Currently reading: How motorsport helps Britain through dark times
Our motorsport industry has its roots in war, and the inherent resilience that created brings hope for post-pandemic prosperity
Damien Smith
News
9 mins read
19 July 2020

Did you spot, during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the rash of stories about Britain’s motorsport companies turning their expertise to the sudden and overwhelming medical demand? The response did the industry proud, but it was hardly a surprise.

Engineers are the first people to turn to in a crisis, because they by definition relish the challenge of finding rapid, effective and practical solutions, and some of the brightest and most innovative in the UK are among the 25,000 employed in the business of racing. Adapting under intense pressure and making key decisions based on scientific logic? That’s just what they do, day in, day out, in workshops, paddocks, pit lanes and rally service parks around the world.

It’s easy to be cynical about rallying calls to evoke the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, but given the challenges Covid-19 presents, it’s perhaps understandable to draw inspiration from this country’s darkest hour.

In motorsport, there’s a similar old cliché that compares the white heat of competition to warfare, specifically in terms of the development of new technology – but it’s only a cliché because it carries more than a grain of truth. Draw a line from today’s highly evolved Formula 1 teams – seven of which are based in the UK – and it runs directly back to the Second World War.

“Engineers back then laid the foundations for British motorsport, because what was required was a rapid response to develop ideas to fight and win battles on land, sea and air,” says Chris Aylett, chief executive for UK trade body the Motorsport Industry Association. “In aviation, the war created a lightweight, high-speed, aerodynamically driven competitive challenge that engineers developed novel solutions for every day – and if they failed, people died. When the planes came back safely, the solutions were deemed to have worked…”

Out of that life-or-death necessity emerged a post-war generation bursting with ideas, a number of whom channelled their energy into the re-emerging sport of motor racing. By the late 1950s, the likes of Cooper and Lotus were harnessing technologies born directly from the Battle of Britain to conquer grand prix racing. By the 1960s, the British revolution had not only overrun F1 but even the trenchantly parochial Indianapolis 500, too – and that nascent bud of industry has continued to bloom. Its roots run so deep and strong that its 4000 firms – from small, artisan specialists to 1200-strong, manufacturer-owned F1 behemoths – exist here, unopposed in the centre of the motorsport universe.

Want a prime example of the UK’s eminence? Mercedes-AMG F1. For all of Germany’s industrial might, Daimler chose not one but two small towns in Middle England in which to settle its six-time championship-winning super-team and affiliated technology development hub. That investment benefits from the mature and complex network of specialist suppliers, as well as from the UK’s home-grown and international workforce – many of whom have been educated at British universities that offer specific and world-renowned motorsport engineering courses. Like all the best success stories, the British motorsport industry is built on the shoulders of the people who drive it.

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That initial surge of technology catapulted out of the war accelerated from the 1960s because of the increasing commercial potential recognised in motorsport. “TV has been the core catalyst in the change of sport’s role within society,” says Hugh Chambers, CEO of governing body Motorsport UK. “What is particularly compelling for broadcasters is that sport is very ‘sticky’: people want to go back and watch it time and again. Produce sitcoms or quiz shows and it’s very difficult to predict which ones are going to stick. Football, horse racing, motor racing: it’s all bankable. As TV expanded, bidding wars for rights increased and money started flowing into the sport.

“What Bernie Ecclestone did with Formula 1 was a brilliant job of monetising the top end. Okay, it doesn’t flow down to the grass roots directly, because there isn’t any significant commercialisation beyond a certain national level, but it does flow through into certain aspects in terms of infrastructure. And I would say that engineering has benefited from the commercial nature of the sport. The motorsport industry, fuelled by commercialism, has produced an extraordinary infrastructure of small and medium-sized enterprises that are then able to produce really high-quality machinery and componentry, which is then available to the entire industry.”

Chambers also apportions the growth to increasing car manufacturer interest in motorsport. It was always there, of course: ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was a factor from the pioneering days of the automobile, as Chambers knows only too well. His father, Marcus, was a key figure in the growth of motorsport in this country, as the competitions boss of the British Motor Corporation (BMC). The TV-driven commercialism only drove car makers to invest further into the sport, whether it be rallying, saloon racing, sports car racing or ultimately F1.

But there are rising threats to the established motorsport hierarchy that will test the British industry’s resilience more than at any time since the war. The immediacy of the current pandemic is all too real – and who knows how much lasting change and damage it will leave in every facet of our society. Then in the longer term, there’s the existential challenge of climate change that is forcing car makers, through increasingly stringent government legislation around the world, to re-evaluate everything they understand, believe and do. Already the Volkswagen Group has stated its intention to invest only in electrified motorsport. The pressure on motorsport to prove its worth, that it isn’t simply a frivolous exercise of going around in circles, has never been higher.

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What have the romans ever done for us?

Relevancy to the real world and the cars we drive every day is key. But it’s a pressure that’s far from new, and some say that motorsport has always had an answer to that challenge – Jaguar and the development of the disc brake on the C-Type and D-Type in the 1950s is the go-to example.

However, there’s also an argument that motorsport has made a pig’s ear of adapting to new technologies at the most crucial time. F1’s embracing of hybrids was accompanied by wails of protest from insiders and fans alike, and it has never properly sold to the world just how remarkable its 1.6-litre turbo hybrid powertrains really are. Top-level sports car racing was allowed to be broken by the spending war that such clever technology created. And rallying – surely the code of motorsport that should be most in tune with road car technology – is still dragging its heels, with its own hybrid era not due to start until 2022.

But now, finally, the motorsport community is properly roused to the threat – and is ready to fight its equivalent accusation to the merits of Roman occupation in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Aylett is quick to step up to the crease. “Over the past few years, primarily led by the engine suppliers to F1 and other major series, racing has improved the thermal efficiency of the internal combustion engine from the 30% of a normal road car to over 50% today,” he says. “Thermal efficiency really shows how much energy the engine produces per 100kg of fuel. At 30%, you have 70% energy wasted, so getting above 50% for the first time, in 2017/18, was a major milestone for future hybrids which will be essential for all of us in the next decade.”

‘Yeah, but apart from thermal efficiency, what else have the Romans done for us?’ Well, how about connectivity that has fed not only directly into our road cars but also into our smartphones? F1 has been a proving ground for the demands to assess telemetry data in real time. In the past, engineers could download what a car had to tell them only when it pitted; today, increasingly advanced wireless tech allows them to receive a gigabyte of data from a car on track in five seconds.

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Then there’s the processing power to digest 350 terabytes of data each year, which feed into applications used, for example, by Daimler research and development engineers working on Mercedes road cars back in Germany.

There’s also production technology, including automation, that can be scaled up from the specialist needs of racing car manufacturing for use in other industries. The drip-feed into road cars might not always be directly obvious, but it’s more persistent than ever before – and the technology transfer goes far beyond the automotive world, too. It’s no coincidence that well-established F1 teams such as McLaren and Williams have diversified with spin-off technology operations that are increasingly taking lead roles in their overall businesses.

Formula E leads the electric vehicle charge

Both McLaren and Williams have been partners in arguably the most significant motorsport development of the past decade, as UK-based Formula E has led the electrification charge.

Already in its sixth season, the single-seater series has preceded the development of tech to which all major car makers are now committing. And once again, the white heat of competition has accelerated progress. The forthcoming third generation of Formula E car, due for introduction in 2022, should represent a significant step-change in performance. From 268bhp of the original ‘Gen 1’ racer, an output of 460bhp is now within range, while always-critical weight will drop from more than 900kg to just 780kg, because batteries have shrunk in size and yet increased in capacity.

Formula E is also pioneering fast charging (the target for the ‘Gen 3’ is 45 minutes for a full charge), including 30-second top-up pit stops. All this in just six years; what is achievable by 2026? No wonder Mercedes and Porsche have joined Audi, BMW, DS, Jaguar, Mahindra, Nio and Nissan in a line-up that should be the envy of F1.

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Grassroots keeps motorsport grounded

While top-level motorsport responds increasingly robustly to a changing world, it’s also something of a heart-warming comfort that grassroots club-level competition remains endearingly familiar to anyone who grew up with those post-war pioneers of the 1950s. The continuing faith, longevity and relative simplicity of the good old internal combustion engine means the amateur sport remains very much that.

“It’s more similar than different,” says Chambers. “People look back with rose-tinted spectacles to 50 years ago, but the truth is people were still spending significant sums, even on club racing. There’s no question there are certain costs that have come with improved safety, but few would argue that’s a bad thing. It’s massively safer than it used to be, by a factor of about 100 to one. If you choose your discipline of motorsport now, you can still compete in a very similar way that you did 20, 30, 40 years ago. There are lots of fun things you can do with a second-hand vehicle if you choose wisely.”

Make no mistake, the pandemic will leave a lasting and painful mark on UK motorsport. But the deep roots of the industry, and the resilience of its individuals and companies born from wartime adversity, should bode well for recovery once some form of new normality is established. That ‘Dunkirk spirit’ really isn’t just a cliché.

What will happen to 2020's major events?

Silverstone is set to host two grands prix behind closed doors in August as part of the condensed 2020 Formula 1 season calendar. The British Touring Car Championship is aiming to run a nine-event, 27-race schedule that will start at Donington Park on 2 August. The season finale will take place at Brands Hatch on 15 November. The British GT Championship is also aiming to start on 2 August with an event at Oulton Park. That will be the first of six race meetings. The Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Wales Rally GB (the UK’s World Rally Championship round) and the Silverstone Classic and Goodwood Revival historic race meetings are among the events to have been cancelled.

How club motorsport will return

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Motorsport events in the UK were suspended in mid-March, when the nationwide lockdown was introduced. Racing finally resumed on 4 July, with 12 events taking place across the weekend, starting with a British Automobile Racing Club event at Castle Combe. There were also race meetings at Snetterton and Cadwell Park, karting events at Forest Edge and Sorel Point, five cross-country events and a classic car tour in Lincolnshire. Motorsport UK will limit the number of event permits to 50% of 2019 levels. All event organisers will be required to meet new safety protocols, with social distancing measures in place, provision of PPE where needed and most pre-event paperwork done online. Spectators won’t be allowed initially. At first only one person will be allowed in any vehicle at any time. That means that the first rallies to run will be sprint-style single-venue events without co-drivers.

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20 July 2020
I've never seen such a sad clawing at a justification for one's existence. Tragic.

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