Hitting the skids?

Warnings that the UK F1 sector is losing its competitive edge spark recommendations to improve the UK’s motorsport industry

The UK motorsport industry has long been a source of justified pride for the nation’s engineering sector. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, as our roads filled up with foreign car marques and the idea of a UK-owned automotive industry faded into memory, motorsport was the shining exception, and nowhere more so than in the high-octane, glamorous and — above all — rich world of Formula One (F1).

Many of F1’s biggest teams and suppliers are based here and the sport has become an icon for ‘the best of British innovation’ at a time when many such obvious symbols of success are hard to find.

In this light, a new report from Prof Rick Delbridge of Cardiff Business School makes for uncomfortable reading. In a study for the Advanced Institute of Management, Delbridge warns that the innovative edge is coming off the UK F1 sector due to a combination of changes within the sport itself and our old friend the credit crunch.

The trend in F1 over recent years has been towards regulations that attempt to firmly re-establish the sport in the global consciousness as a contest between drivers and their teams rather than teams and their engineers. The sport’s overlords have, for understandable reasons, been anxious to avoid viewers switching off by the million in the belief that the outcomes of races are pre-determined before the season even begins depending on who has the biggest R&D budget and most talented engineering staff.

Limits on the areas in which technical development is permitted, combined with general pressures on costs, are in danger of stifling F1’s culture of innovation, according to Delbridge’s report.

This would indeed be bad news, particularly as one of the greatest virtues of the motorsport industry is its ability to generate spin-off innovations that are taken up and exploited by other sectors.

This is an issue that is likely to loom larger in the coming years, especially if the sport’s governing body presses ahead with plans to introduce a £40m cap on what teams can spend. This raises the prospect of an F1 engineering sector with a far narrower technical focus and less ability to take a chance on innovation.

Happily, there are also signs that the sector is well placed to adapt to changes within the sport and continue looking at commercial opportunities beyond its boundaries.

In the last issue of The Engineer, we highlighted the case of an F1 subcontractor that has successfully diversified into innovative wheelchair design and now has a substantial order book in the US. There are many other such stories. One of the features of innovators is their ability to cope with altered circumstances and still, sometimes against all the odds, do what they do best.

That is one of the great traditions of UK engineering, and there is good reason to be optimistic that the motorsport sector will prove resilient. There is certainly no room for complacency, however, and Delbridge’s report makes some important recommendations to policy-makers that deserve attention. Not least of these is the need to encourage cross-sector relationships between motorsport and other industries where there is a potential mutual advantage. As so often, collaboration is vital to giving innovation the room it needs to thrive.

Andrew Lee, Editor