Is Britain's domination of Formula One finally coming to an end?

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The Independent Online

For almost half a century Britain has led the world in motor racing technology and supplied skills across the world. But as the global picture slowly changes that lead is now under threat. Sir Jackie Stewart believes that if government funding is not forthcoming to help the British Grand Prix to survive, the whole infrastructure could gradually shift elsewhere, reducing that wave of domination to a mere ripple.

For almost half a century Britain has led the world in motor racing technology and supplied skills across the world. But as the global picture slowly changes that lead is now under threat. Sir Jackie Stewart believes that if government funding is not forthcoming to help the British Grand Prix to survive, the whole infrastructure could gradually shift elsewhere, reducing that wave of domination to a mere ripple.

Ferrari's recent domination notwithstanding, British machinery has won 32 of the 46 world championships since the constructors' trophy was instigated in 1958. That was the year in which industrialist Tony Vandervell's British racing green Vanwalls finally succeeded in conquering Italy's "bloody red cars". Today, the rest of the world recognises that if you want chassis technology or team skills, Britain is the place to call.

Success spawned an industry which grew its own creative people, and the genius of men such as Team Lotus founder Colin Chapman helped to sustain that success by engineering breakthroughs such as the monocoque chassis and ground effect. At the heart of Ferrari's success are Britons Ross Brawn, the technical director, and Nigel Stepney, the man who helped to make Michael Schumacher's Ferrari bulletproof. Toyota's millions are being spent on technical developments overseen by Mike Gascoyne.

Elsewhere, British engineering is a cornerstone of America's ChampCar and IRL single-seater series. Harvard University Business School's Professor Michael Porter noted the creation of business "clusters". "Silicon Valley is a cluster," Stewart says, "but we in motor racing were a cluster before Silicon Valley was ever there. And we still are a very, very well-developed cluster."

Half the team principals are British, but Sir Frank Williams is wary of complacency; the export of British skills is educating other nation's engineers over the long term. "The sands are shifting. Mercedes are grabbing more and more of the engine; more will be done in Stuttgart, I understand. BMW make their own engine in Munich; Toyota in Cologne. In Germany there is a lot of automotive engineering expertise and experience, because of the presence of three very large manufacturers: DaimlerChrysler; Volkswagen Audi and BMW. Because of a large motor industry the support industry and the universities spew out a lot of automotive engineers. England does not have the same draw for these young kids at school. It's something to do with the British character. In the early pioneering days the attitude was 'I'll go for it and make it happen,' engineering-wise. I would say there is less chance and incentive for that these days."

BAR Honda's David Richards explains: "If you go to most towns you find all the shoe shops are in one street. In industry this notion of clusters is quite intriguing, how they develop and are self-perpetuating. It's like engine-maker Ilmor being a spin-off from Cosworth. The industry is all about people. The resource that we require and the equipment and facilities are so common the world over, but it's the people resource that is the critical thing. And people in general don't move around the world; they'd rather stay in their home base. That nucleus of skills built up around the Thames Valley cluster, and that's the reason why it stays there."

Richards believes that the engine side is an exception. "That requires a very heavy capital investment, rather than a personnel investment, and that can be moved around more easily. Our engine is all built in Japan, for instance, but the general intellect in Formula One is British based. I think we have to be careful about it, and a DTI Government Paper was published last year which addresses those issues and how those skills can be retained over the next few years."

Stewart outlines the threat. "Never before have so many nations seen the potential of owning our dominant technology," he said. "France and Germany and Italy are still there. Asia-Pacific will be a serious threat in the future. And America. They've got a bigger motor industry in one little town in America [Detroit] than the spread around Europe.

"So we have got to be very careful. If we lose our major event, the British Grand Prix, we could lose that lead. Every nation sees how a region within a country can benefit economically from staging a major event such as a Grand Prix that is televised in 202 countries, that flashes them on to the screens of the world to 360 million people. It says: 'We are a modern country. We are not under-developed. Look at us.' Bahrain is saying it, and China and Turkey."

Stewart believes that the loss of the British Grand Prix could jeopardise the industry within a decade. Britain has no God-given right to a Grand Prix or to the lead in motorsport technology, of course, but if the right decisions are not taken in the next few years we could wake up too late to what we have lost.

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