Matters of moment, June 2015

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‘Greatest show on earth’, we proclaim on the cover. I’ll admit to a little hyperbole, but judging by the mood of the moment I suspect most of you will forgive such enthusiasm for the World Endurance Championship and its Le Mans centrepiece, which we look forward to this month with obvious relish.

The Silverstone 6 Hours season-opener sprang into action just a few hours after the Chinese Grand Prix ended in Shanghai, and comparison was inevitable in the wake of one offering a thriller and the other a deflating stalemate. Deservedly, sports car racing soaked up the rays of praise that beamed down in the days that followed.

Our own Andrew Frankel was quick out of the blocks on the Motor Sport website, his opinion piece garnering a hearty thumbs-up for WEC and a raspberry for Formula 1 from the majority who took the trouble to respond. These are difficult times for Grand Prix racing, and the contrast to its buoyant long-distance cousin couldn’t be starker. When Red Bull’s own website then ran an article rubbing salt in the wound, the internet hummed with mischievous speculation: following Dietrich Mateschitz’s repeated threats to quit Formula 1, was there a bigger agenda at play?

Of greater significance to me was a message from a man who graced both F1 and sports cars in a previous, simpler age. Vic Elford, one of motor sport’s greatest all-rounders, doesn’t tend to waste time getting to the point and was moved to put forth a few acute observations from his home in Florida.

“Just had the luxury of watching F1 China, WEC Silverstone and Indycars New Orleans on the same day,” his email began. “F1 was OK, but pretty much predictable. Slightly more exciting than watching paint dry.

“Indycars… there is only one word for that race: what an absolute JOKE!

“But WEC…Wow.

“Forty years ago we had to look after the car in order to finish long-distance races. Now the cars are so bullet-proof they have to be driven flat out the whole way, and what racing it gives!

“What is really exciting from the spectator’s point of view is the fact that Audi, Porsche and Toyota all arrive at their 1000-plus horsepower by totally different routes. Fabulous.

“Makes me wish I was 50 years younger!”

‘Quick’ Vic Elford in a Porsche 919? Now there’s an idea.

Ahead of Britain’s General Election on May 7, what effect could a new government have on the world of motor sport? The question was posed by Motorsport Industry Association chief executive Chris Aylett. And Chris being Chris, he offered to answer it too…

Now, you don’t care who I vote for, nor I you. But putting aside personal political inclinations, Aylett’s observations as a seasoned lobbyist of parliament on behalf of motor racing interests warrant note.

“The business of motor sport struggled [in the UK] until 2010, with a negative relationship with government that dated back to Bernie Ecclestone and the £1 million ‘bung’ to the Labour Party before they came to power in 1997,” he begins. It’s a point worth repeating, particularly in reference to Silverstone’s troubles to maintain the British Grand Prix, that Tony Blair’s first crisis as PM left a stain on motor racing that made it untouchable in the eyes of most MPs and civil servants, following insinuations that Ecclestone’s donation was in fact a bribe to prolong F1’s tobacco advertising habit. “The damage it must have done to the industry is inestimable,” says Aylett. “It was a tough period for the sport to be tarred by that case.

“When the new coalition government came in the civil servants were still cautious. In essence, it is for these reasons that the MIA exists, to lobby government on motor sport’s behalf. Thankfully, this government did get on the case and did understand the industry. It has helped us prosper and we have had five years of growth. Employment, turnover, investment and expansion into new markets such as defence have all gone up in the motor sport industry. Now we want five more years of the same from the next government – whoever it might be.”

He says modern motor racing’s conscious move to fall in line with the wider automotive industry, particularly in this era of hybrids, helped its cause in Westminster. “This government was a good partner. They listened to the industry and incorporated our strengths as we hitched our wagon to the automotive sector, if you like – and our biggest calling card was our R&D on energy efficiency.”

Aylett champions one policy in particular. “Take tax credits for R&D – that has changed the face of motor sport,” he says. “Most of the turnover in motor sport companies is spent on R&D, because they don’t actually produce very much [in terms of volume]. Everything they make goes back into R&D, and therefore those tax credits have been worth hundreds of millions of pounds to motor sport. Every British F1 team relies on them. The system wasn’t designed for us, but we have been a great beneficiary.”

F1 does a good job of appearing detached from reality. Turns out the truth behind the gloss means it’s anything but.

At the age of 81, John Surtees is embarking on a new business venture. Throttle hand pinned back, right foot flat to the floor – pick your cliché.

He never has understood what it means to slow down.

The 1964 F1 world champion has owned the freehold of Kent kart circuit Buckmore Park for some time, but now he’s stepped his interest up a gear by purchasing the business and assets of the operating company. Bill Sisley, a man who for decades has played a pivotal role in karting, not to mention the careers of such as Johnny Herbert, will retain a consultancy role.

I had to ask John: why?

“This isn’t about finding racing drivers,” he stresses. “Although if Buckmore happens to encourage talent, that’s fine too. We’ll keep developing the services it already provides, for six-year-olds to the corporates. But Buckmore also has a part to play in education. Environments are very important to youngsters. They need to be emotionally engaged with something to learn, and motor sport has that power. There are so many trades and professions in motor sport and we want to develop programmes as a way into engineering. We’re talking to colleges in Kent, and others such as Oxford Brookes with whom I have a close relationship.

“There will be no changes to the name,” he adds, “but there will be some subtle changes to the place. Also, I planned an extension some years ago and I’ll be looking at that, too. Talks started back in 2005 when we rebuilt the clubhouse – although it’s a different motivation since Henry died.”

And there we have it. As with everything he does these days, the memory of his late son – whom he lost so cruelly at Brands Hatch in 2009 – is at the heart of this man’s incredible energy. Most of us would have folded – and initially so did John.

What makes him stand apart is how he got back up again.