Saturday, 10 August 2013

Formula One, Motorsports & Wales

Last summer, I focused on Welsh baseball and a Commonwealth Games bid in the 2020s. Earlier this year, I mentioned a Welsh national cricket team - apparantly there's going to be a vote on that when the Assembly returns from recess.

With discussions rumbling on about the future of motorsports in Wales - due to the proposal in Blaenau Gwent - I thought I'd take a look at the current situation, what we could focus on in terms of attracting new events and whether Wales could/should aspire to host major international track-based events like Formula One.

Don't get the impression that I'm a motorsports fan - I'm not. The following's just example of (hopefully satisfactory) research.

Motorsports – An overview

Formula Three is a similar "open wheel" competition
to the more famous and glamorous Formula One.
(Pic : The Guardian)

There are many different types of motorsport competitions, most falling under the umbrella of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) governing body, based in Paris.

The first major category are open wheel/single-seater races. The biggest competition is, obviously, Formula One. GP2 and GP3 competitions act as "feeder comptitions" to Formula One itself - for aspiring drivers - and are held as "support races" to the main event. However, there are also multiple Formula Three and Formula-E championships which have a different set of manufacturing rules, in addition to karting.

Touring cars are ordinary production cars that have been modified, and have their own World Championship. Endurance racing (like Le Mans) is similar, but usually involves modified high-performance cars,  with races lasting 24 hours. Truck racing is self-explanatory.

The other big one – where Wales plays a major role at present – is rallying. Rallying involved modified production cars, but races take place off-road on mixed-surface tracks. It isn't a "race" as such, more a timed sprint for each car.
The top competition is the FIA World Rally Championship.

In rallying's heyday, there was also the Group B category - a manly competition for real men (and women too), who basically drove their own hearses around unfenced mountain roads at 100mph.

MotoGP is the highest regarded motorcycle racing competition.
(Pic :

There are plenty major motorsports events outside of the FIA umbrella.

The biggest (in Europe anyway) are motorcycle racing events, the governing body being the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), headquartered in Switzerland. There are too many competitions and formats to go into, but the highest-profile competitions are the MotoGP series and Superbike World Championships. The highest-profile endurance motorcycle race is arguably the Isle of Man TT.

In the United States, you have NASCAR (similar to touring cars), where drivers gonna drive real fast for a while, den gonna turn left for a while. Also, the IndyCar Series is similar to Formula Three and is probably the most popular "open wheel" competition in North America.

For other non-car motorsports, you can point to aquatic racing (i.e. powerboats), air racing involving modified single engine planes and the "unconventional" – lawnmower racing, hill-climbs etc.

So there's lots of choice and lots of events.

Wales and motorsports : The past & present

Trac Mon has hosted many events down the years
for both cars and motorcycles.
(Pic :
Due to the landscape, numerous foresty roads and climate, Wales is home to several rally schools. Wales has produced several high-profile drivers and co-drivers, such as : Gwyndaf Evans, David Llewellin , Phil Mills and Nicky Grist. Tom Cave and Elfyn Evans are two current Welsh participants in the World Rally Championship.

Wales hosts the British leg of the World Rally Championship (Wales Rally GB), which will be based in Llandudno from this winter. It's estimated to be currently worth around £10million to the Welsh economy each year, and at least £40million since it started.

Hosting a major rally leg is great. However, I doubt it brings as much attention as track-based competitions, as it's usually just a couple of nutters fans standing at track side up in the forests. It's events around the main race that tend to attract people – like special stages.

Track-based events usually attract thousands of spectators, especially for the bigger championships. Wales doesn't host events at that scale (yet), but we do have three notable circuits :
  • Trac Môn, Aberffraw, Anglesey – Arguably Wales' top track venue at present, hosting a wide range of events for both motorbikes and cars, in addition to testing.
  • Pembrey Circuit, Carmarthenshire – Previously hosted Formula Three, Superbike Championships and Touring Car Championships. Currently used primarily for testing and smaller competitions.
  • Llandow Circuit, Vale of Glamorgan – Mainly used for private track events and track days to paying members of the public.

Four Welsh drivers have competed at the highest level in Formula One, but the only regular established Welsh F1 driver was Denbighshire's Tom Pryce, who was killed in an accident at the South African Grand Prix in 1977.

Wales has produced several drivers in other categories of racing - most notably karting, touring cars and Formula Three - with some competing at present. If the south produces more rugby players and footballers, it's definitely the north of Wales which produces more professional racing drivers per head.

Wales and motorsports : The future

Three main question marks surround : the future of Wales Rally GB, the future of existing track circuits and the proposed Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent.

As mentioned, Wales Rally GB has moved from the south to the north, being based out of Llandudno and Flintshire from this year. It currently receives funding from the Welsh Government – in 2012, £1.4million. That's generally offset by the short-term economic boost from tourism.

The long-term future of the event could be in doubt, and has been for some time, usually only being saved at the last minute. The FIA have considered dropping it from the WRC calendar on-off, but it was included for 2013. It's unclear if that'll continue from 2014. There's also the prospect that the event could move from Wales to another part of Britain & Ireland at some point in the future.

The big threat facing existing circuits is they they could – perhaps Trac Môn aside – be eyed up for development, as they tend to be large, flat brownfield sites. There are on-off plans for a new village at Llandow, while the owner of Pembrey Airport is keen to see it expand, and that might affect the circuit in the long-term.

Last but not least is the Circuit of Wales development in Blaenau Gwent. Jac o the North has his own take on that, as does Click on Wales.

The £280million proposal – led by Heads fo the Valleys Development Company - near Rassau Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Ebbw Vale, includes:
  • A 5.4km main circuit with temporary and permanent grandstands (70,000 capacity) – currently aimed at motorcycle racing, but could be used for other track races.
  • Pit buildings, medical centre etc. for teams.
  • Motorcross circuit to "world championship standards".
  • 1.2km karting circuit.
  • A driver training centre.
  • 180-bed 4 star hotel, 150-bed 3 star hotel, 27 "lodges" and a campsite.
  • A 14-unit business park, 17-unit industrial/storage park and 19 showrooms and "brand centres" for manufacturers.
  • A solar energy park.
Access will be improved via the duelling of the A465, the latest stage(s) of which are currently under construction. The proposed Ebbw Vale railway station would be around 4km away.

The proposed Circuit of Wales development
in Rassau, Blaenau Gwent.
(Pic :

The estimates are for up to 4,000 construction jobs and between 4,000 and 6,000 operational jobs. It's also estimated the development could attract 750,000 visitors per year.

The project as a whole seems very similar to the Circuit de Catalunya, located in a valley on the outskirts of Barcelona.

It's incredibly ambitious, and you have to wonder whether it really can be delivered instead of being another wild, undeliverable promise like Valleywood.

Parts of the development – like the business park – might be eligible for Objective One funding, and it's claimed the developers have the £150million finance needed for the track itself (rather than the add-ons). However, I think it's worth having a healthy scepticism about this one - we've heard it all before.

Some of the figures on jobs, for example, seem random and change each time they're mentioned. There's also the question of how events will be attracted to this new circuit in the face of competition from established circuits - and how much that might cost.
It would almost certainly require some sort of capital funding from the Welsh Government at some point.

Blaenau Gwent Council approved the outline plans last month. Due to the potential environmental impact (it borders the Brecon Beacons National Park), Natural Resources Wales and other environmental groups raised concerns.

The Welsh Government have subsequently put the project "on hold" – subject to a detailed inspection/due diligence - and are deciding whether or not to call the planning application in, which could put the project in jeapody.

What events could Wales realistically host?

Economic catalyst? Or white elephant?
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
Firstly, there are all the events that Wales already hosts - like track days at the existing circuits, and the Wales Rally GB. Wales should try to retain the Wales Rally GB, as it's the highest-profile motorsports event in the country at present. It wouldn't send out the best message to lose it.

If the Circuit of Wales comes into being though, then Wales would have a genuinely world-class venue and could probably bid to host the likes of:
  • Formula Three & Formula E Championships
  • Moto GP
  • (British & World) Superbikes Championships
  • (British & World) Touring Car Championships
  • (British & World) Motorcross Championships
The cost of bidding to host these events will need to be offset by the potential economic boost from visitors etc. That probably puts MotoGP, Superbikes and Formula Three towards the top of the list because of their relative popularity..

Interestingly, the design and access statement for the Circuit of Wales (pdf page 7) suggests that because Wales is a self-governing state – citing examples like Catalonia, Monaco etc. - Wales would be entitled to separate World Championship race under our own name - a "Welsh Grand Prix" - not the "British" umbrella.

Could Wales host Formula One?

Hosting a Welsh Grand Prix - Don't get your hopes up.
Hosting a team/testing base - that's something to aim for.
(Pic : The Guardian)
It's wishful thinking, to be frank.

I don't think the Circuit of Wales has been mentioned in the same vein as F1 other than a throwaway headline in the Daily Mail.

There are several reasons why not, namely the crowded F1 calendar and the fact the British Grand Prix is firmly established at Silverstone. You've also got to factor in things like access, hospitality, hotels etc. the requirements of which are huge even for a single weekend. F1 races usually attract upwards of 120,000 spectators, almost double Moto GP's 60-80,000.

The FIA are unlikely to want an extra European leg (i.e. a "Welsh Grand Prix") when they're actively targeting a global market for expansion - in particular to the United States and Asia. So to host F1, the Circuit of Wales would have to replace Silverstone and that's unlikely to say the least.

However, if Wales is going to play a role in F1, I think the best way would be to host a team rather than a race.

All the design, engineering work and production work has to happen somewhere. With the prospect of a business park being attached to the Circuit of Wales site - as well as Ebbw Vale being declared an automotive enterprise zone by the Welsh Government - it could be marketed to motorsports teams as a potential base or test site.

Link that in with local universities and college courses - as hoped - and you would have the foundations for some very highly-skilled engineering jobs in the heads of the valleys, that could potentially have spin-offs running into the tens of millions, if not more.


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