Peterson's Lotus as they flew flat-out through the old pre-chicane Woodcote corner, on his way to win the International Trophy race. Hesketh allows himself a nostalgic pause. "Magic moments. Woodcote gone. But there we are. That's also what the BRDC bar is for, to drown one's sorrows."