News Button
Features Button
Column and Blogs Column Button
Archive Button

Looking back to 2007 and forward to 2008

2007 must be looked upon as a good one for British motorsport. A British based manufacturer didn’t win the Formula One World Championship, with Renault losing that title to Ferrari. But what was very important was that Lewis Hamilton and the performances he gave both on and off the track once again took motorsport onto the news pages, and for the right reasons. He was exciting people.

Motorsport has always struggled to be truly accepted as being of newsworthy importance. Yes, a scandal arises and everybody is looking at it. But generally performances by motor sporting stars have been somewhat overshadowed by the euphoria which seems to revolve around some of the traditional sports persons who need only produce mediocre performances to get headlines, but they are soon shown up when they get onto the world stage. Also, we see so many other sports persons who set themselves up, or are set up by the media, as role models. Role models for what sort of society I would ask. Certainly Lewis’s performance off the track has more than stated the case for motorsport to be taken greater notice of relative to the type of products it produces. Not only in respect of the engineering technology that is so valuable to this country, as well as in the fight against the problems that are now facing the world, but also from the point of view that it does generally need to develop balanced people. Such people are not only competitive and at the peak of fitness, as has been shown in many of the competitions which have been held comparing various sports, but also need a high degree of intelligence.

Motorsport, which is so often ignored by the Goovernment and media, as I have already said, is a sport which has an end product. It has a turnover of approximately £6 billion of which over 50% is exports. The most important thing is it places the centre of technology very much in this country. Yes, Ferrari won the World Championship but you wouldn’t necessarily say they were the world leaders in technology.

So in this year of 2008 I am certainly going to continue to push as much as I can in order to give people more of an opportunity of getting onto the British motorsport ladder.

We hear lots about what is going to be, and has been, introduced in respect of occupational training providing youngsters, who perhaps don’t want to go off to University, with a trade and also training for sporting activities centring on the traditional sports. For some reason motorsport is not looked upon as a traditional sport, despite the fact that we have been a world leader on 2 and 4 wheels for much of the period the internal combustion engine has existed. The fact is that if you put money into introducing youngsters to motorsport there are a whole host of activities other than just driving that they can find an exciting career in. Yes, you can take a youngster at 6, but preferably age 8, and put them in a kart and it will do nothing for them. But there will also be those youngsters who will come along and get emotionally involved and perhaps then like to tinker with spanners and screwdrivers. Or in turn look at the data which has been created by the system whilst they were driving which analyses when they braked, put the power on etc. All very useful training and something which prepares them for higher education in the many areas that are now being developed within motorsport just for that. So certainly I believe there is a case for the Government to think very hard about where it puts its money and also value for money.

We have an industry which is thriving at the present time, but it is facing major challenges and will need feeding with young talent. We need to go out and make the most of the opportunity and give youngsters from the community the option to get involved in the motorsport industry. Perhaps there will be another Lewis Hamilton emerging or another Ross Brawn or Adrian Newey.

I have been extremely pleased by the success of Lewis Hamilton this past season. When my son started karting at 8 years of age, Lewis was just 14, and so we became aware of his performances as he was one of the up and coming young drivers. But of course there were a number of other people who were developing. He was not necessarily the only one who was standing out and showing ability. The fact that he has come through and demonstrated it in such remarkable fashion is to be applauded. But although I have heard many things said by people who have suddenly become aware of the fact that there are young people out there in Britain capable of competing at the very highest level, I still don’t hear many of them addressing the fact that, yes Lewis has made it but the only reasons he has made it are (i) he has the ability and personal drive, (ii) his father is very focused and supportive, and (iii) he has also had the opportunity of sitting in very competitive cars. That of course can make an awful lot of difference.

Who knows where Lewis would be had McLaren and Mercedes not funded and guided his career. I know at times, from first hand experience by talking to his father, that it hasn’t been an easy ride and there have been many uncertainties along the route. But at the same time there was a degree of security from having the support of Ron Dennis which meant there were no half measures in respect to the quality of the people he worked and drove with. But how do we address this for other people who have ability? I believe Formula One takes too much out of motorsport and puts too little in. It takes for granted the fact that there are karting programmes and junior formulas which are developing the material that they in turn will pick up. Just imagine how much money Lewis Hamilton will have saved Ron Dennis. He will have more than repaid in one year the investment made in him.

It would be rather nice to see some form of, and I hate to use the word, tax or levy being put on Formula One teams, and perhaps drivers on their prize money, so that it could be fed into a programme which supported some of the junior formula participants. Perhaps we could start by having a single British karting championship with prizes being centred around helping the successful participants to continue and progress their career. The senior class award could be the chance to make the transition to cars, with a similar opportunity within selected junior formula for drivers to win scholarships or sponsored drives right through to GP2 and possibly a Formula One test or test driving role. Certainly we need to try and close ranks within the motorsport industry and to try and look after our own a little more and also widen our ability to find talent and make sure that it is not lost because of an inability to raise the sums that are required even in the junior formulas, with virtually all of them needing six figures. Mind you, I have heard of karting programmes that have cost that sort of money where the means have been available.

What would be ideal would be to have a partnership where Formula One and Government join forces to safeguard and develop the British motorsport industry and the sport itself. In so doing we can ensure that we give more youngsters the opportunity to be involved and for those with ability, whether it be driving or technology based, to progress their careers.

John Surtees
8 January 2008