Matters of Moment, April 2013

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Damien Smith, Editor

Function is always the priority when it comes to the Motor Sports Association. You only have to visit the British governing body’s base to understand this. No austere building in central London, no polished woodwork, chandeliers or imposing portraits of past chairmen: instead, the MSA lives in a nondescript office building on an innocuous industrial estate beside the M25. This is the hub of Britain’s bustling motor sport industry, but if you didn’t know it was there you’d drive right past it.

This unpretentious, practical — and rather plastic — veneer suits a modern organisation that has distanced itself from its grand old Royal Automobile Club roots. This is the gritty reality of what it takes to run modern, competitive motor sport at all levels, from auto tests in supermarket car parks to the British Grand Prix. Everything about the MSA is run strictly to the (blue) rulebook.

The governing body adheres to its remit of creating a rigid structure within which a technically complicated and safety-conscious sport can survive, as illustrated recently in the aftermath of the Snowman Rally tragedy on which a spectator was killed in February.

But in recent years the MSA has striven to spread its influence further, to follow the lead set by national authorities in other sports. Development of future talent is now on the agenda, its MSA Academy supporting and promoting 60 young race and rally talents with training courses and workshops run under the leadership of Richard Burns’ former co-driver, Robert Reid.

It’s an admirable venture that has made a real difference to young hopefuls. What it doesn’t do, of course, is offer them the life-blood career finance and solid opportunities to further their climb up the cutthroat single-seater ladder. As a rulemaker, you could argue that it shouldn’t have to — and on an annual turnover of just £8 million it couldn’t fund the next Lewis Hamilton even if it wanted to.

Could it, and should it, do more? John Surtees believes so, as he told us last year. He believes the governing body, in partnership with the clubs, promoters and even Formula 1 itself, should offer prize drives for champions in junior categories, allowing them to be rewarded for success with a seat in the next series up. It seemed a good idea.

But the MSA has a counter-argument. What if the champion is a wellfunded youngster with the means to step up without the prize drive? What if he’s beaten a plucky ‘lad and dad’ team, who are more deserving, in dire need of such a prize and might actually be the better prospect whatever the points say? To reward success alone, without perspective, could be unfair and the MSA stands by its mantra of developing genuine potential on merit, whatever the individual circumstances. It’s a valiant principle and highlights the fact that nothing about driver development is simple — but the fact remains the Academy can only help a driver so far. Without opportunity, how much does all that training mean?

The effectiveness of the governing body has again been brought into question recently by the sad decline of the country’s most important single-seater championship, British Formula 3. A paltry half-dozen entries has forced promoter SRO to reduce this once-great series to just four meetings in 2013. How could the MSA allow this to happen?

Again, the governing body has a strong counter-argument. Yes, British F3 is an MSA championship, but it is actually owned by the British Racing Drivers’ Club and is run by Stephane Ratel’s company. The MSA is not responsible for its promotion and, significantly, it’s not allowed to be. Just as the FIA had to distance itself from Formula l’s promotional rights, so must the MSA with series such as F3. European law dictates that it must be so.

Chairman Alan Gow understands the dividing line only too well, as the man who also promotes the British Touring Car Championship. “If someone came along and said to us they’d like to run an MSA F3 championship, I’d talk to them,” he says — before adding that he’d then be accused of splitting the sport and doing it damage. Given that he got close to bringing the BTCC and F3 together on the same bill, only for the teams to turn their back on the chance (much to his anger), he knows he walks a fine line.

There’s no doubt that Gow and his team at the MSA are genuinely committed to developing British motor sport, and within their remit they do a great job. But within that statement lies the problem. You come away from meeting the MSA feeling that they are working with one hand tied behind their back. A governing body, by definition, holds a great deal of power — but it’s power that cannot always be applied where it’s most needed.

Meanwhile, Britain’s single-seater ladder system, once the envy of the world, has a rickety top rung and a couple missing altogether, following the demise of Formula Renault UK and the old Formula BMW. There’s hope in the newly bewinged Formula Ford and Jonathan Palmer’s promising Formula 4 category. But F3 is where it really counts, and here the MSA, remarkably, has no real authority. Baffling, when you think about it.

*

Aside from the conundrum that is top-line single-seater racing, there’s some potentially exciting news on the horizon for the MSA. For the past few years the national body has been lobbying to change the laws on closing public roads for motor racing on the UK mainland, banned after a mild accident at Kop Hill in 1925. Now it hopes the matter will be up for public consultation before the summer.

Motoring demonstrations around towns have become common, because it’s relatively easy for local authorities to close roads for such events. The problem is that they must always adhere to the laws of the Road Traffic Act. In other words, cars taking part can’t break the speed limit, or be timed — which kind of makes competitive motor sport somewhat difficult…

For a motor race to be held on the public highway, a promoter requires a Private Bill to be passed through Parliament. The Birmingham Superprix was the last example — way back in 1990. Yes, 23 years ago.

Three events do currently take place with Parliamentary approval: the Jim Clark Rally and the Tour of Mull in Scotland, and the annual Brighton Speed Trials. But now the MSA wants to make it easier for other organisers to secure road closures by taking the decision away from the national government and handing it over to local officials — who, of course, have something to gain by granting permission. The boost street races could have on local economies is obvious.

Within the MSA, there’s a feeling of optimism that racing around the streets of British mainland towns is about to become viable. If so, the change in law could lead the sport down so many different avenues — literally! We’ll keep our fingers crossed.

*

The world of Motor Sport grows ever wider. This month we have launched a fabulous online photo store, full of wonderful racing images you can either hang on your wall… or even piece together as a jigsaw! Turn to page 85 for more details.

I’d also urge you not to miss our Le Mans competition on page 17, offering a great trip to the 24 Hours in June, courtesy of our friends at Speed Chills. Le Mans is always a highlight of our racing year. Here’s your chance to join us down at La Sarthe.

Next month, you’ll find some big changes within the pages of Motor Sport. Yes, we’re planning an all-new look — and before you say it, no, we’re not turning it red… We’re excited by what we’ve got planned and, once you see it, we hope you will be too. So keep an eye on the news stands or your doormat. You can’t miss it — it’ll still be the magazine with the familiar green masthead. Promise!