Aiming at the 2030 all-electric road car target (2035 for plug-in hybrids) is all very well but, suggests Iain Robertson, nobody has given a thought to the nation’s racing circuits, or the Home of the British Grand Prix, Silverstone, which could come to a grinding halt.
In many respects, while Scandinavia can claim to being the home of rallying, the UK is very much the home of motorsport and, to be frank, we seldom crow about that fact enough. According to a Plimsoll Analysis, around 398 British companies are involved but there are more, when you include concessions and some of the smaller ancillary suppliers to a total of 4,300 businesses. Naturally, the pandemic has impacted on this important niche but even in the last full year of business (2019), 25 of its larger players grew by more than 10% in an overall market growth of just 2.7%, while 182 firms declared continued growth and recorded sustainable profits, and the UK’s exit from the EU is said to have made little, or no difference.
In excess of 41,000 people are employed directly by the motorsport industry, of which 25,000 are senior level engineers, plus seasonal workers. The so-called ‘Motorsports Valley’ is home to three-quarters of the Formula One grid and the industry contributes over £10bn in overall turnover, with around 83% of its business earned through exports. Motorsports contributes majorly to the road vehicle scene, thanks to its myriad technological developments, but it is also responsible for creating lighter manufacturing materials and products relevant to the health, medical and well-being sectors. Speedier pitlanes have led to more efficient medical procedures.
Despite millions of spectators travelling throughout the ‘normal’ season to events held nationwide, with over 250 hours of free-to-air coverage provided by ITV4 for BTCC alone and over 100 hours of F1 coverage on both Sky and Channel 4, the television audience is even greater and does not include the motorbike racing figures. Yet, motorsport has always been under fire by lobbyists. When Nicola Foulston released land surrounding Brands Hatch racing circuit, in Kent, to domestic property developers, the number of local complaints received about ‘noise’ were astonishing. The anti-speed, anti-pollution and anti-enjoyment sets continue to make negative noises about an industry that is integral to the broader motor industry but can be vital to local economies.
While government reacted speedily to demands for cleaner air quality, drawing down an earlier commitment to change in 2045, to 2030, there have been various concerns aired about insufficient time being allowed for motor manufacturers and importers to electrify their model ranges. Although the National Grid states that it is ready for the demands to be placed on the system, understandable fears surround over-demand and subsequent regional blackouts, let alone system damage inflicted.
Of the 35m cars registered for use on British roads, only 144,335 examples were plug-in types (Nov 2020, SMMT) and 92,913 were battery-electric powered, figures that underscore the present levels of low uptake rate. However, they are increasing steadily and, in the first full year of stopping the sales of fossil-fuelled vehicles in the UK (2030), it is anticipated that the total of BEVs will increase to around 1.6m units.
Speaking with Michael Youles, a Le Mans racing veteran, who is also engaged with the EV market, he raises some fascinating concerns. “Naturally, motorsport will engage fully with the BEV market and is already doing so with Formula E and the new Extreme E off-road series”, he intones. “Formula One is already using hybrid technology and BTCC is moving across to hybrid in a year’s time. However, I can envisage a time, post-pandemic, when crowds of people may be allowed to gather once more at outdoor events, yet their demands on electricity will be immense, whether for racing cars, racehorses, or any major gathering.”
Michael continues: “While the pandemic has impacted heavily on spectators wanting to experience the full-on thrills of motorsport, even should F1 change completely to an all-electric formula, it will not be possible to operate without legions of rapid-chargers being installed within existing car parks, paddock areas and in the pitlane. If charger installers, both of the domestic and publicly accessible types are not prepared for this immense business opportunity, they do themselves no favours at all.
“However, there is need to look beyond the upfront demands, as service providers (cleaners, First Aiders, security staff, caterers and so on) are also going to place a venue like Silverstone under intense pressure. Of course, technology will play its part by rolling out more efficient, larger range BEVs, which will include light vans, trucks and buses, as well as new high-speed chargers. Yet, I fear that TV audiences will grow for a short time, while the 40,000 each venue average BTCC and 70,000 Silverstone F1 trackside visitors of recent years will decline significantly. A major reduction in visitor numbers will make several circuit venues simply unviable.
“Although the recent, embryonic Formula E has been successful at gathering supporters in city centres around the world,” he adds, “bolstered by reasonable TV viewing figures, they are of a different order to the those seeking the visible, vocal and audible spectacle of fossil-fuelled F1. Many observers are critical of the dumbed-down showpiece and similar concerns surround other formulae planned for a new world of EVs. While rallying in its various guises (road and forest), including circuit-based rallycross, will still be capable of providing commensurate thrills, spectators will remain concerned about obtaining a good recharge for the journey home!”
If anything, the far from microcosmic motorsport issue in a world of EVs is one that very few people, even activists, will have contemplated and could make it a major casualty. While the pandemic is going to impact on human assemblies for many years to come, it is clear that ALL public gatherings are going to be under serious threat in the future.
Conclusion: As our nation is locked presently in a rush to satisfy the transport demands of ‘E-Day’ in less than nine years’ time, it is truly a case of what happens thereafter and, personally, I feel that insufficient planning has been put in place already, which will jeopardise more than just the motorsports industry, although non-fossil chemical fuels may prove feasible.