Brands Hatch thrived under racing’s great promoter, John Webb. He talks to Simon Taylor
John Webb was one of the great motorsport visionaries. For 25 years, from 1964 to ’89, he ruled Brands Hatch, grew the circuit into the most successful in the country, and went on to add Mallory Park, Snetterton and OuIton Park to his portfolio. He was determinedly commercial, consistently creative and frequently controversial. But he was always driven by a genuine enthusiasm for the sport and a clear understanding of what made it tick.
Webb’s first contact with Brands was via his PR company. When he picked up the Kent circuit’s account it was his introduction to motor racing. He competed for a while, scoring some wins in a Jensen 541.
Now based in Spain, Webb recalls: “One day in 1961 the Brands managing director, John Hall, rang me up. He had about 55 shareholders and they all hated each other. He wanted me to find someone to take it over.” John found a property and investment company, Grovewood Securities, which was keen to diversify. Grovewood bought Brands Hatch for a bargain £112,000 and soon Webb was working there full time. Grovewood, pleased with its purchase, told him to look for more properties. In 1962 Reg Parnell tipped him off that Mallory Park could be bought, and it joined the Grovewood stable for £150,000. Later the same year Snetterton followed, for a mere £35,000. In ’64 Webb bid £150,000 for Oulton Park, and eventually that too was accepted. By now he had replaced Hall as managing director.
And he had big ideas: “The RAC owned the sanctioning rights for the British Grand Prix. I found out Silverstone didn’t pay them anything for running the race and Aintree was losing money on it. So I offered the RAC £5000 a year for five years, and from 1964 we took turns with Silverstone to run the race.
“With four circuits we had over 50 per cent of all motorsport in the UK and had the ability to make things happen. We could promote new championships and create new formulae.”
The first of these was Formula Ford in 1967: “There wasn’t much single-seater racing back then and I wanted to make it affordable for youngsters. I dreamed it up and then went to Ford to get their approval, because I wanted credibility — they gave us 50 engines. But it wasn’t like the BMW and Renault formulae today — it wasn’t controlled by the manufacturer. I think over 10,000 Formula Ford chassis have been built up to now.
“We tried a sportscar variant, Formula F100, and Sports 2000, and there was Formula Atlantic — our version of American Formula B. Then we did Formula 5000: that was my personal idea.” With drivers like Peter Gethin, Mike Hailwood, David Hobbs and Frank Gardner, the big, fast, noisy V8 single-seaters provided sensational racing at much less than Formula One cost.
Webb showed he could make money out of club meetings too: “We got the attendances at ordinary clubbies up from around 1000 to an average of 5000, and when we tried gimmicks, like the events backed by Radio London, we got up to 20,000. Another time we gave away free tickets via The Sun and still made a profit on stand seats and catering.” There were lots more ideas, such as the Grovewood Awards, the first scheme to identify and offer finance to star drivers of the future.
“We built up a good team. In 1972 I advertised in Autosport for a PA. A girl called Angela answered the ad. She loved motor racing — she’d been crawling under the fence at Brands for years — and she got the job. I married her a year later, and 32 years on we’re still together.”
Brands featured F1 every season with the Race of Champions, as well as the British GP every other year from 1964-86, and the European GP in 1983 and ’85: “My relationship with Bernie (Ecclestone) was always very good — we never had anything in writing — but he was a different Bernie then.”
Then a rumour did the rounds that Grovewood, now owned by Eagle Star, was going to sell Brands for housing or a supermarket: “It was nonsense. Grovewood didn’t understand motor racing, but it gave me all the freedom I needed to run things my way. But I felt motor racing should own motor racing. So I went to the BARC (which owned Thruxton), the BRDC (Silverstone) and the BRSCC and suggested we worked together. The BARC and the BRSCC were all for it, but the BRDC blocked it and went behind my back to Grovewood and tried to buy my circuits. Grovewood told them to get lost, but that was the end of that idea.
“Then I made a proposition to Bernie and to computer tycoon John Foulston, suggesting they bought the circuits fifty-fifty. But John and Bernie couldn’t get on, so John bought the property 100 per cent and took 80 per cent of the operational companies, leaving Angela and me with 20 per cent. A lot of people didn’t get on with John because he had a big ego, but from my point of view he was superb. But in September 1987 he was killed testing at Silverstone. His widow Mary was chairman for a while, but then the daughter, Nicola, took over. We sold our 20 per cent, retired to Spain and watched from a distance as everything we’d built up was dismantled. We’d built up an excellent team of people, but one by one she fired them all.”
These days the circuits — now including Cadwell Park but minus Mallory Park — are with Jonathan Palmer’s MotorSport Vision group, which Webb welcomes as the start of a new era: “He’s an entrepreneur, as I like to think I was. What I enjoyed was making things happen that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. If you own a racing circuit you’re like a theatre owner. Angela inaugurated air displays — the Red Arrows, the Harrier jump jet, Concorde coming over low. Circuits didn’t do that before us. You have to put on a show which people will want to see.
“For the F1 dates, having Nigel Mansell or James Hunt on the programme didn’t make a scrap of difference. Having the works Ferraris was much more important.
“For club meetings you needed Tony Lanfranchi, Gerry Marshall and Nick Whiting — at least two of them — fighting it out. And good female drivers always got a lot of columns in the general media, which was why we helped Desiré Wilson and Divina Galica. We ran an F1 Surtees for Divina: we bought it from John Surtees for £9000 at the start of the year, did a dozen Brit races and sold it at the end of the year for £7000. Divina even took the 3-litre British Land Speed Record with it. It was possible then to dream up things like that.”
What about racing today? “I don’t think a commercial promoter stands much chance of making a profit out of a grand prix nowadays — I wouldn’t risk my money on it. And what appals me about amateur racing today is that the costs have been pushed up because every class and every series has its own administration and organisation, many with salaried officers — and they still can’t muster full grids. I always felt it was important that circuits did it themselves — if you let someone else do any of it there’s a danger they will turn out to be amateurs.
“In my day, if there was a problem we didn’t wait for a meeting of the Circuit Owners’ Association: I would sit down with Jimmy Brown (Silverstone), Sid Offord (Thruxton) and Tom Wheatcroft (Donington) and we would thrash it out. Now racing has got more commercial across the board. People have commercial loyalties to protect and friendships have become difficult. But Jonathan Palmer understands. He’ll make it work, no question.”