'Britain is centre of the universe for motorsport'

Whoever takes the flag at Silverstone, there will really only be one winner. Richard Rae explains why these shores are the home of F1
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The Independent Online

It is possible that none of the three Britons currently driving in the F1 world championship will win tomorrow's British Grand Prix.

Click here to upload graphic: Motorsport Valley (34.9kb)

In fact, given their form going into the race, it would be something of a surprise if the McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button finish on the podium, while the young Scot Paul di Resta would be delighted to bring his Force India home in the top 10.

In just about every other respect, however, the British will dominate the race, just as they have dominated the sport for almost half a century. While in most other major international sport British influence has steadily waned, this country took control of Formula One at an early stage and has never let it go. For consistently high standards in driving, constructing, engineering, designing, marketing, exploiting commercial opportunities and ruthless power-broking, no other country can hold a sparkplug to us.

Consider. Ten Britons have won the F1 drivers' title, starting with Mike Hawthorn in 1958 and most recently with Button in 2009. Brazil and Finland are next up with three each. British-based constructors have won the team championship 34 times – our nearest rival is Italy with 16, all through Ferrari.

Moreover, of the 12 teams in this year's world championship, eight are based in the UK, and ever since Hawthorn drove a Ferrari to success in 1958 there have not been many non-British wins in either championship which have not involved Britons in key roles. It is legitimate, if possibly mischievous, to wonder how much of Ferrari's success in the last 20 years can be ascribed to the work of the designer John Barnard, a Londoner, or the engineering brilliance of the Mancunian Ross Brawn.

In part, of course, how and why Britain came to lead the F1 field, and more importantly continues to do so, is down to the function of history and the particular nature of a sport in which success is largely dictated by evolutions of technology.

Actually, 1958 was arguably the starting point in more ways than one, because that was the year Stirling Moss won the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix in Rob Cooper's revolutionary rear-engined T45, a car that looked ridiculously small and under-powered compared with the front-engined monsters of the era.

The small garages and factories – sheds, in some cases – that were established to service that peculiarly British gift for mechanical innovation and design were the foundation for an industry which, largely based across the midland counties of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, now comprises around 2,500 performance engineering and services companies, within which around 75 per cent of the world's single-seat racing cars are designed and built.

Motorsport Valley, as it is known, dominates not only F1 but also the World Rally Championship and CART racing and Indycars in America, and is estimated to contribute some £2bn annually to the country's export earnings. Dr Mark Jenkins of the Cranfield School of Management, calculates that the UK's motorsport industry has quadrupled in size over the past 10 years, employing 150,000 people of whom 25,000 are engineers.

As Sir Frank Williams points out, because the industry has grown so much, the demand for talented young engineers is considerable – one of the attractions being that, unlike other industries, in motorsport good ideas can become a practical reality within days rather than years.

Success, in that respect, begets success. And it seems worth pointing out that motorsport has largely achieved what it has achieved through its own efforts, Silverstone itself being a good example.

The new £20m pit lane building looks pretty spectacular. For many years it was not much more than a wonderful race track situated in the middle of a bleak Northamptonshire airfield, but now the venue is being transformed – not through vast amounts of cash from questionable governments intent on using the sport as a vehicle for self-promotion, but through private funding.

Given the sport's contribution to the nation's economy – the British Grand Prix alone sees visitors spend around £54m in the local area – there are many who believe some central financial backing should have been forthcoming. The commercial ringmaster himself, Bernie Ecclestone, reckons that 0.002 per cent of the money the government is spending on the Olympics would have sorted out Silverstone long ago. That said, given the billions Ecclestone has personally made from the sport, just as many may wonder why he couldn't fund it himself.

Perhaps generosity and patriotism will triumph over avarice and Ecclestone will decide to contribute towards the funding for the next stage of planned improvements, including new covered grandstands. No one will be holding their breath, though.

Either way, the sport in this country now has a base which reflects its standing, and which incidentally hosts more than 40 race meetings a year. Such is the level of interest and participation at all levels across the country, the Motorsports Association sanctions some 5,000 fixtures across a raft of different disciplines in the UK every year.

"Britain is simply the centre of the universe of motorsport," said David Coulthard, Britain's all-time top F1 points scorer.

"There is so much history and heritage here, and success with British engineers and designers and racing drivers, and we need to keep feeding that. Inevitably, the focus tends to be on F1 but there is so much more to it than that."

But F1 remains the pinnacle and the shop window, and as knowledge spreads and expertise becomes more international, the time may be coming when it no longer makes as much sense for so many of the teams to be based in England. The likes of Mercedes and Red Bull are likely to want more and more of their operations to be based in the countries whose national anthems are played when their teams win races.

What they cannot so easily take abroad, however, is the touch of innovative genius which enables certain Britons to transform a sport.

The Red Bull car leading this year's world championship, designed by the brilliant Adrian Newey – a man who still prefers to start with a drawing board, rather than a computer – is a case in point. While we continue to produce the likes of Newey and Brawn, Hamilton and Button, and yes, even Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the British influence in Formula One will be pre-eminent.

Britain's Driving Force

Drivers' Championship Winners

1958: M Hawthorn (Ferrari)

1962: G Hill (BRM)

1963: J Clark (Lotus)

1964: J Surtees (Ferrari)

1965: J Clark (Lotus)

1968: G Hill (Lotus)

1969: J Stewart (Matra)

1971: J Stewart (Tyrell)

1973: J Stewart (Tyrell)

1976: J Hunt (McLaren)

1992: N Mansell (Williams)

1996: D Hill (Williams)

2008: L Hamilton (McLaren)

2009: J Button (Brawn)

Constructors' Championship Winners

1958: Vanwall

1959: Cooper

1960: Cooper

1962 BRM

1963 Lotus

1965 Lotus

1966 Brabham

1967 Brabham

1968 Lotus

1970 Lotus

1971 Tyrell

1972 Lotus

1973 Lotus

1974 McLaren

1978 Lotus

1980 Williams

1981 Williams

1984: McLaren

1985: McLaren

1986 Williams

1987 Williams

1988 McLaren

1989 McLaren

1990 McLaren

1991 McLaren

1992 Williams

1993 Williams

1994 Williams

1995 Benetton

1996 Williams

1997 Williams

1998 McLaren

2009 Brawn

2010 Red Bull

10: Number of different Formula One world champions to come from Great Britain – the highest of any nation, dwarfing their nearest rivals Brazil and Finland, who have just three each.

34: The World Constructors' Championship has been won by British-based teams more than those from any other country.

8: Eight out of the 12 teams currently competing in Formula One are based in the United Kingdom.

31: More British drivers have won the Le Mans 24-hour race than drivers from any other country; France are second in the table, with 26 winners.

3: Dario Franchitti, a native of West Lothian in Scotland, has won three IndyCar Series Championships, including the last two back-to-back.

500: The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion is Dan Wheldon from Emberton. Wheldon previously won the race in 2005, the same year he took the IndyCar Series. Dario Franchetti won the race in 2007 and 2010.

3: Andy Priaulx is the only driver to win the World Touring Car Championships three times.

4: The UK is one of only two countries to host rounds of all four major FIA World Championships — Formula One, World Rally, FIA GT1 and the World Touring Car.

10: Years in which Great Britain has secured both the drivers and constructors World Championships.

6: UK karters currently hold six of the 19 international karting titles awarded by the CIK-FIA.