10 February 2019

Cluster power. Fascinating F1 Facts: 73

The primary strength of the British motorsport cluster - call it "Motorsport Valley" is you wish - is that people with F1 expertise can switch from teams without the need to move house. If you live in the area around Bicester, you are at the hub of the British F1 wheel. Go north and in 12 miles you will reach Mercedes F1 in Brackley, A couple more miles are you at Silverstone, the home of Racing Point. Go east and in 25 miles you reach Red Bull Racing. Go south-west 25 miles and you are at Grove, the home of Williams F1. Go 12 miles to the west and you soon arrive at Renault in Enstone and go north-west and it is 15 miles to Haas F1 in Banbury. Bicester itself is also the home of the Scuderia Toro Rosso research and development facility…

There are, consequently, only three teams which are wholly outside the cluster. McLaren is 63 miles away, but the journey includes the infamous M25 orbital road, around London, which can get seriously clogged up. Ferrari is at Modena in Italy and Sauber Motorsport is in Switzerland, even if the team name has been changed to Alfa Romeo Racing, the entry remains Swiss. If one joins one of these teams, you really need to move house, with all the disruption that this brings with families, houses, schools.

This tends to mean that staff who join the three teams tend to stay longer. It also means that these organizations recruit people from local high technology industries if they do want the additional costs that are incurred if one brings someone in from afar.

In this respect McLaren was fortunate as the team was based not far from Brooklands, which in addition to being a famous racing circuit, was an important centre of the British aviation industry. It is a long and complex history, dating back to the days when Alliott Verdon-Roe, Charles Rolls, Tommy Sopwith and Harry Hawker used the racing circuit for their aeroplane workshops. As early as 1912 Vickers established a flying school there and during the First World War, Brooklands was a centre of aircraft production with Vickers building the SE5 and Sopwith turning out its fighters. Sopwith shut down after the war but Tommy invested in HG Hawker Engineering and Brooklands continued as a manufacturing centre for the aviation industry. It was there that Sydney Camm designed the Hawker Hurricane which flew (at Brooklands) for the first time in 1935. A year later, Vickers-Armstrongs built and flew the first Wellington bomber from Brooklands. The facility was bombed in 1940 with 90 factory workers being killed, but during the Second World War, the factory turned out 3000 Hurricanes and 2500 Wellingtons. The whole place was sold to Vickers-Armstrong. In the 1970s the firm became the British Aircraft Corporation and was nationalised and merged with Hawker Siddeley to create British Aerospace. Brooklands was the company headquarters but in 1986 it was announced that the manufacturing facility would close in 1989.

The closure of BAe at Brooklands enabled McLaren to hire some serious aerospace engineers and technical managers, notably Martin Whitmarsh, a BAe structural analysis engineer who went on to head production of Harrier and Hawk airframes before a brief period in a spin-off company before he joined McLaren as operations director, a position he held until September 1997 when he became managing-director.

Three years later he hired a British Aerospace colleague Jonathan Neale, who was BAE's operations director for regional jets and later the managing director of the Hawk programme. He joined McLaren as operations director before being promoted to managing director in April 2004 and remains a key player in the McLaren company today.

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