Street racing in Britain has been to Motorsport what Holland has been to Downhill skiing, but the vision of one man gave it a foothold. Had it received a vital leg-up at the right time, it might still be with us. David Malsher recalls the rise and of fall of Birmingham's Superprix
For those living outside Birmingham, the Superprix erupted out of nowhere. Even readers of the specialist Motorsport press were surprised by the alacrity of it all: December 1984, Parliament passes the road race bill; 18 months later we have what some ambitiously dub The Monaco of the Midlands'.
It wasn't like that, of course. Believe it or not, the Superprix's origins stretched back two decades before the inaugural event. Concept pioneer Martin Hone explains: "In the 1960s, the perception of Birmingham was a grim one, of heavy industry. We don't have an Eiffel Tower or a big river. I opened the Opposite Lock Club in 1966. This promoted international jazz, international Motorsport and good food. Then I had a call from a fellow in Birmingham City Council who invited me to a meeting where the movers and shakers of the city wanted ideas for the future. Mine was this: As a city internationally famous for the manufacture of cars, but with not many 'firsts' to our name, how about I organise the first-ever street race in Britain?' It frightened them to death, but it went to council, who asked me to prepare a white paper."
Having raced Porsche 904s and 906s in the world sportscar championship, Hone not only had friends in the sport who lent support — Stirling Moss, Graham Hilljackie Stewart, etc — he had also seen how these events were run.
"I produced the document showing how successful street races were in certain parts of the world and were used as a major tourist attraction. Linked to our car manufacturing, it would be a high-profile image-booster for Birmingham."
At a time when county councils were being set up, Hone found himself having to convince not only the people who ran the city, but also West Midlands County Council. To prove how much attention it might attract, he organised the first motoring festival to be seen on the streets of Birmingham, in 1970. "We shut down a 2.1-mile circuit in the city centre at 11am and 3pm for 14 days, and we ran racing cars at 30mph. It brought out tens of thousands, and I linked it with a high-profile social programme of midnight film matinees, black-tie dinners, balls, money-raising for charities. And the famous drivers took their cars through the streets." It proved the first of many.
"In 1978, when the NEC held the Motor Show for the first time, we ran a major on-the-streets motorsport spectacular, which attracted wonderful entries — Fangio, Brabham, Hulme, Fittipaldi, Shelby, Salvadori, Moss, Hailwood, Surtees, etc. It again attracted tens of thousands and was very successful."
In 1980, Lucas, a major local industry, supported the event It attracted the same stars — and more: add Schecicter, Noble, Hunt, etc. But more significantly, there was a man in the crowd who approached Hone to ask if he might like to do something similar in his hometown — Dubai.
"In 1981, we ran the first Dubai Grand Prix, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the United Arab Emirates. They didn't have enough streets so, having arrived in March, I designed them 1.85km of new streets, which they built to full European standards, and I shipped everything in."
Hone has a thick file of letters saying what a wonderful event this was, and so, by the early '80s, the momentum behind him seemed to be growing in size. But so, too, were the obstacles confronting him. Not only did he have to contend with council politics, he also had to fight off influential members of the Motorsport establishment: "Circuit owners weren't keen. They thought I could take over the national scene with a one-day event in the middle of Birmingham."
"Our piece de resistance was the Chequer Bitter Classic of 1984. We drew almost 200,000 people around a 3.81cm track, what would become the Superprix circuit, and we put out a grid where every driver was matched to his titlewinning car or Le Mans-winning car: Derek Bell in a Porsche, Fangio in a W196, Moss in a 300SLR. No-one paid to come and see it, but we didn't lose a penny because we did good housekeeping, paid everybody and, through sponsorship, made a living out of the event."
The time had come for Hone to go for the big prize — a full-blooded race through the streets: "We went to Parliament in November '84, got the bill through and, three weeks after that, I got a call from Birmingham City Council asking me to come to the council house. I thought, 'Right, this is it!'
"I had a document from the previous council incumbents saying that WI ever got this through Parliament, then mine would be the company, and I would be the man, to run it for the City of Birmingham. But when I got to the chief administrator's office, I was told, "We'd like you now to put together a tender'. I said, 'Hang on, I've got a document here ..."Mr Hone, the Labour Party got in last May, and they don't recognise any agreement made by the previous incumbents.' Understandable, of course, but it did mean that Hone found himself bidding for his own idea. But against whom? He was informed there were a couple of other parties making bids.
"I went to City Council House and, in front of a board of 30 people, including city leaders, solicitors, the Lord Mayor, councillors, I guaranteed them they'd make a profit, because! had already got my agreements in place for television and sponsorship, and with Bernie Ecclestone for FIA Formula 3000, and I knew I didn't need a solitary person through the pay-gate to make a profit. I gave them a guaranteed sum in writing. I made a 45-minute presentation with pictures and movies."
Afterwards, as he waited for the verdict, the next bidders walked in. One of them was Andrew Marriott of CS S, a well-established Motorsport marketing company. When Marriott emerged after less than 10 minutes, Hone knew the local bid had lost: "It was like a knife going into my gut and out the other side."
As a sop, he was given a budget of £70,000 to organise the parades, with cars and champions, all expenses covered — a repeat of the Chequer Bitter Classic, which had cost £166,000: "I pared it down and down, but couldn't get it under £110,000.! wasn't prepared to lower my standards, so I declined their offer, whereupon they issued a press release to the tune of, 'Martin Hone turns down £70,000 cash offer to run parades."
Marriott, meanwhile, got on with his side of the deal. "I don't know what had happened between Martin and the council, but I would point out that CSS had been doing marketing for Motorsport for almost a decade already, so we were one of the obvious choices. However, I wouldn't dream of saying that anyone other than Martin was the architect of the whole concept.
"Of course, it came down to more than just us: Councillor John Charlton worked wonders with the police and fire department, for example. But as a marketing exercise, we were particularly proud to get the Halfords deal within just six weeks of us winning the contract."
On Sunday, August 24, 1986, the big day arrived. But there was a delay. Simon Arron, an F3000 journalist working for Motoring News, explains: "The story was that, on the Saturday night, some locals had come down and removed bolts from the barriers. Derek Ongaro, of the FIA, rightly decreed that no racing car could go out there until this was rectified."
At least this gave Arron time to track down a pitpass: "The pits, as I recall, were the forecourt of Bristol Street Motors. It was all covered, but it was very cramped. And so the organisers decided the press weren't allowed in. Fortunately, because we covered F3000 regularly, Motoring News and Autosport were let in eventually, but there were people with FIA Formula One passes, which allowed them into the paddock at Monaco, who weren't allowed in at Birmingham."
Then on Sunday, Hurricane Charley dumped a monsoon on Britain's second city. Future Minardi Fl team-mates Pier-Luigi Martini and Luis-Perez Sala wrapped up first and second on the grid, and were champing at the bit when... the starting lights failed. The rain had thrown their electrics into a spin.
Finally, the race got under way, and although Martini led the first lap, Sala seemed to find grip where there was none and cruised past at the start of lap two, pulling away at an astonishing rate to lead by 15sec after eight laps. Despite a spin and brush with a barrier that cost him his nose-cone, and a half-spin at the Halfords hairpin (a roundabout taken anti-clockwise), he was still leading when Andrew Gilbert-Scott hit an already abandoned car and blocked the track, bringing out the black flags after 24 laps of the scheduled 51.
The increasing gloom matched the mood, and it became clear the race would not restart. Half-points were awarded and everyone went home with mixed feelings: brave stab, damned by the weather — lucky Wit retains its slot on the F3000 calendar. Fortunately it did, and in 1987 everything went to plan for what would be the best Superprix. This time the Bank Holiday crowd was bathed in sunshine. Suddenly, the event had that crucial feel-good factor.
Says Arron: "There was still a great novelty value the first couple of years and there were lots of reminders that this was An Event, Caribbean dancers and steel bands on the pavement and so on. And you know, for petrol-heads like me, it was a major occasion, too. Road racing had been banned in this county for some 60 years, and yet here were seriously quick racing cars on the streets once more."
This was the zenith, though. By now the circuit had acquired a reputation for accidents, both in the feature race and the many support races.
Arron: "F3000 had a fairly high strike-rate on shunts anyway. It's a melting pot of champions from lower formulae all put in similar cars, all eager to prove they can get into Fl. Add the proximity of barriers, and of course there are going to be accidents."
The hubbub was winding down, though. The number of paying spectators had reached a ceiling of approximately 50,000, which wasn't enough to convince Birmingham City Council that this was a project worth pursuing.
Marriott: "Superprix brought a big increase in turnover for local businesses, but it wasn't making money as an event itself. It was losing the council money, and because it was an all-party initiative, it became a political issue."
There are other theories for Superprix's failure too. Michael Shepherd, now a writer for the ITV F1 team, was a junior member of the circuit commentary team. "Long before the Act of Parliament had even been granted, the Birmingham population had been fed the hype of a grand prix coming to their city," he asserts. "So F3000, full of names people didn't know, was an anti-climax.
"Russell Spence didn't help either. He deliberately put his foot on the brakes after his spin in the '87 event in order to get the race stopped. It worked. Central Television, who were covering the race live, were not impressed by the half hour wait before the restart They were persuaded back the following year, but by then the Superprix was sharing live coverage with an athletics meeting."
The 1990 event was another success. The BRSCC's race organisers had it running slicker than ever and even cynical journalists congratulated everyone involved in the project The council, unrewarded financially, remained unmoved. and in November put up the race for tender. There were no takers.
"One of the reasons CSS didn't bid," says Marriott, "is that we couldn't get proper answers from anyone about costs. It was such a shame. It was a really important event, and it would have been great if it had continued. It was too tight a course to have run F1, in my opinion, but even so, to have F3000s racing on Britain's streets was fantastic."
Arron concurs: "The pre-event comparisons between Monaco and Birmingham were ludicrous: I mean, the Monaco Grand Prix has a backdrop of beautiful yachts in a beautiful harbour; the other has a backdrop of tower blocks overlooking the A38. But the whole notion was an impressive one."
But the man you have to feel most sorry for is Hone, whose baby was snatched from him at birth. He could only watch helplessly as the foster parents grew increasingly resentful of it and then let it die.