Chris Aylett, Motorsport Industry Association – Q&A
1 February 2010
You held the Green Conference at the NEC ahead of the Autosport International Show. Tell us a little bit about the discussions that were held during the seminar.
It was one of the most exciting conferences that we have ever run and it makes you realise that this low-carbon movement is really taking off and is full of opportunities for motorsport.
We have been running these conferences for several years and each year it is like you are talking about the future – but now the future has arrived; it's arrived in a year or so during the recession. Governments have bailed out the automotive industry around the world and with these hundreds of millions of dollars, have said you have to make low-carbon cars – no more of these gas guzzlers. They've basically said that 'we the politicians have signed this piece of paper that says that in five years times, these cars have to be on the road'. The automotive industry has said 'thank you very much, we'll take the money' but hasn't got a clue what to do with it.
They don't know whether cars should be electric, hybrid or diesels and that is the opportunity for motorsport now as for the last five years, we have messed about with KERS and bio-diesel and are in a great position. Whether we capitalise on it is now the key thing but what an opportunity. That was the atmosphere of the conference and if the FIA now cleverly writes rules that makes motorsport move fast, and writes them well, then they will prompt the industry to rise to the challenge and come up with green solutions.
And boy, do they have a marketplace for them in the car industry.
Of course, one of the speakers at the conference has been a key ambassador for green racing in recent years in Paul Drayson…
In a way we are lucky to have a Minister for Science and Innovation who is a racing driver, and who passionately understands this low carbon opportunity. He is marginally frustrated that the motorsport industry isn't moving faster so it takes a position of leadership, as at the moment, we are slipping back and may end up following the automotive companies. He lays a challenge down to the governing bodies to change the rules intelligently and really give us a challenge so people can come onto the grid green.
This isn't a time for a passive, slow move from the governing bodies. KERS is a good example. They mandated it from nowhere in F1 with millions of dollars needed, but we raised it and put it on a car and it has been so successful that they've put it to one side. That is the oddity of motorsport.
In recent years we've seen things like KERS becoming more common, we've had diesels winning the WTCC and Le Mans. Are we getting to the stage where we might soon have a championship which runs solely on alternative fuels?
You might as well know, our politicians have said that by 2050, there will be no greenhouse emissions from cars – which isn't really that far away to young people. By 2051, there will be nothing else to run! I think that by 2015, the car makers will be fined billions of dollars if they don't cut their emissions. We are only talking five years time, and they could have to pay billions of dollars for not making those targets. Of course we will have a lot of low carbon vehicles racing in the years to come, but whether they make the racing solely for those cars is the challenge for the governing bodies. However, in future they will be the only cars you can get so it is an interesting journey we are on, and it's all to do with the recession and government funding. It's suddenly kick-started it all.
At the show, that isn't a racing car that has pride of place at the front of the MIA stand. What's that all about?
You don't mean the Brawn GP F1 car then? I won't tell Ross [Brawn] about that!
The other side of the Brawn GP title winning car we have a Jackal, built in Devon by a company called Supacat. It's the thing that you see in Afghanistan with guns on it. A few years ago we recognised that, facing a recession, motorsport has a lot of assets which are underutilised and a lot of talent.
One of the things we are good at is that we deliver on time. If you think about it, there has never been a race delayed while they wait for the supply of a part. When the time arrives, those cars are going – there is no second chance. Motorsport is a fantastic user of time and there is this discipline over the years that if you aren't ready for the start, you are out. In defence terms, those guys measure lateness of delivery in death. Make no mistakes about it. If you turn up on the battle field and you haven't quite finished making the thing, then you are going to die. If we are late, we face losing money and going bust – they face losing their lives.
We led a bunch of motorsport companies to meet defence companies and see what the synergies were and the ability of motorsport companies to come up with solutions and deliver them on time ready for battle was perfect for them as it saved money and saved lives. If you think about the Dakar Rally and you watch Afghanistan on TV, while it was a bit absurd when I dreamt the idea up, they have to get in and out of a battle pretty quickly and there is no better way than with the performance and engineering capabilities of the guys who built desert raid cars.
That is effectively where that came from, and now we have the likes of Lola making underwater vehicles, there are un-manned submarines and un-manned planes which they use when they don't want to put pilots in to be shot down. If you think about it, an un-manned vehicle is an F1 car. It's only when they put a driver in it that it messes up the computer. The car arrives at the track as an un-manned vehicle and it knows in its memory how to go round the track fast. The whole car has been built and programmed in the factory so we took that to the defence companies and when they said 'can you build these things', the answer was 'we already do'.
We fly them at ground level in motorsport, now we fly them in the air.
Those synergies, are they key to helping companies in motorsport through the recession as it allows them to explore other avenues?
They should have done it before and it shouldn't have needed the recession to kick it off. They have assets they weren't using properly and now they have spotted it; that you can carry on winning things and pick up this other business as well. That should have been done before but you need something to kick-start it. Maybe the war in Afghanistan and the security of government funding for defence did that. Its secure income if you can get into it and sadly, as long as we keep on attacking and defending people, there will be a business in defence.
Twelve months ago, we spoke about how motorsport could deal with an upcoming recession. How do you feel it coped in 2009?
Remarkably well, and better than any of us thought. I go around the world speaking on these things and I think one of the key things is that motorsport is full of lean companies. They are used to laying people off over the winter in between seasons and many of them probably do. What that means first of all is that we went into the recession lean and weren't carrying a lot of fat, so we didn't need to shed a lot. I'm taking the F1 teams out of this as they have halved their staff, but because they volunteered to. It's the perversity of motorsport - in the recession you half your staff even if you don't have to.
Other than the F1 guys, people went into the recession lean and flexible and they are small businesses – so are quick to react. If you read the business papers, that's what companies have to do to deal with a recession, so naturally, we were better equipped. Funnily enough, brands grow big in recession and certain brands gobble up the others and they have to market it. They have bigger budgets to market with and they look for a way to market their product and find motorsport. That is how we have Virgin coming into F1, Santander doubling its investment, so it's not all bad news. Brands need to market themselves and in the commercial side of things, motorsport is a brand opportunity and we are pretty good value.
When you consider the investment and money involved in motorsport, do you think there are other industries that could learn from how motorsport had dealt with things?
I don't want motorsport to hold itself up as being anything other than lucky. Motorsport is an optimistic sport, as there are 30 cars on a grid and 29 are optimists – only one is the winner. The following week, they all go back again as they are optimistic that they will win that time. Optimism is a powerful thing to have through a downturn with the view that it will get better and we are resilient. We go racing week after week and may keep losing, but we keep going back.
Optimism, resilience, leanness – these are all things that are in our nature. People are writing articles about companies needing to do those things – they just haven't looked at motorsport and realised that we were lucky and already doing these things. It's an interesting strength of the industry which I don't think many people realised, because they didn't realise what a recession was going to bring.
It's a very odd set of circumstances and when we sat there in Florida looking at the year ahead, I didn't think we would get through as unscathed as we have. Although times are tough, people have worked hard – but then they always did.