The Fascinating World of Motorsport Valley®: 7 Amazing Facts
Motorsport is a huge industry – especially in the UK.
Britain leads the world in motorsport. We host rounds of the Formula One World Championship and the World Rally Championship. Several leading F1 teams are based here, including McLaren, Williams, Mercedes and Lotus. The industry employs thousands and contributes billions to the economy. And its heart in the UK is Motorsport Valley®.
Motorsport is an astonishingly challenging, competitive industry. A Formula One car contains tens of thousands of components, all of which have to be in perfect working order. Drivers in a single race change gear thousands of times. Any errors in the precision of the engineering might not only result in losing the race – they could be fatal to the driver, as this list of driver deaths over time attests. Avoiding tragedy requires tremendous expertise.
British motorsport benefits hugely from having Motorsport Valley® as a hub of this expertise. The name – like Silicon Fen – is derived from Silicon Valley, and it refers to the part of the Thames Valley in Oxfordshire and the West Midlands that is home to the majority of the UK’s motorsport companies and engineers. Eight of the eleven teams that compete in Formula One are based in Motorsport Valley®. The name has even been trademarked by the Motorsport Industry Association, the global trade association for the motorsport industry, which is also based nearby in Warwickshire.
Oxford Royale Academy is launching a fast-paced and exciting new course in Mastering Automotive Engineering for students aged 16 to 18 in summer 2019, which will be based at the heart of Motorsport Valley®. Students taking this 6-week course will live, dine and study in colleges of the University of Oxford, learning about the ins and outs of motorsport engineering by building a Caterham sports car from scratch – which on the last day of the course, they’ll be able to test out on the track.
If you’re interested in this course – or in the world of motorsport in the UK more generally – here’s what you should know about Motorsport Valley®.
1. Its location is a result of the Second World War
How do hubs like Motorsport Valley® come about? In the case of Silicon Fen, the presence of the University of Cambridge drove tech companies to the area, but Motorsport Valley® had no such nearby influences. Instead, it was a concentration of labour in the area that brought motorsport companies to the Thames Valley.
During the Second World War, the Thames Valley had been a crucial centre for aerospace engineering. This map of WWII airfields demonstrates a key reason why – airfields were typically concentrated around areas in need of defence, such as major cities and ports, but far enough away from those areas that the airfields themselves were relatively safe from bombing raids (the exception being the concentration of airfields around the Kent coast, where danger was unavoidable). The location of the Thames Valley was ideal for building and servicing aircraft for the defence of London, while being far enough away that these airfields were not caught in bombing raids on London itself.
After the Second World War, many of the airfields and their engineers were no longer needed. Yet here were engineers skilled in building a challenging product, namely fast, lightweight aircraft that were quick to repair; these skills translated easily into motorsport. The airfields also provided infrastructure as they were easily converted into racetracks. It made obvious sense for motorsport companies to be established where the necessary skills, expertise and infrastructure for their businesses could already be found.
2. A huge percentage of the world’s top engineers are still based there
Estimates vary on exactly how many of the world’s top engineers work in Motorsport Valley®, but it’s approximately 25,000 people, or 80% of the world’s top motorsport engineers. But of course, it takes more than engineers to make a motorsport business work. Add in everyone else – the marketers, the managers, the support staff – and Motorsport Valley® employs around 41,000 people; that’s a good-sized town in motorsport alone.
What’s also notable is that this isn’t just a few large firms dominating the area. Motorsport Valley® is also a hub of small and medium-sized businesses; there are around 4,300 businesses based there, so that’s an average of less than ten employees per company. Naturally, there are some much larger companies and some with just one or two employees.
The consequences of this continued concentration of engineering talent is that new companies are incentivised to set up their bases in Motorsport Valley®, and any engineer who wants to try their hand at turning a great idea into their own company is already in a great location to do so. Having a readily available highly skilled workforce is good for companies, and having a range of possible employment opportunities is good for engineers; and both of these things in combination help to drive innovation and productivity.
3. Motorsport Valley® companies spend a colossal amount on research and development
For motorsport companies to stay ahead of the competition (literally), developing new and innovative ideas is vital, and that means putting a huge percentage of their overall spend into R&D. Overall spend on R&D by the motorsport industry in the UK is around 25-30% of turnover – that’s more even than famously innovation-focused industries like the pharmaceutical industry (which spends 15%), the automotive industry more generally (which spends 6%) and engineering as a whole (just 4%). This level of spend and resulting innovation is a significant part of why motorsport contributes so much to the UK economy.
It’s also a factor in what makes this field so fascinating. While some aspects of motorsport have stayed constant over time (such as what’s required of drivers), engineers constantly have to get to grips with new materials, new technologies and new techniques. Regulations are also regularly updated in Formula One, requiring engineers to adapt accordingly. That makes for a working environment where there’s little chance of getting bored from doing the same thing year after year. For instance, for 2021, the fuel allowance has been increased, so that drivers will need to do less coasting to save fuel and will be able to push their engines to the maximum for longer. That makes for more exciting, faster races as well as new challenges for engineers.
4. The UK is a centre for teaching motorsport too
Fifteen different universities in the UK offer motorsport engineering as a specific, tailored course, a further 200 colleges also offer motorsport courses, and many other universities offer engineering courses that – while not necessarily tailored to motorsport – certainly support students who are interesting in motorsport engineering as a future career.
Naturally, the universities offering tailored degrees are clustered around Motorsport Valley®, such as Warwick University, Coventry University and Oxford Brookes University. Many such courses will also have close links to industry, allowing their students to spend a year in industry that can forge connections ready for their future careers. And the benefit also accrues to motorsport companies, who can ensure that the next generation of motorsport engineers are being enthused and equipped with the skills they’ll need to take the industry forward.
If you’re a student interested in becoming a motorsport engineer in future, our course in Mastering Automotive Engineering can help you figure out which university course might be the best option for you to achieve your racing dreams. For instance, it might be that you want to go straight into a BEng in Automotive Engineering, or instead you might prefer to choose a more wide-ranging engineering undergraduate degree, and instead specialise in automotive engineering in an MEng instead. Both options are possible at British universities, so it simply depends on what your ambitions and interests are; our teachers can advise you.
5. Innovation in motorsport has been implemented in a wide variety of other fields
Remember all that R&D spend? It isn’t just motorsport that benefits. Many technologies developed for the challenging world of motorsport translate easily into automotive engineering more generally; for instance, semi-automatic gearboxes, traction control and roll cages all came from motorsport. Any improvements in acceleration, braking and tyre design also translate easily from motorsport to everyday cars.
There’s an even more basic innovation that came from motorsport: the rear view mirror, in the very early days of racing. It wasn’t designed to make driving safer or easier; it was developed in order for drivers to see if there was anyone about to overtake them in the race. Yet since then, rear view mirrors have become an indispensable part of car design, making us all safer. Of course, it isn’t just in general automotive engineering that motorsport innovations apply; new materials like carbon fibre, popularised by motorsport, are now used in a wide variety of other fields. Formula One cars have to be fast, light and extremely safe, and these features are transferable to many other fields, just as the skills of aerospace engineers are transferable to motorsport engineering.
6. The UK has won more Formula One titles than any other nation
It’s not just that Motorsport Valley® has the skills and the infrastructure; the impact of this cluster of expertise is evident in the prizes won by British motorsport, especially in Formula One. Since 1950, when the Formula One World Championship began, thanks in significant part to the engineers and companies of Motorsport Valley®, the United Kingdom has won more titles than any other nation, with 10 world champions collecting a total of 18 titles.
Aside from Scuderia Ferrari, all the most successful Formula One teams are based in the UK – primarily in Motorsport Valley®. It’s undeniably motivating for British motorsport engineers to have this record of success to live up to and to see their efforts translate into wins. And it isn’t just in Formula One that the UK stands out; for instance, Britain has had more winning drivers than any other nation at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, including the host nation of France.
You might be wondering about the racing history of the Caterham Seven 270, the car that you’ll build if you join us for our course in Mastering Automotive Engineering. Various models of the Caterham Seven have been raced and dominated many races, but were then banned in the US and UK for being – in their words – “too fast to race”, embarrassing the competition. Yet despite these assorted bans, the Caterham Seven is the most raced in the world today.
7. Motorsport in the UK has a turnover of about £9 billion
Motorsport can seem frivolous, even reckless when the dangers are considered. But its impact, as we’ve seen, is considerable: driving employment, education, design and safety innovation across a wide variety of fields.
However, the extent of this may surprise you: motorsport in the UK has an astonishing turnover of £9 billion, which has more than doubled in the past twenty years; even allowing for inflation, this represents remarkable growth. Nearly 90% of the motorsport companies in the UK export overseas, which is remarkable given that many of them have only a handful of employees. And of course, the majority of this astounding economic activity takes place in Motorsport Valley®.
To put this in context, this turnover is considerably higher than that of all Britain’s bus companies combined. Formula One-related businesses alone accounted for more than £2 billion of turnover in 2012, a figure that can only have grown since then. It’s particularly notable that this figure is from a time when Britain was deep in recession; it’s been theorised that the recession may even have been beneficial for British motorsport, leading firms to diversify and expand their skills base in order to maintain their income. Motorsport might not seem like the kind of industry that would thrive in a recession, but British motorsport is undeniably full of surprises.
In our Mastering Automotive Engineering course, you’ll learn all about the industry in theory and in practice . This hands-on course combines classroom study with plenty of workshop sessions as you build a road legal Caterham sports car. So if you’re fascinated by British motorsport and want to learn about this amazing industry in the heart of Motorsport Valley®, join us this summer and get to grips with Mastering Automotive Engineering.
Image credits: Spitfire; Caterham; car engine; Warwick University; rear view mirror; trophy; factory; Lewis Hamilton.