January is a quiet time for Formula 1 writers. The regulars take a break and hibernate before March comes along and we start haring madly around the world. This leaves the field open for ambitious youngsters to fill the gaps. Good for them, we will one day need a new generation of proper, experienced F1 journalists.
Or maybe we won’t. The world is changing and perhaps what we think is doing it properly is not important any longer – and the future is video, emoticons and the neo-puritans of social media, tut-tutting and passing judgement. The problem for all F1 journalists in January is that the ground is barren. Nothing much is happening, except some activity in factories as teams build up their new cars, although this year things are rather less busy than usual as a lot of the structures in the cars will not be changing. This was deliberate, to help everyone save money. It is, therefore, a very sensible thing in the circumstances.
In the meantime, teams based in the UK are finding themselves involved in rather more form-filling than they are used to doing. This is the result of Britain’s exit from the European Union, otherwise known as Brexit (although in reality it should always of been called UKexit as it relates to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, although Northern Ireland joined Scotland in voting to remain in Europe but has been dragged out of the EU by the English and Welsh).
Ah well, it is what the people wanted (four years ago) and so if we believe in democracy we must let it play out, rather than trying to overthrow the government if we don’t get our way.
I have been form-filling as well because as a consequence of the UK sailing off alone into the North Sea, I have to establish some legal status in France, which means getting an identity card. This was unnecessary before as we were all European. Now we are not. I hate to think about all the work permits that the F1 teams must be applying for at the moment. I’m sure they will all be granted (eventually) but it makes freedom of movement and working abroad (in both directions) a much more complicated business. And I have no doubt that the carnets required to move racing equipment around will complicate matters as well.
This is not aiming to be a screed about the wisdom of the new situation, but rather a way to ask a pertinent question: Will any of this have any long-term impact on the UK motorsport industry? As we know – and are very proud of – Britain leads the world in F1. It used to lead the world in racing car manufacturing as well, but the days of March, Lola, Reynard and Ralt (and all the others) are gone. Today racing car chassis manufacturing – outside F1 – has moved to Italy, and specifically to Dallara. I know there are some series that use open-wheeler cars that are not built by Dallara, but I struggle to think of them at the moment. How did that happen when Britannia ruled the waves for so long?
I know it isn’t fashionable to learn from the lessons of history but I think it is worth considering why Britain leads the way in Grand Prix racing. It wasn’t always the case. Before the late 1950s Britain was utterly irrelevant in the sport – except in terms of land speed records. There was Brooklands but the big racing teams came from France, then Italy and then Germany. After the war it was back to the Italians again. The British industry took off for a number of reasons, the primary one being that the country had more race tracks – thanks to the many deserted wartime airfields – than other nations. And it had people who wanted to use them. There were young engineers who had been involved in fascinating engineering in the war years, who craved excitement and so began building racing cars. It was this human resource that was the key element of success, with the circuits providing venues and the success of the best cars creating the commercial opportunities that built the industry.
Maintaining the supply of bright young engineers is therefore the primary key to success. A knowledge cluster is powered by knowledge and ambition. In the old days when someone said “I can do better than that” they often set up a new business and went into competition with the existing companies. It is harder to do nowadays because people who say “I can do better than that” need to find a lot of money to embark on a new adventure and so the best and the brightest tend to join existing teams and use their brilliance to make these teams better.
Brilliant engineering thus still exists in the cluster but these days the ownership of the teams has really ceased to be British. We don’t really know who owns Williams but legally it is a US-entity (although this is probably a front for a British owner). Mercedes is a third-owned by a Monaco-based Brit. McLaren is owned by Arabs and Americans. Aston Martin is owned by a Canadian. Renault is owned by France. Red Bull and Toro Rosso are owned by an Austrian. Alfa Romeo Racing is (currently) owned by a Swede. Ferrari is Ferrari. And Haas is owned by an American. Those based in the UK are there because that is where the good people are and where there is infrastructure to support the business.
Europeans wanting to study on advanced motorsport courses have long been coming to Britain to learn at places like Cranfield, which have fed engineers into the F1 system for decades, but the news that Britain has suspended its involvement with the Erasmus student exchange programme means that life will become much more difficult for foreigners wanting to study in Britain in the future. The UK’s Turing scheme which is intended to fill the gap will support British students overseas – but, as far as I understand it, not vice versa.
Will the best engineering students still head for Britain when the paperwork and funding are difficult and there are other easier alternatives? The Motor Vehicle University of Emilia-Romagna (known as MUNER) offers similar Master’s courses to Cranfield – and the courses are taught in English. The Racing Car Design course is being held at the Dallara Academy. The programme is supported by the Emilia-Romagna Region, which is busy promoting its “Motor Valley” in competition to Britain’s so-called “Motorsport Valley”. Will the Italians ultimately lure away the best and brightest youngsters to learn there and then to work there? It should not be excluded as a possibility. Things change if industries are not supported or nurtured correctly. One only needs to look at the history of British shipbuilding to see that. And there are similar fears about the car industry as well.
Anyway, I am not saying it is going to happen, but I think it is reasonable to fear that it might.
Elsewhere F1 has little other news of note. An Italian has been put in charge at Enstone. The organisations are so big these days that it is sometimes difficult to say who runs what but, in principle, the 10 F1 teams are now being run by three Italians (Ferrari, Renault and Haas), two Germans (Williams and McLaren), two Austrians (Mercedes and Toro Rosso), an American (Aston Martin), a Frenchman (Alfa Romeo) and one Briton, Christian Horner. The commercial side of the sport is headed by an Italian…
In other news, we have already had the first race postponements thanks to the pandemic and that has led to lots of speculation that others will follow. Perhaps they will. Race promoters don’t want to postpone or cancel, but they have to obey their governments and if one looks at what is happening with the Australian Open tennis tournament, it is probably best not to try to push the envelope when ultimately sport doesn’t much matter. Yes, it is a business and, yes, it cheers people up and provides interest, but if it spreads the disease, or creates the wrong impressions about how things should be done, then it is best avoided. The impression one gets from the tennis situation is that the sport is filled with whining brats (whether they are or not) and that is not a good look for any sport.
It alarms me slightly that no fewer than five F1 drivers have tested positive for COVID-19, despite all the protocols. Percentage-wise this is absurdly out of kilter with the world. That is 25 percent of the field. Why is that number so high? I am pretty sure that 25 percent of the F1 circus as a whole has not tested positive, so you cannot easily blame it on the lifestyle… otherwise we’d all be more at risk than we think we are. In any case, what the sport does not need is the kind of negative publicity that tennis has thrown itself headlong into.
I am sure that in a few weeks, when the financial results of F1 in 2020 are published, there will be a flurry of stories about how the sport is finished and how it cannot survive on half the prize money that it used to have. But it will survive. It will change in order to survive. It will perhaps rid itself of such daft habits as the motorhomes and other such things, which are very nice but are simply a way to burn money. It will become leaner and more efficient.
The “I can do better than that” approach still exists… but whether that is always going to be in Britain is another question.