Saturday, 25 June 2011

Big Business or Corner Shops

Following on (rather belatedly) from my last post, another of my ‘irrational’ beliefs I have long held (among many, but I guess life would be dull if we all followed the herd) is that car manufacturers are bad for motor racing. Yes CAR manufacturers, the people that churn out road cars by the million, and have a deep vested interest in high performance technology, and are the most relevant sponsors/investors in motorsport bar....not a lot! And look at all the motor sport programmes they have started over the years, producing many wonderful cars, like the Silk Cut Jaguars, the turbo Renault F1 cars, the Lancia Stratos, the DTM Alfa 155, Subaru Impreza, and on and on and on. None of these cars would have been produced without the involvement of their manufacturers, from concept to the much needed finance. So how on earth can it be a bad thing? Well if absolute power corrupts absolutely, then manufacturer power can ‘manufacture’ the excitement out of racing.

I take you to a shining exhibit of this, the BTCC. About 15 years ago, Super Touring was in the throes of conquering the world, and BTCC was in the vanguard. After the superlative title battle of 1992 (Soper/Cleland would probably merit a lot of OMG WOW LOAZ for the Twitter generation if it happened today!) and the early 1990’s adoption of Super Touring, the BTCC just exploded into a period of runaway growth, with foreign stars and over ten manufacturers, allied to masses of fans at the tracks and TV, with their fans entertained by full racing days, open paddocks and accessible drivers. I was one of them myself, three times having made the trip to Knockhill, and oh my goodness the full autograph books I came back with! Disparaging comments were made the excitement of a sterile Formula One compared to the BTCC, and the strength of Touring Cars seemed to have no end; there were even championships in the U.S., Australia, Asia and South Africa. At one point the German  were playing host to the insane, awesome  ‘old’ DTM and the STW for Super Touring, which was at about the level of the BTCC for a couple of years. There was even an excellent magazine set up around this time, exclusively to document the growth of Super Touring round the world, called, wait for it, Super Touring magazine! (And excellent it was too, does anyone remember it? Disappeared around 1997 if I recall?). At the time it seemed as if Super Touring would grow and grow and grow. If you’d told me then, that Super Touring Cars in 2011 would be limited to a declining two manufacturer world series, and isolated national level series in Britain, Scandinavia and South America, and the British series with NO manufacturers, I would have eaten my hat... What happened to stall the seemingly limitless growth and goodwill towards Super Touring? Simple, one word which I fear in motorsport – MANUFACTURERS!

There is a conceptual distinction which I feel is important. For my mind, the BTCC grid that has been on display this year, in fantastic races like the meeting at Croft last weekend, was vibrant, diverse and colourful. No manufacturer involvement, but I really didn’t care. Instead there have still been a wide variety of CARS, from a mix of teams, and a mix of old and new drivers. But instead of largely all of them being under the writ of car manufacturers, they were financed by an eclectic range of companies: (all now more visible in great looking HD, thank you ITV4!) Ebay Motors, Aon, Halfords, Dunlop, Airwaves...there were many (and that being a good thing because I always prefer more ‘freestyle’ livered series like NASCAR than series with rows of identikit ‘Noah and the Ark’ pairs of cars). So what is the difference between that and when manufacturers wrote the cheques? Well, I think large scale manufacturer involvement such as the BTCC has had to the point where they become reliant on it was ultimately destabilising to the series. Because there is a fundamental truth about manufacturers involvement in motorsport, that holds true for all series, no matter how rich nor grand. A manufacturer, lasting long in a series, is the exception not the rule, and for good reason. Manufacturers are different to most other types of sponsors. While the focus for say, ebay motors is to raise awareness (put your cheque in the post now you’ve had a mention on the blog guys!) or increasingly now, build ‘brand to brand’ relationships, it is different to manufacturers. Of course ebay motors want to be preferably emblazoned on the side of a winning BMW (indeed that would be usually one of the most exposed cars in the media) but it is not a bad reflection on the brand if they do not win, for it is very simple for the public to deduce ebay motors do not prepare and buy the car (now there’s an idea:!. Instead, they publicise their brand, make people interested, and increasingly in today’s world, do enough to make someone Google them, and the rest is up to how adept the company is. All good for them. But with a manufacturer, it is somewhat different. Even though in some cases it may not be of the most actual relevance (how does Toyota producing a race winning NASCAR full of antividean and largely standardised technology relate to their standing in their passenger car market?) on track performance is seen as relevant to a car manufacturers reputation, in the way it isn’t to a chewing gum company or a newspaper. I guess it’s like if there was a competition every year for who could build the most powerful super computer: the companies would have to entrust the building of them to specialist teams, and any innovations they made would take a long time and have little in common with mass market devices, but....if Sony, HP or Lenovo entered, it would be a big feather in their cap to win, and good for their image, in a way it wouldn’t be for Vanity Fair or Daves Cash and Carry. least the manufacturers who have success will be all happy and placated then? Of course not! For the manufacturers that win, for example Renault in Formula One, will find if this isn’t replicated on a consistent basis then the recognition of their technology by the public and the media will decline. It was a huge deal when Renault by immense efforts unseated Honda as the top engine dog in Formula One. It wasn’t when they were pulling off their seventh consecutive constructor’s title as powerplant to the winning car with weaker competition. The results based upside to being in motorsport will gradually decline over time, in parallel to those manufacturers who are becoming disenchanted and want out of the sport. And of course that is what happened to the poor old BTCC. Ford were successful with the Mondeo, Renault with the Laguna, Audi with the A4, Volvo with a series of cars. They got what they wanted...and left. Even doyen of the series Vauxhall has done the same, tired of racing themselves among manufacturer teams! But did the less successful manufacturers fill the wake they left? Not really. Look at some of the unsuccessful manufacturers who slipped away from BTCC over the years: Mazda, Peugeot, Toyota, the results didn’t come and they didn’t hang around long to see if they would. And why should they have, because their reputation would have been suffering in some way all the time? The same has happened in Formula One, with escalating costs, and not a chance for all the manufacturers to be successful. And I’m glad it has – I like personal, racing teams like Williams and Sauber, financed by sponsorship, not the dull and boring Toyota motor corporation doing not a lot. And look at the World Rally Championship, at the turn of the century cresting the wave of manufacturer involvement, and now in the worst of both worlds – during the recent barren years, thanks to only Citroen and Ford staying around, we had a situation where privateers could not win, but yet there were not a terrible lot of factory cars to choose from who would beat them in the final reckoning (with one particular brilliant driver taking the lions share, although that wasn’t the championships fault). I’ll explore this later in more detail, but....wouldn’t the WRC have been better banning manufacturer teams a while ago? I really really think they would!

Some people may see madness in what I say. But ultimately I want to see creative, dynamic, colourful, diverse and individualistic teams competing hard and fairly on the track, in series that has lots of cars, and a substantial number of them that can win. Ultimately, I put it to you all, I struggle to think of a single series where car manufacturer involvement has helped, or will help this, apart from sometimes creating little mini booms. If I was Alan Gow, when I wasn’t under verbal assault from Jason Plato and had some quiet time to think, I would be very proud of BTCC 2011, which fulfils these criteria and then some, and has just provided some wonderful racing and excitement at the fine racetracks we have in Britain. And if I were him that pride would lead me say to the car manufacturers if they are attracted by this spectacle: thanks, but no thanks.  In fact I would darn well introduce a rule outlawing manufacturer backed teams!  If the BTCC chooses the alternative, they may as well appoint Gordon Brown as the series boss. For the days of boom and painful bust, would be well and truly back.  Leave the car companies to their rightful place of buying banner ads on ebay, or arranging competition tie ins with Airwaves or Halfords. And let those boys do a proper job of financing some great, viable, exciting racing.