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Motor Racing Industry

– in the House of Commons at 1:24 pm on 19th December 1980.

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , Thanet East 1:24 pm, 19th December 1980

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the crisis facing Britain's motor racing industry. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport for agreeing to reply to this short debate. I know that he has had to come back from Scotland and to change some important personal arrangements in order to be present in the House. I thank him.

The British motor racing industry is already in a state of crisis. It is heading with characteristically high speed towards a catastrophe of grand prix cancellations and company liquidations. If the crisis is not resolved urgently, millions of Formula 1 fans are sure to be deprived of a 1981 world championship. Thousands of motor engineering and sporting livelihoods will be lost. Some of the most famous small companies in Britain will close down in bankruptcy.

Yet, despite these grim economic consequences, I must stress at the outset that the direct cause of all the trouble is not money. The world of Formula 1 racing is rich and prosperous. We are dealing here with an utterly unnecessary and tragic crisis which has erupted out of an increasingly bitter dispute between English car makers and French bureaucrats. At the end of my speech I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he will soon take an initiative to resolve the dispute at Government-to-Government level. I shall first set out the facts.

I should perhaps begin with a brief description of the British motor racing industry. At Formula 1 level, it consists of about 20 highly specialised companies which engineer, run and race the cars on the world championship grand prix circuit. These include several world-famous names such as Lotus, McLaren, Brabham, Tyrrell and Williams. Between them, these teams have won 14 world championships in the past 18 years. The industry also includes several high technology components supply companies such as Cosworth Engineering Limited, of Northampton, which builds the remarkable engine that has won over 130 grand prix races since it was introduced in 1966.

The industry should not just be measured in terms of sporting triumphs. The ordinary motorist derives many benefits from the high technology inventions pioneered by the Formula 1 designers and engineers. Disc brakes, aerodynamic styling and multi-viscosity engine oil are just three examples. The House should also note the contribution made by the industry to our national economy. These 20 small British companies to which I have referred between them directly employ about 1,000 people and bring in in excess of £15 million of foreign earnings annually. In addition, they bring huge indirect benefits, such as revenues from sponsors, advertisers, television companies and circuit promoters.

There are also intangible benefits, such as the prestige that inevitably follows the victories by British teams and their products in an international competition. Taken as a whole, I hope that the House will accept that we are talking about a great British success story and a significant British interest.

I should mention that several hon. Members, unable to be present today, have asked me to mention how strongly they feel the need to defend their constituencies and the national interest in this matter, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) and for Belper (Mrs. Faith), who have written to me asking that I mention their regret that they are unable to be present.

It is a supreme irony that the real reason why British interests are now in peril is that they have been too successful. At this point in the story, it is necessary to understand that French interests are also very much at stake in the fiercely competitive world of Formula 1 motor racing. The French have some important teams on the Grand Prix circuit. They include Renault, Ligier and the Peugeot-Citroen-Talbot group known as PSA. All are directly or indirectly supported by French Government money or by French Government-owned concerns. They are far larger in money, manpower and resources than their equivalents on this side of the Channel.

Despite such advantages, those giant French Goliaths have been consistently defeated by the little British Davids. Year after year, the world championship turns out to be the annual equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo and, regrettably from their point of view, the French defy the law of averages by always losing it. During the 30 years since the world championship started, the British have won the championship 16 times, the Italians 11 times, the Germans twice and the Australians twice, while the French have never won a world championship at all.

This becomes increasingly galling year after year as the resources poured into motor racing by Renault, Elf, PSA, Seita and the Michelin Tyre Corporation reach astronomic proportions. Yet small British entrepreneurial companies still manage to run off with the championship, as the Williams team, with the Australian Alan Jones as driver, did so brilliantly this year. Faced with this problem, what do the French teams try to do? Naturally, they are behaving like typical Frenchmen. They are starting to bend the rules to serve their own national interests.

What we see today are the familiar unfair tactics that have been employed on lamb, fish and apples now being applied to Formula 1 racing. The machinery being used to bend the rules is the Federation Internationale du Sport Automobile, always known as FISA. This Paris-based bureaucracy is very much the creation of its French president, Mr. Jean-Marie Ballestre, and it is he who must take the responsibility for having driven FISA into head-on collision with the other important organisation inside motor racing called FOCA, the Formula One Constructors' Association.

The feud between FOCA and FISA lies at the heart of the crisis which is now destroying Formula 1 motor racing. It is a complex affair, and no doubt it can be argued that there are faults on both sides. But, whatever the rights and wrongs of the various disputes, three facts stand out.

First, whatever the substance of the disagreements between FOCA and FISA, it is acknowledged almost universally that the procedures laid down for solving them have been disregarded blatantly. To give just one example of this, I refer to the FISA president's unilateral decision to issue an edict banning skirts as from January 1981. In this context, skirting is an aerodynamic device invented by the brilliant Colin Chapman, of Lotus, which enables British cars to remain competitive despite the superior engines of the Renault cars.

Mr. Ballestre is against the skirts that make British cars go faster. He has banned them, allegedly on the ground of safety. This is a somewhat transparent manoeuvre in the eyes of FOCA, which claims that outboard skirting makes cars more stable, more safe and structurally stronger. Whatever the merits or demerits of this argument, the fact is that the skirt ban is a breach of FISA's own rules of procedure, which state clearly that no changes of this kind can be made with less than two years' notice.

Secondly, it is a fact that much of the controversy which surrounds the FISA-FOCA dispute arises because FISA has created within itself an unfortunate conflict of interests. FISA wants to be both the regulatory authority and the financial authority over grand prix racing. This is an absurd proposition, which no other sport could or ever would tolerate. It is as though the referee at a football match was also to be put in charge of gate receipts, transfer fees and television rights. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the promoters and constructors of motor racing cannot accept such a double role from FISA.

Thirdly, it is a painful fact that many of the tensions and dramas that divide Formula 1 racing have been heightened by the autocratic style of personal leadership emanating from the FISA president, Mr. Jean-Marie Ballestre.

I do not think that it would be appropriate here to give details of the various episodes that have caused concern. But it is a matter of record, for example, that last season millions of fans saw Mr. Ballestre engage in fisticuffs with officials of the South African grand prix, apparently over the lack of an invitation to share the rostrum with the winner. It is also a matter of record that Mr. Ballestre unilaterally declared the result of the Spanish grand prix invalid on the bizarre ground that some unknown rules which he himself had never published had somehow been broken.

Faced with a series of what most constructors regard as many similar examples of mercurial behaviour and rule manipulation, FOCA has struck back against FISA.

The FOCA leaders are a robust collection of men, who know how to fight their corner. In type, they could be said to be the reverse of the description once applied in this House by Mr. David Lloyd George to Mr. Austen Chamberlain, of whom it was said "Austen always played the game, and always lost it." The point about the leading figures of Britain's motor racing industry, men such as Colin Chapman, Frank Williams and Bernie Ecclestone, is that they always play the game and have got accustomed to winning it. Perhaps their ebullient competitive spirits have taken them too far in their disputes with FISA. But even though members of FOCA feel their livelihoods to be threatened, and even though their own jobs and those of their employees are at risk, FOCA seems to be determined not to surrender to Mr. Ballestre on what it believes to be impossible terms. Hence the suicidal split in motor racing today.

The outlook for the 1981 world championship is grim. FOCA and FISA are now trying to organise two rival grand prix circuits, neither of which is credible. Already one British car company—Ensign—has gone into liquidation, and others are on the verge of doing so as sponsors hang back, as they must in this uncertain situation. Already the Goodyear Tyre Company has pulled out of motor racing. Already the first grand prix of the new season, scheduled to take place in less than a month's time in Argentina, has been postponed. The South African grand prix is about to be postponed, and several others will surely be cancelled as writs and lawsuits fly thick and fast through the air.

As one who is both a motor racing fan and has an indirect connection with a motor racing sponsor, I see, from both inside and outside, all too clearly just how much damage is being done by the present chaotic situation.

If we are to have a world championship next year, surely the time has come for the deadlock to be broken by a display of true political skills. Mr. Ballestre, although apparently having political aspirations to become a French Deputy, does not seem to possess those skills.

Although one famous French statesman once coined the slogan "They shall not pass", Mr. Ballestre's apparent motto is "They shall not start". That is no good to motor racing in the coming season.

It is time that some real politicians now came into the act. That is why I today appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for sport to take an initiative at Govenment-to-Government level. I realise that no British Minister has any definite power in this matter, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that he has a responsibility to do his best to safeguard the British jobs that are at risk and the British interests that are at stake, including the interests of the fans. Perhaps he could also take a wider international responsibility to try to see that the drivers, the sponsors, the teams and the public are not deprived of their sport in 1981 by the confusing melodrama that I have attempted to describe today.

Perhaps my hon. Friend will consider a face-to-face negotiation with his counterpart in France. Perhaps he could try to arrange a meeting between all the European Ministers of Sport and the leaders of the International Automobile Federation, which is the parent body of FISA. Perhaps he has some initiative of his own in mind. If he can break the deadlock, he will earn the lasting gratitude of all who care about the international sport of motor racing and the future of the British motor racing industry.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford 1:37 pm, 19th December 1980

I am glad to have the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) on the force and vigour with which he presented the case and carried the argument against our traditional enemies, the French.

I am not surprised to hear the story about Mr. Ballestre. I hope that he will divert his attention to politics. We know, after all, that a professional clown is running for the French Presidency, so Mr. Ballestre may well run for the Chamber of Deputies.

March Engineering, in my constituency of Oxford, is one of those small, vigorous, entrepreneurial companies which may suffer grievously from the effects of this unnecessary dispute. Not only may jobs be lost, but there may also be a considerable loss to technological innovation which firms such as March often produce.

For those reasons, and for the good of motor racing and the sport in general, I fully support my hon. Friend's request to the Minister to take this discussion with the French to the highest possible level.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I am sure that, since it is Christmas, the House will give the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) leave to speak for a second time on the same motion.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North 1:39 pm, 19th December 1980

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall be brief in echoing the congratulations of the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) to the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) on initiating this debate. However, I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman in his Gallophobia, because I understand that the patriotic origins of the president of FISA have themselves been questioned on the basis of whether his loyalties have always lain so much with la belle France as he would now like to suppose in his political ambitions.

What we are dealing with is a confrontation between a group of small firms which have had a genuine sporting interest in Formula 1 grand prix racing against large French conglomerates which are mass producers of motor cars and are deeply enraged at their failure to win any grand prix.

I have been asked to intervene in the debate by Mr. Sloman, who is managing director of the Derbyshire firm of Advanced Composite Components Ltd., which has been placed in a parlous position by the present situation. The firm employs about 20 people making carbon fibre components for the Formula 1 car constructors—the British firms, most of which are members of FOCA.

The firm's product principally is the skirt on the motor car referred to by the hon. Member for Thanet, East. If that is banned, the firm will lose about 95 per cent. of its potential turnover for the 1981 racing season. As a result of the ban, the legality of which is open to question, the firm has already had to lay off seven of its work force and could be forced to close down altogether if the ban goes through.

I put this point unashamedly as a constituency point and I know that other Derbyshire Members who esteem this firm will want me to put it to the Minister. It illustrates the real fall-out from the bullying and authoritarian attitude taken by the president of FISA and his minions. Like other hon. Members, I hope that the Minister will be robust in his dealings with the French in this matter.

Photo of Mr Thomas Benyon Mr Thomas Benyon , Abingdon 1:42 pm, 19th December 1980

I am grateful for a chance to speak in this important debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) on the eloquent and characteristically clear way in which he stated his case. I endorse what all the other speakers have said.

For years, Britain has led the world in Formula 1 racing. Almost consistently we have beaten the French, as we always appear to beat them when we have a fair chance to do so—much to their chagrin. We have been doing it since 1815.

It is with sadness and a sense of deja vu that I see that they have been gerrymandering the rules for Formula 1 racing, in a cynical act designed to win at all costs and to change the rules, at the last moment, to the detriment of Formula 1 racing teams in this country. Those teams include Williams Grand Prix Engineering in my constituency, which is the MG of Formula 1 racing. It will be sad if my constituency should see the collapse of two internationally known companies—first MG and now the problems for Williams, which is led by the well-known and highly regarded entrepreneur Frank Williams, who has done so much work. It would be sad if that company should face additional problems because of the appalling behaviour of the French.

This is not the first time that the French have behaved in this way. They have behaved badly over sales of British vehicles in France and over sales of lamb and fish. Their history of dealing on the basis that their national interests come first at all costs has been widely rehearsed in the House. Their approach cannot be allowed to continue.

I would add any persuasive skills that I possess to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to intervene on behalf of all the Formula 1 racing teams in Britain and in his meeting with his opposite numbers to apply any honourable pressure that he can to ask them to assist our teams so that they may compete fairly with the French in international racing.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 1:44 pm, 19th December 1980

It is of great concern to me that this debate should have proved necessary. However, it certainly is necessary, I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) seized this opportunity. I am also glad that three other hon. Members joined the debate. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) has important constituency interests, and I agree that the carbon fibre content of skirts is important. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) spoke about the March company and my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) also made an important point about Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

I am passionately interested in motor racing and have been since the early 1930s. I have raced and rallied, and I was lucky enough to drive a Formula 1 Tyrrell last year. I have, therefore, a close interest in the present crisis, which is indeed a sorry state of affairs. Grand prix racing has everything going for it—the cars, engines, drivers, circuits, crowds, television, charisma, excitement and world prestige. Yet, to the consternation of the enthusiasts, the two separate entities within grand prix racing are driving straight into the crash barriers at high speed.

Racing is in turmoil. There can be no doubt about that. Any level-minded person interested in motor racing is being driven to despair by the failure of grand prix racing to get together and stop sending this great sporting spectacle to destruction. There should not be any need for Government intervention. World and national governing bodies should manage their own sports themselves, but in this instance I cannot stand idly by and watch this mass suicide.

British prestige in the organisation of and participation in international rallies and racing is of the very highest order. There was nothing but praise at last month's RAC international rally for the organisations and for the performance of British cars, albeit, in some cases, with Scandinavian drivers. The RAC deserves immense credit for the standards that it sets in motor sports in this country. Over the past 20 years in particular, many of our cars and drivers have been at the very top. We are proud of that fact. Many of those drivers are household names that are familiar to us all. One could start with Stirling Moss, who drove so ably in the 1950s, and go on to Hawthorn, Clark, Hill, Surtees, Stewart and Hunt. Many others were their equals but did not achieve a world championship.

We have reached an impasse and Britain's great prospects are in jeopardy. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East ably highlighted the differences. Specific actions have been taken by specific companies. Recently, a leading tyre manufacturer, Goodyear, decided to withdraw its support from Formula 1, Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars in Europe, yet it will maintain the manufacture of racing tyres for America. The loss is estimated to be worth about £6 million. None of those interested in the sport will welcome that. It hands the Formula 1 tyre monopoly to Michelin, with possible help from Pirelli. In any event, it removes the main supplier for FOCA cars in this country. Other forms of sponsorship agreements will be affected. There will be a chain reaction throughout the sport and throughout those who sponsor our racing teams.

The future of the part of our motor industry that is concerned with Formula 1 racing is at risk. The employment of all those men and women engaged in that work, both directly and indirectly, is threatened. Last but not least, we are in grave danger of losing the prestige that has been built up over the years by British teams, the design and engineering expertise involved in the construction of racing cars, and the skill of the drivers who drive them. This is a major shop window for the British motor industry and is one that we cannot afford to lose in these difficult economic times.

It may be of help to my hon. Friend if I explain the action I took following the Spanish grand prix, when undercover warfare blew up into a major row. I was asked at that time by a FOCA member, Frank Williams—who has done so much in this area along with his colleagues—whose team was pressing hard for championship honours and eventually succeeded, whether I could use the good offices of my position as Minister for Sport to try to restore relationships between FISA and FOCA.

I believe that those relationships were sorely tested by the actions of FISA at the Spanish grand prix in refusing to allow the winner—in a British-built car—to count his victory in the points leading to the drivers' world championship.

After consultation with the British governing body for racing—the Royal Automobile Club—I sent a telex to the President of the IAF, the federation responsible for all national automobile clubs, and the senior international governing body asking for their intervention on the decisions taken. I sent this to Prince Metternich, the president of the IAF. The decisions were taken not by the democratically elected body, in which the majority, I understood, accepted the Spanish grand prix result. It was decided to intervene on the decisions which had been taken by one man, Mr. Ballestre.

The reply, I am sorry to say, was not very satisfactory, but I think my telex gave FISA a jolt. Subsequently I met Prince Metternich informally and discussed the issue with him. At least, I was then given to understand that an uneasy peace formula had been agreed. Certainly the grand prix series this year was completed with, as we all know, a marvellous win for a mainly British team, Saudi-Leyland-Williams, and the driving skill of Alan Jones of Australia.

It would appear that we have now reached the present position because Mr. Ballestre, about whom I telexed the president of FIA, has drawn up a set of technical regulations which, although acceptable to one French and two Italian teams, had been rejected by more than eight other leading grand prix teams from other countries. It looks very much as if Ligier has now been wheeled into line with FISA in France.

If my understanding of the position is correct, I must admit that I find it extraordinary how, within a democratically elected organisation, one man, and one man alone, can introduce regulations which do not find favour with the majority of his members and apparently overrule the two-year technical regulations rule.

When, because of the strong opposition that Mr. Ballestre had raised, he attempted to find a compromise solution, he was unsuccessful because Renault indicated that it must insist upon following the technical regulations that he had himself initiated. This deals with the skirts mentioned by the hon. Member for Derby, North. As my hon. Friend rightly says, this has split motor racing and the effect, if not averted, will undoubtedly seriously damage our motor racing industry. It is the possible effects on the motor racing industry to which I should now like to turn.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has received many communications urging support for the Formula One Constructors Association and I have received similar representations. I have been informed that should the grand prix series be suspended, redundancy in that part of the industry is likely to follow. I have visited the McLaren works and I know of the exceptional standard of engineering in grand prix racing today. Hon. Members have rightly mentioned Cosworth Engineering, which is world famous and powers 80 per cent. of the Formula 1 cars.

There are many subcontractors to the motor racing industry whose future will be seriously affected and whose work forces will undoubtedly have to be reduced. We must try to bring Goodyear back into Formulas 1, 2 and 3, especially if even in the longer term Dunlop and Firestone cannot return to a highly specialised sector of the tyre industry. I hope that Goodyear will rescind its decision, which I am sure was taken at the end of a most frustrating period, when I cannot but understand any major firm being driven to make the decision that it did.

However, it all comes at a time when British motor racing companies are recognised as being second to none in Formula 1 racing and development, a position that they have attained through their brilliance, hard work and endeavour. It may even be that that very British eminence in Formula 1 racing underlies the desire of some to change the rules affecting car design and so thereby removing at a stroke the lead that we currently have in the world grand prix series. However, one can never turn back the clock in technical engineering, as the French appear to want to do.

In all the circumstances, I ask myself whether there is anything that I can do to help to resolve the difficult situation. I repeat that all governing bodies of sport, both national and international, are totally independent of Governments and no Government have any locus to intervene in their affairs. The RAC motor sports division has behaved honourably and done its best to bring the two sides together. I congratulate Sir Clive Bossom and Mr. Basil Tye on their efforts to act as intermediaries.

The dispute is between responsible and independent sporting organisations. I urge them to use every means at their disposal to resolve their difficulties for the sake of the motor industry, grand prix racing and sport in general. I call upon FISA and its controlling body, the FIA, to review immediately its administrative machinery, to take fully into account the propositions put forward by all their members and to adopt the propositions that have consensus in their favour, as is always the case where democracy is at work.

Time is not on our side. Fixture lists of grand prix have been published by FISA and FOCA. The circuit owners must know where they stand. In Britain, we know that in alternate years the meeting is at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, and we want to see that such interests are safeguarded. Those venues bear allegiance to the RAC and we must be careful not to put them in an impossible position. Sponsors must know, and so must the general public, how matters stand at present.

I take one step towards breaking the impasse. I am prepared to put my services forward as an honest broker to bring everyone together. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East asked me at Government level to intervene, but I had already decided, as I said earlier, that I cannot sit idly by and do nothing. Today I am contacting my opposite number in France, Mr. Soisson, Minister of Sport, and asking him whether he will, with me, convene an informal meeting with Prince Metternich and the leaders of FISA and FOCA to see whether an early solution can be found. It is important to get all interested parties around the table. It will be a tragedy if motor sport at Grand Prix level is not prepared to take the opportunity. I hope that my message will find a receptive welcome in Paris.

We are not prepared to allow things to stop in 1980. Britain considers the matter of supreme importance, and we do not intend to let it be brushed aside. I hope that the representatives of FISA in Paris and Prince Metternich and the FIA will, with Mr. Soisson and myself, make an effort to overcome the problem rapidly. Everyone is in limbo. The designers, constructors, drivers and sponsors must know where they stand as soon as possible. Fixtures should have started in January. One is scheduled for February and more for March and they remain in doubt, and that goes on into the full season in spring. It is intolerable that we have wasted four or five months of argument. It is now time for this House to send a message across the Channel that enough is enough, and we must reach a solution.