Business

The driving force of British motorsport

John Cobb competes at Brooklands racetrack in 1937 (l) and rally car
Image caption The UK has been at the cutting edge of motor racing for decades

Alongside a drab retail park in an industrial wasteland, twenty miles to the south of London, lies a piece of sporting history.

At first glance, it does not look too impressive - a crumbling expanse of overgrown concrete, sloping gently up from the ground.

Yet venture a little further and things start to look different.

The concrete begins to form a majestic, curved avenue through woodland. The slope becomes steeper, more intimidating, and treacherous to walk on.

This is what remains of Brooklands, the first purpose-built motor racing circuit anywhere in the world, and the birthplace of the British motorsport industry.

In its heyday, in the 1920s and 1930s, crowds would flock here in their thousands to see the heroes of the age do battle in primitive but powerful machines - hurtling round the steep- banked turns at speeds of well over 100 miles per hour.

Thriving

After World War II, the track fell silent. Today, it exists only as a faded monument to the ghosts of the past. Yet motorsport in Britain has gone from strength to strength.

Top of the tree is Formula One. Eight of the 12 teams currently competing in F1 are based in Britain.

But they are simply the most visible parts of what has become a thriving industry.

At its heart is an area nicknamed "Motorsport Valley", a swathe of southern England that is home to more than 4,000 high performance engineering businesses, many of which owe their very existence to motor racing.

Image caption There are few signs of Brooklands' former glamour

"It's a cluster of highly profitable, export driven, advanced engineering companies", says Chris Aylett, chief executive of the Motorsport Industry Association.

"Our sales are worth around $13bn (£9bn) - and about 70% of them are exported.

"But just as importantly, about a third of our profits are reinvested in research and development".

'Long history'

The mainstream motor industry in Britain has declined to the point where the country is little more than a manufacturing outpost for foreign brands.

Yet the motorsport industry, while smaller, is a global leader in its own right.

"This couldn't happen anywhere else in Europe, not in America, not in Japan" says David Richards, boss of the racing firm Prodrive and chairman of Aston Martin.

"This country has a depth of expertise which you simply can't find elsewhere, and it's rooted in our long history of motorsport".

But motorsport businesses can also be vulnerable.

At the top of the food chain, racing teams rely heavily on commercial sponsorship and support from motor manufacturers.

The past two years have shown that if the economy goes into reverse, then funding can dry up, forcing teams, and in some cases entire championships, to close down.

One recent victim was the A1 Grand Prix series. Launched in 2005 as a "World Cup of Motorsport", it collapsed last year with debts of more than $50m.

Adapt to survive

The effects of the downturn have been felt throughout the industry, hurting suppliers and prompting many firms to rethink the way they go about their business.

Among them is Cosworth, which made its name providing the engines that powered generations of Formula One champions, from Jim Clark to Michael Schumacher.

Two years ago, it was staring into the financial abyss, after losing a number of important contracts. It survived by moving into new markets, such as defence aerospace and clean energy technology.

"We took a long, hard look at what we did, what we applied to the job of building racing engines", says the company's chief executive Tim Routsis.

"Then we looked at adjacent markets and said, 'where have people got problems that our resources, our knowledge and our skills are capable of solving?'

"It took about 18 months, but now Cosworth is in a much stronger position than it's been in for a number of years."

Deflecting criticism

Another challenge which the motorsports industry faces is the ever-growing threat from the environmental lobby.

The popular image of motor racing as a glorified playground, in which expensive fuel is burnt with wild abandon, does not go down well in an era when climate change is moving ever higher up the political agenda.

Image caption Firms such as Flybrid Systems develop extremely specialist technology

Yet those within the sport argue that this image is entirely false.

"The key thing about racing is it's all about efficiency", says Jon Hilton of Flybrid Systems, a firm based just outside the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit.

"It's about making the car go as fast as you can with the energy that's available. And in order to do that we are constantly trying to improve the efficiency of the car.

"If you take those same measures and apply them to a road car, you will use less fuel."

His company is developing a mechanism to do just that.

Called a kinetic energy recovery system, it stores energy that would normally be wasted when a car uses its brakes, before releasing it under acceleration.

The device uses technology developed for Formula One, but it will soon be fitted to road cars, to improve both performance and fuel mileage.

People within the sport hope that developments like this will help it to deflect criticisms that it is environmentally irresponsible.

Indeed, many racing series are actively embracing the opportunity to develop green technologies, by encouraging the use of alternative fuels and hybrid systems.

There's no question that the motor sport industry in Britain is powerful, nor that the austere economic climate and political drive to combat climate change do threaten its future.

But the businesses of Motorsport Valley seem confident that they can confront those challenges, using the same competitive spirit and willingness to innovate that drove the sport's pioneers at Brooklands, 100 years ago.

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