Matters of Moment: August 2018

"He would say that, wouldn’t he?”

This was the obvious response to Jonathan Palmer’s assertion that UK motor sport was in rude health and on a sound financial footing when asked about it at this magazine’s Hall of Fame awards ceremony in June. Palmer, of course, is the man behind MotorSport Vision, the operator of no fewer than six UK circuits and several championships. It is therefore entirely in the boss’s interest to talk up the strength of the UK racing scene and say unequivocally: “We certainly have the best motor sport in the world, and the healthiest motor racing circuits in the world.”

But that doesn’t make it wrong.

Palmer’s award was entitled ‘Industry Champion Award’, and there is no arguing that he deserved to be recognised. His passion, drive and entrepreneurial nous is exactly what the industry fosters up and down the land. We look forward to seeing the results of his work with Donington Park – the latest circuit to come under the MSV banner.

But Palmer is hardly alone in supporting UK motor racing circuits, against what can sometimes be strong headwinds. Thruxton in Hampshire doesn’t have the benefit of being part of a large organisation, but last month celebrated its 50th anniversary and the opening of a new visitor centre that will hopefully help attract paying customers to the track and thereby secure its future. The event featured a variety of machinery out on track, from Minis to Chevrolet Camaros via a Williams FW08, and was attended by a host of stars including Nigel Mansell and Murray Walker, underlining the affection in which the circuit is still held.

Amid the clatter and clang of the (excellent) VIP lunch it would have been easy to miss Henry Pelham, the freeholder of the land on which Thruxton sits (and shares with an active airfield). Now 82, Pelham is one of the unsung heroes of British motor sport, having bought the site in 1959 and remained a benevolent landlord to those who’ve raced here before and since the track opened in its present form in 1968. Despite motor sport not being his first passion (that is reserved for aeroplanes), Pelham was clearly moved at the celebrations taking place around him as the roar of racing saloons reverberated all around.

Pelham’s support has ensured Thruxton’s survival as a modern venue in much the same way as another great patron of racing saved Mondello Park – the Republic of Ireland’s only permanent racing circuit. Martin Birrane (below), who has sadly died aged 82, bought the circuit in 1986 at a time when it – like many circuits at the time – required someone with the vision and drive to make it a viable destination. Birrane had both and it wasn’t just circuits that benefited: in 1997 he stepped in to rescue struggling racing car constructor Lola, giving the firm a fresh lease of life. Although it eventually ceased manufacture in 2012, the Lola Group continued under his direction and still operates one of Europe’s most sophisticated wind tunnel programmes.

Lola celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and Mondello its 50th; at the time of his passing Martin was working hard on commemorative projects for both.

Men like Jonathan Palmer are following in an honourable tradition.

MOTOR SPORT HAS always been a brutal business when it comes to competition and is likewise cut-throat in its dealings with people, but I can’t help thinking that Citroën’s treatment of Kris Meeke stands apart.

Put simply, the WRC team’s crassly worded statement, about why it was firing Meeke, was unbecoming of a world championship-winning rally team and reads more like a first draft written in anger which should subsequently have been tossed in the bin to make way for a more measured tone: “Due to an excessively high number of crashes, some of which were particularly heavy and could have had serious consequences with regard to the crew’s safety, and given that the risks involved were unjustified by the sporting stakes at play, Citroën Racing WRT has decided to terminate the participation of Kris Meeke and Paul Nagle in the 2018 WRC.”

That’s called putting the boot in.

Still, it could be worse. As an ex-newspaper man, I well recall the tale of an editor who wrote to his failing horoscope columnist informing him he was fired. He began with the words: “As you will already know...”

INVITATION OF THE month is to join computer gamers in a vast esports competition later this month. “Formula 1®, the pinnacle of motor sport, today confirmed the 40 online racers who have qualified for the next stage of the F1 Esports Series,” it explained. “Representatives from the nine F1 teams participating will select which drivers will join their own esports teams and compete as a professional in the latter part of the season.” It’s easy to scoff but, as the press release makes clear, 66,000 players competed in the qualifying rounds. And guess which country boasted the most players? That’s right, Britain. Leading the way in motor sport once again.