British Motorsport under the cosh

As we went to press, British Motorsport was facing a three-way state of emergency:

Silverstone was threatened with the removal of its 2002 grand prix to Paul Ricard in France. Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship was being reviewed following an accident involving spectators and a competing car. And our latest world champion was embroiled in a contractual wrangle that could force him onto the sidelines for 2002.

All of the above might have been resolved by the time you read this — gridlocked Silverstone’s fate was to be confirmed when the FIA World Council met in Monaco on December 14 — but there are longer-term ramifications.

Being at the hub of global motorsport has its attendant problems. Our events have to be whiter than white, better than the best It’s vital we don’t become complacent For though motorsport would not be where it is today without us, that needn’t mean it will always lean on us so heavily. Minardi’s recent Malaysian deal shows how developing countries are hungry for some of motorsport’s cake.

And although power-broken Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley are British, that doesn’t mean they will automatically favour us. If anything, political niceties force them to be tougher on Britain than on other countries. And although Formula One teams like Williams are, to us, intrinsically British, to the rest of the world they are a global product, a position their brand managers promote and exploit.

Television is strengthening the sport’s financial clout — and weakening our grip on the sport.

TV changes everything. A modem world rally, with its squeaky-clean centralised service halts and tight-knit routes, are alien to anyone who spent five days charging along country lanes in England, Scotland and Wales in an attempt to keep up with an RAC Rally of the early 1980s. Trouble is, we can reminisce about the past, but we cannot live in it.

Plain and simple, rallying must get itself on the gogglebox if it’s to flourish. And its new deal with Channel 4 (an hour’s coverage each night of each event) will achieve that. And that’s why Subaru don’t want ‘their’ world champions Richard Bums and (co-driver) Robert Reid parading in front of the cameras dressed baseball cap to boots in Peugeot togs. It’s also why the series organisers, more than ever, don’t want cars flying into crowds, which is exactly what Carlos Sainz’s Ford did on Rally GB.

Coverage can be double edged. Especially when the stakes are so high. Manufacturers (of which few can be British!) and their millions are flooding in, making noises about running their own Formula One series in the post-Ecclestone era. They still, in general, rely on British expertise and our flexible working hours, but the mix is becoming increasingly international, increasingly homogenised.

It’s evolutionary rather than revolutionary, though. British motorsport, we are sure, will emerge from the other end changed, but stronger for it. Which is vital because, as the BTCC has shown, as WRC will surely confirm, manufacturers come and go. For their motivation is driven by screen-tin-re and market share — not by a love of the sport. While their VIPs are helicoptered into Silverstone, it’s the grassroot fans who are stuck in traffic. The same fans who attend club meetings at Mallory. The same club meetings that nurture the next generation of drivers, designers, mechanics, etc.

On such foundations are empires built.

Paul Fearnley