By applying a racer’s nous to business, the former driver is now one of motorsport's most influential people
Steve Cropley Autocar
26 May 2018

For most talented racing drivers, a career in Formula 1 is the pinnacle.

While fighting to get to the top, stars rarely give much thought to how they’ll occupy their lives once the racing ends, not least because motor racing looks after its heroes better than most other sports.

For Jonathan Palmer, winner of Autocar’s recently announced 2018 Motorsport Hero award, life was never that simple. Even in his F1 pomp, Palmer planned ahead. He was far more successful than most of his peers, driving 83 grands prix for four teams between 1983 and 1989 and winning the Jim Clark Cup (a championship for non-turbo F1 cars) before successfully moving to sports cars and the BTCC. But when it all ended, he was ready.

Autocar Awards 2018: the winners

“My ambition drove me to make the best of the talent I had,” Palmer recalls, “and eventually it took me into F1. I always felt it was a privilege to be there, but never really saw it as the pinnacle. I knew other talented drivers would come along, and they did. So I looked for the next step.”

Our Verdict

Seat Ateca

Seat's first attempt at building an SUV is a cracker and knocked the Nissan Qashqai off its perch in the process, so we discover what makes the Ateca our class leader

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

Palmer’s “next step” has succeeded massively. In fact, it is arguable that since leaving racing, he has made a greater practical contribution to the health and strength of British motorsport than any other individual. He has also become the king of performance driving tuition, paving the way for an expansion of similar activities around the world.

From racing he joined the BBC as an F1 TV commentator beside Murray Walker. Then in 1999 he founded his own driving events firm, PalmerSport, soon basing it at a specially designed venue, Bedford Autodrome.

A new, professional programme of activities showed drivers of all abilities how to improve, while often encouraging them to buy high-performance cars they’d never otherwise have sampled. Sponsors noticed In the early days, Palmer had to juggle wolf-from-the-door earning opportunities – including a role as chief test driver of the McLaren F1 supercar – with meeting the daily expectations of guests at his driving events, but within a few years PalmerSport was thriving.

This encouraged JP to devise and back several new racing classes (an early junior saloon series called T Cars, the Formula Palmer Audi single-seater series and most recently the Ford-powered BRDC Formula 4), all of which aimed to provide ambitious young drivers with a level playing field to display their talents.

To make sure his racing ideas worked, Palmer financed and guided the design of the cars himself, using professionals on the technical stuff and his own nous and passion for detail to carry projects through.

His non-stop demand for quality sometimes caused friction but it also became legendary – it is said that JP (whose love of commuting by helicopter from his Sussex home rivals his love of motorsport) can spot a stray cigarette butt from 2000 feet.

The activities at Bedford would have been enough to satisfy the average high-achieving millionaire entrepreneur, but not Palmer. Working with partners in 2004, he acquired four famous UK circuits - Brands Hatch, Oulton Park, Cadwell Park and Snetterton – through a new company, Motor Sport Vision (MSV), which immediately embarked on a series of renovations and improvements designed not only to better things for race fans but to underscore MSV’s philosophy that racing at these famous venues should be sustained for the long term.

Perhaps Palmer’s greatest achievement is that these venues, whose activities have expanded in variety and customer numbers, are now solidly viable. That’s quite a feat when running race circuits has traditionally been regarded as financially precarious, especially when potential customers have more leisure-time opportunities than ever.

“I enjoy business even more than I enjoyed F1.” admits Palmer, now 61. “When you’re a driver, there are pretty stark limitations on your ability to influence the complete operation you’re working in. Your job is to keep fit, stay out of trouble, drop into the car from time to time and do a good job of testing and racing.

“But in business, at every hour of every day you have the opportunity and excitement of making decisions that make a difference. I find that very rewarding.”

Two new venues have recently expanded the MSV stable. Palmer acquired a 1300-acre former airbase near Laon, northern France (pictured below), planning to turn it into a driving centre for customers right across Europe. Then came the acquisition last year of the UK’s original road circuit, Donington Park, whose chequered history reaches back to the early 1930s. In 1937 and 1938, Bernd Rosemeyer and Tazio Nuvolari took successive, legendary wins there in their rear-engined, 550bhp, skinny-tyred Auto Union single-seaters.

Donington’s one-and-only modern F1 race was the European Grand Prix of 1993, during which Ayrton Senna is said to have driven F1’s greatest-ever first lap, passing Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Alain Prost and Karl Wendlinger in torrential rain to win at a canter for McLaren.

Although the initial deal was done more than a year ago, MSV has only had proper tenure of Donington Park since the beginning of this year but has already completed an extensive array of typically Palmer improvements, with more on the way. A couple of imposing modern office blocks, one occupied by Formula E’s administrators and the other rapidly filling with MSV people, now stand just inside a grander, neatly manicured main circuit entrance.

Vast acreages of paddock space formerly covered with gravel (JP spits out the word “gravel” the way others say “cow dung”) are now extensively Tarmacked. Other big Tarmac expanses – called Black Lake and Heritage Loop – stand ready at the western end of the 680-acre property, perfect for car club gatherings and drift schools. There’s a welcoming new restaurant in the middle of the paddock called Garage 39 (there are 38 ‘proper’ race car garages nearby) and practically everything else that’s still standing has been renovated, repaired or painted in MSV’s signal red-and-white.

High on a mound outside Hollywood Corner, the long right- hander that curls downwards into the famous Craner Curves, stands a brand-new grandstand. From the top tier you can see two-thirds of the circuit. Nearby is one of the circuit’s dozen expensive, modern toilet blocks. Palmer and his admin team, some of them stalwarts imported from Brands Hatch, know very well that such things make fast friends of customers, especially during the race meetings that draw the big numbers: British Touring Car Championship races, world and British superbike events and British GTs. The Donington Park that not too long ago resembled a quarry is now a welcoming place, primed for use.

However, Palmer’s work-list is far from finished. One suspects it never will be. Most MSV sites can be improved, he feels. There remains plenty to do in France. JP would also consider running Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix, if conditions were right, though he’s already had one unsuccessful tilt at it and reckons it’d be a tough job to please all of the parties involved.

If there’s one key to Jonathan Palmer, it’s his abiding love of progress and high quality, especially the kind that benefits customers. “People say MSV set a benchmark,” he says with no hint of self-praise, “and maybe we have. That’s certainly what we’re trying to do. But the principle is very simple: I just like doing things properly. Do that and your business will thrive.”

Palmer on…

F1 at Donington Park

“We’d love to have it if Silverstone suddenly decided they didn’t want it, and if we could make a sensible business proposition. But I suspect the numbers wouldn’t look attractive enough.”

Donington’s famous track layout

“In many ways, this has got to be one of the country’s premier racing venues. It’s a superb, sweeping track loved by drivers and spectators alike. Nothing has changed about its essential layout since 1976 because there’s simply no call for change.”

The Donington Collection

“We’ll take control of the race car collection at the end of this year. It’s bigger at present than we’d want, and we have some head-scratching to do, but we definitely want to keep it as one of our unique attractions.”

MSV acquiring racetracks

“When we took over the four circuits – Brands Hatch, Cadwell Park, Oulton Park and Snetterton – they were losing £3 million a year. We’ve improved the venues and improved the staff. No one was looking at the big picture, let alone the details.”

The rationale for acquiring circuits

“If you’re contemplating entering an industry that’s established with customers for a significant time, and other people are making money at it, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be one of them.”

Donington’s business growth

“We’re working hard at better marketing and promotion. We’ve improved the website and are making better use of our own database. MSV’s reputation helps too. Social media? That can work either way...”

Meanwhile, in France…

There’s no better snapshot of Jonathan Palmer’s well-developed sense of enterprise than his expansive plans for the 1300-acre Couvron former airbase, near Laon in France, for which he bought the freehold a couple of years ago. The place is being turned into a gigantic driving centre aimed especially at owners of fast road cars who will be able to arrive, drive on a fast and sweeping circuit that has generous run-off areas and isn’t too punishing on brakes and tyres, then depart with their cars still in good working order – even after they’ve driven them at top speed.

Planning permission for changes that will deliver a five-mile driving circuit (including a 1.2-mile straight) is expected to be granted late this year, to include three Bedford-style sub- circuits for driving events and tuition. There will also be an off-road course, an eight-mile perimeter road route and a city route suitable for developing autonomous cars.

The major build phase is timed for 2019, in time for a grand opening in 2020. An important Couvron feature will be a huge expo centre suitable for car (and even truck and bus) displays and launches, able to provide banquet-style seating for 500, plus banks of workshops for race or road car preparation. “We want to make this an absolute motoring Mecca,” says Palmer. “There’ll be nothing like it anywhere else.”

Read more

Autocar Awards 2018: the winners

Jonathan Palmer’s MSV acquires Donington Park circuit

Circuit boss plans a 'mecca for supercar drivers' in France

Join the debate

Comments
2

26 May 2018

I’m a really big fan of Mr.Palmer, I met him more than thirty years ago when he would fly a colleague down to a racing engine design consultancy that I worked at as a draughtsman . Although already a rising Formula One star he was always very polite, courteous and interested and he always had a copy of Autocar with him !!!!

Later in life I got a bit more successful and became one of the early Bedford Autodrome users , what a revelation that place was, proper toilet facilities , hot water , soap, hand driers , compared to any other circuit the place was amazing, quite part from the track layout being interesting and challenging. Often JP would be in attendance and would always be interested and willing to chat with us ordinary folk .

In later life I’m a bit of a track driving addict , and it’s great to see how the circuits under MSV’s wing have been transformed , probably none more than Snetterton, which is now with the circuit extension really fantastic. All the MSV Circuits under Mr.Palmer’s charge have that same original philosophy, great circuit, great facilities , and always clean toilets ( it really matters ! ) hot water , soap and hand driers ! 

I’m an absolute fan, long may he prosper.

27 May 2018
Ravon wrote:

I’m a really big fan of Mr.Palmer, I met him more than thirty years ago when he would fly a colleague down to a racing engine design consultancy that I worked at as a draughtsman . Although already a rising Formula One star he was always very polite, courteous and interested and he always had a copy of Autocar with him !!!!

Later in life I got a bit more successful and became one of the early Bedford Autodrome users , what a revelation that place was, proper toilet facilities , hot water , soap, hand driers , compared to any other circuit the place was amazing, quite part from the track layout being interesting and challenging. Often JP would be in attendance and would always be interested and willing to chat with us ordinary folk .

In later life I’m a bit of a track driving addict , and it’s great to see how the circuits under MSV’s wing have been transformed , probably none more than Snetterton, which is now with the circuit extension really fantastic. All the MSV Circuits under Mr.Palmer’s charge have that same original philosophy, great circuit, great facilities , and always clean toilets ( it really matters ! ) hot water , soap and hand driers ! 

I’m an absolute fan, long may he prosper.

 

How refreshing, someone praising a good thing on here instead of complaining. 

Thanks Ravon for sharing this, and putting something positive here. 

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week