The committed followers of British racing have suffered a blow recently with the news that that Darren Manning has lost his IRL drive and that Adam Carroll is facing a sponsorship crisis if he is to continue his GP2 season.
Both are key representatives of Britain in International Motorsport and to see them relegated to the sidelines would be disastrous.
Manning is justly bemused about his firing from Chip Ganassi Racing, he was the team’s highest placed driver in the IRL standings and the majority of his retirements have not been his fault. However, his looks are not on a par with Danica Patrick’s and his broad Northern accent renders him unintelligible to most American viewers (although you try comprehending the unintelligible ramblings of most NASCAR drivers). Perhaps Ganassi’s move was commercially-minded?
In contrast Carroll’s difficulties are more serious and represent the crisis faced by much of British motor sport – the lack of investment in talent. Although it is hard to speculate, it would be fair to argue that had Carroll been in British Formula Three during its late-1980′s/early 1990′s heyday (when every race was shown on BBC Grandstand) he would probably have spring-boarded into F1 by now. Instead season after season he is scrabbling around for sponsorship, despite being a proven winner in every category he has ever raced in.
Carroll is not unique in suffering from a sponsorship drought. Consider how many drivers in British motor sport are sponsored by family firms: for example, F3 front runner Mike Conway has been supported by his father’s construction business from the outset.
In the past there have been numerous scholarship programmes in the past designed to propel drivers onto the next level. Today the BRDC does offer some limited driver support, but it is unable to provide the backing for a full campaign. Any meritocratic element to racing diminishes with every season.
But it is not only individual drivers who are suffering. Once-great series, such as the British Touring Car Championship, are in seemingly terminal decline, plagued by poor grids and bad driving. What has gone wrong and what can be done to repair the damage?
The BTCC makes a fascinating case study. Between 1990 and 1996 the BTCC was regularly pulling in crowds of 50,000+ and attracting TV viewers by the million. At the start of 2005 there were 12 cars on the grid, a reasonable crowd and a small ITV audience. The blame for this decline can be apportioned in several directions.
Manufacturer withdrawal is predominantly responsible for the collapse. There has always been some degree of manufacturer involvement in British saloon car racing but in the 1990s it reached silly levels, with marques joining the series with multi-million pound budgets with the sole intention of winning, whatever the cost. This had the effect of raising the bar for everyone else, initially forcing out privateers, but rapidly followed by a number of manufacturers.
If ever there was a case for budget capping, the BTCC from 1994-2000 was it. During this period Alfa Romeo, Audi, Renault, Nissan and Ford effectively killed off the series by pricing out other teams and reducing the races to processions.
Consider also the decline in racing. If you can find it, I strongly suggest investing in the 1992 BTCC review video. It has cracking racing, a few big shunts and some genuine characters for drivers. For whatever reason during this season all the cars were very closely matched ensuring very close racing, but racing that was, for the majority of the time, very clean.
Today’s BTCC may be close, but the unsporting, success-penalising regulations contrive it to be so, and the racing is anything but clean with blatant ‘take-outs’ comfortably outnumbering genuine passing manoeuvres. For most race fans this is a major turn-off, especially following several seasons of otherwise processional racing.
British motor sport is lacking mainstream ‘fan favourite’ characters and does not seem to have a system to allow personalities to develop season upon season. In today’s world it is hard to see the John Clelands or Tim Harveys of the future emerging.
The 2005 BTCC is painfully short on ‘name’ drivers and those there are there tend to verge toward ‘villain’ or ‘imbecile’ rather than ‘hero’ in the view of many fans. The switch to World Touring Car regulations in 2007, which should boost grid sizes, cannot come soon enough.
It is not difficult to see how the BTCC is declining in popularity and how motor sport is disappearing from the radar of the casual sports fan. Someone, somewhere needs to be very brave and attempt to take motor sport to the grass roots, limiting manufacturer involvement and budgets, whilst taking the sport to the fans.
I would love to see the 750MC Stock Hatch races televised: they are great entertainment and would prove a huge hit with television audiences. As it is, motor sport is rapidly becoming a sport enjoyed by a decreasing minority, and as long as that happens, it is hard to see the F1 stars of the future coming to the fore.