An offer he culdn't refuse

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In 1988 Steve Sydenham gave up banging his head against a brick wall and reluctantly folded Racing for Britain. Now he wants to bang his head again

Remember Racing for Britain, the innovative scheme launched back in 1981 with the express aim of helping British drivers into F1? It started out as a brave new dream, and ended in acrimony and a near nervous breakdown for the man behind it, Steve Sydenham. Jonathan Palmer, Martin Brundle, Johnny Herbert and Julian Bailey all owe a little of their success in getting into F1 to the role Racing for Britain played in providing financial support, but it all went wrong in 1988, and it petered out with nary a whimper.

Now, in the worst recession in Britain for decades, it’s back, and again Sydenham is setting out on the old trail. Is he crazy, or just not feeling very well?

“My wife Vanessa’s reaction was that I’d got to be joking!” he acknowledges. “But she’s known for a long time that I’d like to do it again, given the right circumstances. I’ve never stopped believing in the idea. I still think that a) it’s good for the drivers and b) for Joe Public. I think it gives them an involvement. which is what I felt in the early ’80s.” He specifically wants to involve the motor racing public.

“I think in 1992 it would be too difficult anyway to go out and find large chunks. But I do think a recession is the right time to launch again, because it was a recession before, in 1981. I just want to give people the chance to be involved. A lot of people actually miss it. I’ve had a lot of letters, and a lot of people have stopped me at circuits while I’ve been working for Rapid Movements, just basically saying how much they miss it, how they wish it could start again.”

But what went wrong before? What led him to the situation wherein he was on the verge of breakdown? Today he can look back and smile, but the 18 aftermath months leading up to March 1990 nearly cost him everything. “In the middle of 1988 to be honest, I was physically and mentally drained. I just couldn’t take it any more. It had been seven days a week, basically, for eight years, working from home, which is not a good idea. Which is why it’s good that this time we’ll rent a small office. I just never got away from it at all for eight years, and that’s a long time!”

It started to go wrong when, ironically, factors within the old Racing for Britain organisation orchestrated the setting up of a fully professional company to run the scheme. It was a long-held aim, apparently the chance to put the whole thing on a really sound footing. In truth, it was the beginning of the end. Personality and philosophy clashes abounded. Sydenham stuck the new Racing for Britain Ltd for three months before walking out, and then tried to resurrect the old Racing for Britain Association. Racing for Britain Ltd ultimately did nothing, and quietly faded into oblivion.

“I don’t want to say anything about the people involved,” says Sydenham, who naturally tends to see the best in people anyway, “because that’s past, but I didn’t like the way things were going. It didn’t suit me, put it that way. I didn’t think it was going to work. I tried to revive the old association but with the pressures of there being two Racing for Britains, everyone got confused. Especially me!”

Disillusioned, he tried to go back to New Zealand, to accept an attractive offer, but even those plans were to go awry. “A guy I’d actually helped to race in Europe in 1980 asked me to do the marketing for his racing school over there. It sounded like a fantastic idea! I loved my two years that I lived in New Zealand and I needed to get away from all the pressures, basically.”

For 18 months he tried to sell his house in Huntingdon, in a market that didn’t want to know. A whip-round organised by other RfB committee members and contributed to by many leading racing personalities, helped to tide him over as the house remained unsold, the dream of New Zealand faded and the overdraft swelled. “I kept thinking the problems would be over soon, the house would go and then I’d be on my way to New Zealand. But the house didn’t go and the entry permit to New Zealand ran out, and I was still here. I had been offered the job with Rapid Movements in January 1990 but was still determined to go to New Zealand by March 1. I felt it would be unfair to Ken Moore if I accepted and then left three months later. I explained that to him, but when March I approached and I was still here, I called him. He had a specific job he wanted me to do and he had held it open. I’ll be eternally grateful for that!”

As Rapid’s liaison man with British teams he settled back into reality, until a chance call earlier this year stirred everything up again. “There had been comments in the press about Racing for Britain, both in the Motoring News editorial and the 10 years ago column in Autosport, and I got a phone call from a guy who I’d heard of but didn’t actually know. He said he was thinking of doing something similar to Racing for Britain, in motorbikes. When we got talking he suddenly came out with what he actually wanted, which was would I start Racing for Britain again? Would I be interested? I said yes, I would, but I had a job, a family, and he said obviously he didn’t expect me to do it for nothing. If he was prepared to pay me a salary, supply a car, rent a small office locally, would I think about it? I said yeah! Obviously I’d think about it, but I’d need to see it in writing before I committed myself. Twenty four hours later he was back with it . . . in writing.”

The mystery benefactor wants to remain anonymous at this stage. “He has a very valid reason for wanting it to start up again, which will be revealed in due course if and when it’s successful. He obviously doesn’t want to be associated with it if it isn’t.”

Sydenham’s enthusiasm has never known bounds, but at times his naivety and acceptance of the untrustworthy at face value have led him to embarrassment. Second time around many observers who remember the heartache of the first RfB’s death throes worry that pursuing a similar format is the wrong way to go. Sydenham disagrees wholeheartedly, but his critics argue that he would.

“I think for a start I know so many more people. I didn’t know anyone at the start of 1981.” But he did by the end of 1987, when things effectively began to lose momentum. He concedes that point. “Oh yes, sure! But I got myself too involved the last time, trying to service £10 memberships, trying to write individual messages on the bottom of letters. That sort of thing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! I should have been out trying to sell the idea, selling corporate memberships. That’s the idea this time, the big difference. I’d never been a salesman prior to my time with Rapid Movements, but now I know I can do it, and I know so many more people.”

More naivety, or just overriding passion? It could be both, but there is no mistaking how genuine his beliefs are. Steve Sydenham may have got it wrong more than once in the past, but his personal honesty and integrity have never been in doubt. And there is no gainsaying what Racing for Britain achieved. The plan now is for him to be out on the road all the time, with Vanessa dealing specifically with memberships. You don’t need to be a genius to spot a potential flaw. What about the really serious money, the big wedge that might enable Racing for Britain to be a really serious sponsor? When pressed, he admits his shortcomings as a salesman to corporate Britain. They were one of the reasons why Racing for Britain failed to progress significantly when Systime and later Warmastyle put it on a professional footing in the mid ’80s. But this time he believes he can cover that base.

“The long-term plan has to be to employ someone to look for large amounts of corporate sponsorship. For 1992 there aren’t going to be a lot of chunks of big money in circulation, but let’s get the thing up and running again and prove to everybody that it can be successful. As the economy picks up, which it’s bound to do, we can get somebody in with a bit of initiative and they can go out and get some bigger chunks.”

The ultimate aim remains still to push drivers into F1. “Well, towards the upper echelons anyway,” he counters with a degree of uncharacteristic caution. “I’m personally very proud of the fact that Racing for Britain not only assisted four people into F1 but also a lot of people into World Sportscars. Last year RfB drivers were first and fourth at Le Mans; the year before first, second and third. This year David Leslie is in British Touring Cars, Russell Spence in Formula Atlantic; last year there were five guys at Le Mans, the year before eight. There are Anthony Reid and Andrew Gilbert-Scott doing well in Japan, Perry McCarthy flying the flag so well in IMSA. I think that’s good.

“I still think it’s incredible that we lead the world so much in engineering design and everything, yet so few British drivers actually get the opportunity to get to the top, purely through lack of finance.” Of the dozen or so drivers in F1 who do not have to contribute any money for their seat, three are British, a situation that, while complimentary, is nonetheless sobering.

“It’s crazy to think of people like Mark Blundell, Damon Hill, Perry McCarthy sitting on the sidelines when you’ve got people like Giovanna Amati and Paul Belmondo in Formula One. I think it’s ridiculous. And they can’t even attract the money! All of the RfB people have progressed purely because they have talent, not money, and that’s got to be the ultimate aim: to help them find the money to progress to the very top. Somehow, we’ve got to find a way.

If you want to get involved, call Steve Sydenham on 0480 432311/0480 457572 fax. Minimum contribution for individuals is £10, and corporate £250.

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