Was the need for speed the first seed in Motorsport Valley?

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LAST week former motorsport boss Max Mosley was widely reported as saying Bicester was at the heart of Motorsport Valley.

With two fledgling F1 interests in Bicester, Virgin and now Torro Rosso, the Advertiser would not deny the town’s motorsport credentials, especially with the next generation of motorsport engineers being incubated at the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College in Telford Road. Quite rightly the former Fédération Internationale d’lAutobile president highlights the availability of Oxford Brookes physics graduates like himself, and the founding of his F1 team March Engineering in 1969

James Hunt in the Hesketh 308; courtesy of James Beckett

James Hunt in the Hesketh 308; courtesy of James Beckett

But the hour long documentary by BBC Radio Oxfordshire blurred the Northants county boundary when speaking to Ross Brawn and Nick Fry at Brackley based Mercedes and down played the importance of the formation of the British Racing Driver’s Club – BRDC – and the Silverstone circuit.

Indeed March co-founder Robin Herd lived in Blisworth, near Towcester.

The BRDC bought the former second world war aerodrome from the Ministry of Defence in 1952. The group of London aristocrats were important players in motorsport from the 1920s arranging races and supporting young drivers having raced their much loved Bentleys to victory at Le Mans.

No one can tell me why the BRDC chose Silverstone, but it is only a few hours drive from the Kensington homes of the BRDC founders. And the high technology firms based between Oxford and Cambridge Universities certainly made north Oxon, Bucks and south Northants a fertile ground for motorsport.

But there are cultural factors which might also have fertilised motorsport valley.

Towcester historians have records of Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh, 7th Baronet importing the first modern motorbike from France to the Easton Neston estate at the turn of the century. His grandson went on to create the Formula One team, which gave James Hunt his first victory, and a motorbike manufacturer.

The Hesketh’s family obsession with speed was followed by an automotive cottage industry in Towcester. The Towcester and District history society have a 1905 picture of the Victor Ashby Motor Works at the North End Baptist Chapel. Legend has it the baptism pool was used as an inspection pit. Mr Ashby’s sons went onto produce the Ashby Short motorcar.

The history society’s John Morris also wrote a piece about Ralph Kaby’s Garage, thought to be the oldest purpose built automotive garage in the country.

And then in 1940 Towcester’s high tech industry began to grow with the arrival of 12 scientists from the Plessy Company. Their factory in Ilford had been bombed and they were sent into the Shires to find a new home. They found Caswell Park near Greens Norton, and much like Bletchley Park its existence remained a secret for many years. The site grew to employ hundreds of people who were at the forefront of microprocessor development.

Again no clear evidence links Plessy to motorsport, but with many scientists settling in the area a number of spin off companies emerged working in the electronics and materials industries, two key elements in the motorsport industry.

UK companies now dominate the world of motorsport with nearly every major competition featuring teams, cars or parts from the UK.

More than 4,000 UK companies, employing 40,000 people supply the motorsport industry generating an annual turnover of £6 billion, half of which are exports.

While the region is the headquarters of two F1 teams, Mercedes in Brackley Force and India at Silverstone, there are hundreds of smaller companies support them and other motorsport classes.

Magdalen College School graduate Neil McKay is an example of how deep the motorsport roots are in the region. He began as an apprentice with Brodie Britain Racing in 1995 an is now a director of the firm. He said the company located itself in Brackley during the 1980s because of the good road access to all parts of the country, a presence of a racing circuit and the presence of people qualified to build fast machines alongside those who want to drive them.

Mr McKay said: “We have clients from all over the world and London, which is why its a good location for us. We’ve got the circuit for testing and track days.

“And it’s a nice part of the country where you can actually enjoy driving a motor vehicle.”

“You’ve got Renault and Williams in Oxfordshire, Redbull are in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, but I’d say Brackley and Northants have more motorsport teams and suppliers.”

And it’s not just motorports firms which have grown out of motorsport valley. There are also a host of hospitality companies suppling tables and chairs, food and drinks. Some companies also base their entire brand image on their location at the heart of motorsport valley.

The Silverstone Brewery will be sending nearly 11,000 pints to Silverstone this weekend.

Brewry partner Richard Field said they are deliverig 150 nine gallon barrels to the circuit, campsites and pubs. Silverston Real Ales are also sold in the prestigious BRDC Clubhouse.

Mr Field said: “We didn’t just want to be a local microbrewery suppling pubs in a five/ten mile radius. We wanted to develop a brand when would extend beyound our area.”