Auto Passion Comes Alive in Motorsports Valley

Reading, writing and racing are part of student life in England's autosports hotbed

by | May 3, 2019 | Features & Trends

Lead Photo Courtesy: The Brooklands Museum Photos: Mark Elias

Auto Passion Comes Alive in Motorsports Valley

Reading, writing and racing are part of student life in England's autosports hotbed

by | May 3, 2019 | Features & Trends

Lead Photo Courtesy: The Brooklands Museum Photos: Mark Elias

You could enroll in the prestigious university in Oxford, England, the oldest in the English-speaking world, and major in classical archeology, Middle Eastern languages or — that favorite of Britain’s political elite — PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics).

Or you could head to Oxford Brookes University, just a few blocks from the Oxford, and get a degree in motorsport engineering. It “provides a unique preparation for work in the motorsport industry,” declares the university’s website, which boasts of the school’s “close proximity of the majority of Formula 1 teams.”

University Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford University.

With good reason. Just down the road from Oxford Brookes is the ROKiT Williams Formula 1 team.  A bit further in the other direction is Mercedes-AMG Petronas. Nearby are the headquarters of other F1 teams: Aston Martin Red Bull, Racing Point Force India, and RenaultSport F1 — seven of the 10 current Formula 1 teams in all. Some 4,000 supplier companies are here as well, says a recent British government study. And there are numerous kids’ karting clubs that use high-tech gear to train youngsters to handle race cars.

Welcome to England’s Motorsport Valley, where the concentration of racing-related enterprises is unique in the world, rivaled only by the NASCAR shops centered in Cabarrus County, NC.  The region’s Motorsport Industry Association, which has trademarked the Motorsport Valley term, defines the area as a 250-mile crescent stretching from the eastern point of Snetterton Circuit racetrack near Norfolk, west to Oxford and then down to the town of Woking, southwest of London, where McLaren F1 has its headquarters.

Historic McLaren race cars, including the M8D Can Am car, left, the current Formula 1 car, center and the M7 with two wings, right, are seen in the lobby of the McLaren Technical Center in Woking, UK.

But the heart of the Valley is far smaller: a 45-mile swath, centered in Oxford, that lies some 65 miles northwest of London. The critical mass of racing teams, karting schools for kids, supplier companies, and university programs gives the area its definition. Beyond the geography and its unique collection of assets, Motorsport Valley is also a state of mind, where the culture of automobile racing hangs in the air like software development in Silicon Valley or film production in Hollywood.

The examples are legion. Not long ago, more than 300 students, Formula 1 fans and locals packed the Oxford Town Hall to hear Mercedes-AMG Petronas driver Valtteri Bottas discuss life lessons learned from racing. “Be self-honest, admit mistakes, and move on,” the Finnish driver told them. “It improves yourself and your team.”

More than 300 fans, students and locals gathered at Oxford Town Hall to hear Mercedes-AMG Formula 1 driver Valterri Bottas (Light blue shirt, back to camera) speak on life lessons.

A recent Friday night found engineers from the Mercedes team sharing a table at an Oxford pizzeria with members of the Red Bull and Force India teams. The rapid-fire banter was the equivalent of what would be heard during a college football Saturday in America, except that “passing” has a different meaning.

Racing enthusiasm permeates the valley. Amateur racers, weekend warriors, television personalities, and others field 70 four-car racing-club teams to participate in the annual six-hour Birkett Relay Race at the Silverstone Circuit, home to the British Grand Prix, northeast of Oxford.

Club racers participate in the 750 Motor Club’s Birkett Relay race at Silverstone race course.

On top of all this, Valley kids age 10 and under sometimes pass up the playground and soccer fields, opting instead for fitness training and driver coaching lessons.

“I started to win races at the age of five, when I got my first podium,” declared one of them, Lewis Islin, now a veteran at the advanced age of, well, 8. “I have moved to Honda Cadet this year, and then was thinking I would move to Super 1,” said Lewis, who races in a replica Ayrton Senna helmet. “After that, I want to go to Mercedes Formula 1.”

Lewis Islin, 8, of Cutting Edge Racing, heads into the lead at turn one of the Rye-House Karting track in Hertfordshire, UK.

Lewis’ ambitions, as well as his biography (really), are described on his slick website http://lewisislin.co.uk/ . His move to the Honda Cadet level follows both his 2017 victory in the London Cup Karting Championship and decent showings in 2018 against the older kids at the Shenington karting track northeast of Oxford. This coming year, he will compete in the British Karting Championships.

 

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It costs $5,000 per month to compete at the Honda Cadet level, compared with just $1,200 monthly in the Bambino Class. But Jamie Islin, Lewis’ father, says it’s easier to attract sponsorship money at the Cadet level.

Young Islin’s F1 fantasies might seem far-fetched, but he does have plenty of role models. Current Formula 1 world champ Lewis Hamilton started at the Rye House Kart Raceway in Hoddesdon, in the Valley’s eastern stretches.  Drivers Jenson Button and Anthony Davidson also began there as kids.

Islin leads his kart out to the starting grid with an assist from father Jamie Islin.

What’s more, double British champion driver Harry Thompson trained at Rye House with Cutting Edge Racing and was impressive enough to become a member of the Red Bull Junior Team of young drivers.  The youthful enthusiasts include girls as well as boys. The British Women Racing Drivers Club, an advocacy group, admits members as young as eight.

Motorsport Valley originated, in spirit, at Brooklands, southwest of London. In 1906 Hugh Locke King built a 2.75-mile high-banked track on his estate there. Races were run at Brooklands until 1939, when the track became a military airfield and aircraft-manufacturing plant.

Next-Gen Motorsports’ David Bellchambers goes over telemetry readouts with his team drivers. Champion Archie Brown is front left.

After the war, aviation engineers there and at Silverstone, a Royal Air Force bomber base northeast of Oxford, started tinkering with cars. March Race Cars, now defunct, started its operations near Silverstone, and bit by bit, the critical mass that became Motorsport Valley began to take shape.

Nowadays Oxford Brookes serves as the Valley’s finishing school. Besides the usual liberal arts programs, Oxford Brookes offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in motorsports engineering, engine design, and automotive engineering. The 300 students (out of the university’s total of 17,800 at all campuses) constitute an elite bunch.

“We don’t create drivers or motorsports engineers,” said Gordana Collier, who leads post-graduate taught programs at the school. “We develop the culture and way of thinking that pushes them to create something noble. We try to strike the right balance of theory and practice.”

Students listen to a lecture by their engineering professor at Oxford Brookes University.

Professors lecture on engine design or carbon-fiber construction not from behind a lectern, but from an engineering workbench or around a high-performance inline four-cylinder engine. Retired Formula 1 and Indy cars provide inspiration and reference points. Students can pore over a Hewland gearbox.

Oxford Brookes motorsport students hail from Britain, Canada, Australia, and America, but also from places further afield. It makes for interesting interaction. Ross Marais is from Zimbabwe, and his best friend at the school, from North Carolina, is instructing him in NASCAR racing. “It’s a show,” said Marais. “It’s what motorsports should be.”

The Motorsport Engineering facility at Oxford Brookes University in Oxford UK.

Another student, 26-year-old Ben Scott of Indianapolis, previously worked on cars that his father, Mark, helped develop as co-founder of Riley & Scott Race Cars. “I came to Brookes to get a degree and theoretical knowledge of what goes on before the first lap is turned on the racetrack,” Scott explained.

With his experience and family ties, Scott doesn’t need the bevy of recruiters from F1 teams that descend on Oxford Brookes regularly.  Among them are talent scouts from Scuderia Ferrari, RenaultSport F1, Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso, and McLaren. It takes some years before new hires get to travel to races with their teams, but getting hired is the crucial first step.

Just part of the collection of historic Williams Formula 1 cars at the Williams Formula 1 Visitors Center.

Williams has its own engineering academy, with students “Skype-mentored” by the team’s F1 engineers. A special emphasis: career development for women.

“We cultivate female engineering talent through our young people’s program, where currently, seven of 21 candidates are female,” said Nicola Salter, Williams’ human-resources director. The Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team has a similar initiative.

A Mercedes – AMG Petronas F1 car is seen in the guest reception area at the team factory in Brackley UK.

Indeed, while drivers grab the racing headlines, the Valley’s motorsport educational ethos is very engineering oriented.

“We’ve had the engineering greats here: Adrian Newey, Patrick Head, Ross Brawn,” Salter said. “They do so much to inspire the future.”

 

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