UK can stay in pole position

The row between Silverstone’s owners and Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone over the future of the British Grand Prix has its amusing aspects.

Public spats between outspoken figures such as Ecclestone and the great and the good of the establishment – in this case the British Racing Drivers’ Club – always do.

‘A gentlemen’s club that’s short of gentlemen’ and ‘they should berunning tennis’ are a few of Ecclestone’s choicer contributions to the debate.

But behind the commercial row over one annual sporting event – however lucrative – lurks a rather more serious issue. Motorsport technology is a £3bn industry in the UK, and those fighting to keep the British Grand Prix on the calendar have been quick to recruit it to their cause.

Lose our Grand Prix, the argument goes, and the motorsport industry will face a gradual but inexorable decline.

The centres of excellence that have grown up around key sites such as Silverstone and planned investment in new motorsport infrastructure would be under threat.

It is said, for example, that it would make no sense to haveF1 testing facilities in a nation where there is no Grand Prix. The Chinese, on the other hand, would be quite happy to oblige.

It is a powerful case, but a few points occur. It is a testament to the power of F1’s pre-eminence and Ecclestone’s power that the removal of one race has sparked talk of the collapse of an entire industry.

There is more to motorsport than Formula One. There are other racing competitions, rally and big overseas series such as those run in the US.

Motorsport is universally recognised as one area ofengineering technology in which the UK beats all comers. When Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai, for example, wanted a car built for his new A1 Grand Prix series, did he go to Germany or Japan? Of course not, he came here.

The loss of the flagship race would certainly be a blow to national pride and have a negative commercial impact. But the UK motorsport industry, built up over many years and consistently ahead of the game, would hopefully prove resilient.

In any event, it is strongly to be suspected that for all the flexing of muscles in the media, the showdown between Ecclestone and Silverstone will eventually be sorted out quietly behind the scenes.

Ecclestone is shrewd enough to see that the huge public interest in motor racing in this country and its multi-million pound commercial potential is not to be thrown away lightly.