Sport: British Formula 1 Grand Prix — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 23 April 2009.

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Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 4:43, 23 April 2009

My Lords, I had just stood up when a ghost passed over my grave. I am not quite sure why, but I am going to say something slightly different from what I had planned to say, because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has done that. Motor racing and motor sport are part of British culture. We are embedded in them, as was your Lordships' House historically.

I go back perhaps 60 years to when I was minding my own business in the second form of my prep school. The noble Lord, Lord Geddes, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, were at the same school. The French master, Major Hunter, who had just got back from the war, had lost part of his skull and had a metal plate—we always remember that—suddenly got up and said, "Vous avez gagné le Mans"; "You've won le Mans". I was not quite sure what he was talking about. He showed me Le Monde, and there was a Ferrari with the name "Lord Selsdon". I was not sure that my father was a Lord at that time; I had hardly met him. About five days later—we had asked him to come to the parents' match at cricket—I looked around and saw out of the window a red sports car with "22" on it. We were so interested in the car that we did not notice the man who had driven it. He came up and introduced himself; he was my father. As he had been a fast bowler at Winchester, he said that he would open the bowling. He bowled an aerial wide, which was pretty distressing for me. I had been a wicket-keeper, and the parents had not brought one, so I was keeping against my own father. He then bowled another wide, said he had trouble with his knee, and was taken off. My friends remembered that moment and years later one, whose name I had probably better not mention, told me it was the defining moment of his life. He went on to become the leading fundraiser for Williams.

When you do not know about things, however, you find out later. I had not realised that strange ingredient was there not only before the war, but right throughout history. I think that Brooklands first opened in about 1903—it may have been a bit later—but you were not allowed then to race on the roads in England, Scotland or Wales. The tourist trophy was therefore established effectively to be in Ulster or the Isle of Man. After the First World War, there was quite a delay; but in 1922, the BRDC or the RAC said that it would again run that trophy in the Isle of Man. My father, who was still at school, managed to sneak out; he entered with a Fraser Nash. His mother was so keen on it all that one of the family cars that she had bought, a 1903 Mercedes, had raced at Brooklands in 1907 or something. Together with that went a Panhard and a range of other cars. His racing career, which I did not know about, followed on. So when you look back into your own history at someone you did not know, who was your father, you become extraordinarily interested.

While thinking of what he did during the war, I realised that the technology of motor racing led to the combined services having the best drivers ever of fast motor-gunboats. As those in the Navy said, "If they can drive fast cars, they can drive fast boats". A whole range of those MGBs and MTBs were driven by racing drivers who knew each other, got on very well and went back after the war to continue their motor racing. Before the war, however, there were great cars with names that we had never heard of; one of the fastest in the world, and the first to do 100 miles an hour, was the Prince Henry Vauxhall. Vauxhall was racing cars in those days. There was also Sunbeam, and who should come along but the Shrewsbury family—the Talbots—who managed to create that great car which the French would call a "Tal-beau".

That is all by way of background, but to come on to it: in those days, when you could not go and race on the roads, you could race on the sand—at Skegness and Pendine Sands. You could also do hill climbs and speed trials until 1925, when there was a fatal accident and everybody said that it could only be done on the road. Brooklands then came back to itself; I think that the 1926 Grand Prix was held there. They had 110 laps of a 2.616 mile circuit; you went up the various bends and did the finishing straight. There was nowhere else to go. That effectively led to the opening of Donington in 1933. All of that time the British, who did not have many cars, were using some old British names to try and attract the continental drivers and cars; but trying to attract them to Ireland or the Isle of Man meant a double sea journey. To some extent, that led to the opening of Donington, so there was only one route.

The British were really the best drivers and, in a way, had a part in the best designers. Some of the mechanics, however, were French. They were always brought up with a screwdriver in one hand and a spanner in the other; you could stab someone with one and beat them over the head with the other. Now, before the war, my father was suddenly told to go and buy a couple of Lagondas. They entered them and came fourth and fifth, or third and fourth. I found that someone had bought that Lagonda V12, which took 50 gallons of fuel, and asked me to go and look at it. It had been restored and was on the market at a total of £3 million. I wish that my father had kept it. He went on to buy a Ferrari, which he bought at the motor show in Paris because Enzo Ferrari did not want his cars to race. He then bought one of the first Formula 1 cars.

It is strange, but I had to pay my last school fees myself because, unfortunately, motor racing had shortly consumed our entire family wealth. The other day I calculated my father's success. He ran two racing teams in France, including Ecurie Ecosse. The coat of arms was always on it. I could not understand how there was an ability to get money over to France when there was a £25 limit. I realised that we were probably in the midst of an exchange between the motor-racing community from before the war and those who were involved in special operations. Anyway, there seemed to be no shortage of money.

With the racing Dukes, including the Duke of Richmond, and the Bentley Boys and others, there was a culture that led to a need to improve one's car. Suddenly, one day, I found that my father had bought HRG and Singer engines. I was told that I must not motor-race and, if I agreed, that I would get a car. I then got one of the first small Austin-Healey cars which I took down to HRG. The compression ratio was raised through the roof. It would go like something off a shovel.

In those days you needed the Kingston bypass because the motor-racing brigade would go from Little Jack in Berkeley Square to the Ace of Spades pub. All the motor-racing people would be there and they would all know each other. Stuart Proctor would be the RAC scrutineer from HRG. Jack Brabham was next door. Over time, I learnt that these small people had the ideas. When I became chairman of the export side of the Engineering Industries Association, I found that I was with these people—originally with 7,500 engineers. By that time I had bought a second-hand Aston Martin and could not afford a new gear-box. But one of them said to me, "Take it down to Bristol and I will take the bits apart. I will cast something". He gave me an extra speed on the gear-box, which I could not believe.

Another person realised that if cars were forced closer to the ground, they might have better handling. But he knew that they would bump, so he put a titanium plate underneath, which is why they made a lot of sparks. A car body chap worked out that the design of the car could give that down thrust just by shaping the air, which would also give better rolling. Now as I think of all the new bits which you can stick on to the back of a car to change it and to put McLaren out of business, I remember all of those small people. I really loved what they would tell you. They taught me physics that I did not know. They taught me everything and all about metals. But they were all friends and competitors. This created a culture in England where everyone wanted to have a car. The culture is more important than people spending a mass of money on promotion. Because of that, on my birthday, I suddenly found that my son had given me a weekend and eight laps at Le Mans as a present. I might do it while the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, is there.

I have spoken about the culture and the fun. This is sport. It is not a boring activity. It is enjoyable, although the wives do not like it because they have things on their ears. But we are superb and we should remain superb.