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In the Valley of the Screwdrivers - article in Die Welt 14 March

24 Mar 2014

Last minute preparations are underway in “Motorsport Valley” for Sunday’s opening of the Formula One season.

Nowhere but England can you find so much motorsport expertise concentrated in such a small area.

The automobile, defence and aerospace industries all benefit.

According to a study by the Cranfield School of Management, Britain’s motorsport industry employs around 41,000 people. The sector’s global turnover in 2012 was approx. £ 9 billion. The comparative figures for the aviation and automobile industries were £ 24 billion and £ 60 billion respectively. Several British universities offer courses which prepare students for jobs in the Formula One industry, such as the one-year Master’s degree in motorsport engineering at Cranfield University. Bernie Ecclestone is one of the fathers of the F1 industry. He made London the centre for the marketing of broadcasting rights but has recently come under serious pressure. The 83-year-old is due to appear in court in Munich on 24 April charged with bribing former BayernLB chairman Gribkowsky.

The workshop hall appears fairly abandoned, at least at first sight. The four spaces where the Infiniti Red Bull Racing cars are normally parked are empty. The ceiling lights are reflected in the bright white floor surface and a radio is playing hits from the 80s. It smells faintly of Red Bull, the sweet energy drink which gave the Formula One team its name. And there is a simple explanation for this apparent desolation: just a few days before the start of the new season, the cars are already on their way to the first racetrack.

Nevertheless, work goes on unabated behind the scenes at “Infiniti Red Bull Racing” in Milton Keynes. New metal components are being manufactured in the room next door. The so-called “oven” is ready to quickly produce a few carbon components if necessary.

The machine, which can turn out extremely light yet durable parts within a few hours, is over three metres long. There is not much time: the new season opens on Sunday with the Melbourne Grand Prix in Australia. But the Red Bull factory in the Middle of England continues spitting out new parts until just before the race. They are taken to Australia by plane and fitted there, with engineers working on their car right up to the start.

One of these is Alan Peasland, a bright-eyed man with a crew-cut. He remains calm despite the imminent start to the season. “We are here to win”, he says. “Formula One is an extremely fast-moving business.” Peasland has been working for Infiniti Red Bull for some years now and knows the short development cycles in his industry.”We love what we do”, he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

It is not only in Milton Keynes that final preparations are underway. There is also feverish activity in Brackley, just a few kilometres away, where the Formula One team of Mercedes Benz has its headquarters. There are a further six racing teams based in Britain, many of them in “Motorsport Valley” north and west of London. Nowhere else in the world can you find so much motorsport expertise concentrated in such a small area.

Eight of the eleven Formula One teams manufacture their racing cars in the UK, where 4,500 suppliers are also located. The “Valley” accounts for a large chunk of the £ 9 billion which motorsport generates each year. It is not only Formula One which benefits from the innovations, but also the automobile, aerospace and defence industries.

The engineers of “Motorsport Valley” face particular challenges this season because the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has prescribed, for the first time, that Formula One cars must have hybrid engines. Simulation software and 3D printers are helping the 600 employees at Infiniti Red Bull to build a car that drives as fast as its predecessor.

Alan Peasland holds up an unassuming, grey piece of plastic. “That comes from a 3D printer”, says the man in charge of technical partnerships at Infiniti Red Bull. The technology enables the team to develop new prototypes very quickly. “Our models are produced to a large extent in 3D printers.” He does not want to divulge more than that. After all, even the tiniest details can make a difference of fractions of a second and decide between victory and defeat.

Caterham FI, a smaller competitor with Malaysian owners, has also introduced 3D printers. “All the teams are doing it, to a greater or lesser extent”, says Tom Webb, who works for Caterham in Leafield,Oxfordshire. “We have a gigantic 3D printer which helps us in production.”

Technology makes it possible to improve the cars after each race. The printers are just one of the many tools which the engineers have at their disposal. Computer simulators are becoming increasingly important since the teams are no longer allowed to test full-sized models in wind tunnels.

The models are 40% smaller than real Formula One cars. “That is why computer programmes are extremely helpful”, Tom Webb says. “In the simulator, the drivers can cover thousands of kilometres and the data produced is extremely valuable.” At Infiniti Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel’s team, computer software makes up a large part of the development. The corresponding department is staffed around the clock so the changes the team makes on the test track can be directly implemented and the new parts produced.

“We have no time to waste”, Alan Peasland says. On average, there is a day or two to test parts, manufacture them in the factory and fly them to the track. “There are several hundred new parts per race”, Peasland says, “we publish over 1,000 new designs each week.”

30,000 amendments were made during the 2013 season – to one single car. “Of course, that’s only possible with the right technology”, Peasland says. His team works with a Siemens programme. Siegfried Russwurm, a member of the Siemens board, believes that “industrial software is an important step. The changes in the production process are dramatic.” About a hundred engineers at Infiniti Red Bull work with the Siemens software.

Other teams, such as Lotus, also use it. “This technology is the backbone of our development work”, says Ian Goddard, a Lotus engineer in Enstone near Oxford. A majority of the tests are no longer conducted on the racetrack or in the wind tunnel but on the computer. Lotus also uses Microsoft and Symantec software. “Nothing is possible without computers nowadays”, Goddard says.

The fight for fractions of a second is tough. The teams often use the same computer software and order from the same suppliers. Even the engineers themselves move to and fro within “Motorsport Valley”. “The same faces keep turning up”, says Ian Goddard of Lotus. “That’s what makes the Valley such a success.”

There must be something in that because only Ferrari has so far managed to build racing cars successfully outside the UK. Toyota tried it in Cologne but dropped out of Formula One in 2009 after a series of failures. Yet it was more by chance that Britain became the centre of the industry.

“In the mid-1950s, races moved from normal roads onto separate tracks”, says Mark Jenkins, Professor for Business Strategy at the Cranfield School of Management, who has been analysing the sector for many years. As a legacy of WWII, Britain had a lot of airfields which could be used for motorsport. “The industry gradually formed a specialised business cluster”, sys Jenkins. According to the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA), Silverstone is the most heavily attended of all Formula One races.

Jenkins expects the industry in Britain to continue growing – despite spectator numbers having recently shrunk due to the shift to Pay TV. According to the Global Media Report, Formula One had a global TV audience of about 450 million in 2012, a drop of 50 million. But the Professor says: “There is still enormous growth potential in the newly industrialising countries”. Thanks to the switch to hybrid technology, Formula One will become increasingly more interesting for other sectors. “We know that some Formula One teams also work for the defence industry”, Mark Jenkins says.

The engineers at Williams F1, a team based in Grove, Oxfordshire, are already helping to design buses and trams. “The knock-on effect for sales into other industries is just enormous”, says Chris Aylett, CEO of the MIA. “ I expect even more companies will soon choose to move into “Motorsport Valley”. As Aylett says: “Anyone who wants to benefit from the technology has to come here”. The Red Bull engineers would not contradict him.

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