Climbing the Ladder
In every sport a handful of championships typically bask in the lion’s share of media coverage and public attention, and motorsport is no exception to this phenomenon. Mention motor racing and most people will automatically think Formula One, WRC or one of the leading touring car events. Top drivers at this competitive level enjoy the status of being the Wayne Rooneys of their chosen series, and in terms of sponsorship can do very well indeed in their chosen profession.
But just as quality football also can be found in divisions below the Premier League, placing a focus solely upon the big name motorsport championships is to miss out on the opportunity to both witness a spectacle every bit as – and sometimes more – exciting than the high profile series events, and to follow the progression of racing’s most talented drivers through the various championships.
One tyre manufacturer to grasp the importance of this truth in the UK is Dunlop. The manufacturer has a long established emphasis on supporting motorsport around the world, and locally is best known for its title sponsorship and control tyre supply to the Dunlop MSA Touring Car Championship, also known as the British Touring Car Championships or BTCC. Goodyear Dunlop Group corporate communications manager James Bailey, speaking with Tyres & Accessories, commented that Dunlop’s association with the BTCC has been a key component in keeping the motoring public informed about the company’s products and their performance, but he also recognises that the BTCC is only one part of a wider UK motorsport scene.
“In the UK the BTCC is an acknowledged premium package in terms of attendance, publicity and television coverage, but Dunlop noticed that a huge gap existed between motorsport at this level and amateur club racing,” says Bailey. “We felt there existed in the UK a number of championships close in professionalism to touring cars, and decided there was a gap in the market.”
This gap was filled in 2006 by Dunlop’s Great & British motorsport festivals, the core of which is formed by what James Bailey believes are four of the best existing championships: the Mini Challenge, Radical Enduro Championship, Radical Biduro Championship and the Playstation 2 Ginetta Junior Championship. These series, although already established, were to a degree lost amongst the numerous amateur events held in the UK until Dunlop’s “gestalt” decision – that the four championships, together, would attain a much higher level of recognition than they could ever aspire to own their own. Each of the component events, with equal billing, were thus branded as Great & British.
“By bringing these together we could not only co-ordinate the events, we had the opportunity to put more effort into promoting the championships and arranging television coverage,” says Bailey. “Therefore more drivers have in turn been registering for these events.” And packaging the four championships as the Great & British festival has not only been an effective way of promoting the respective championships and Dunlop tyres – the Radical races and Mini challenge use a Dunlop race control tyre and the Ginetta a road legal Dunlop race tyre, all made at Fort Dunlop in Birmingham – Great & British has aimed from its inception to widen the appeal of UK motorsport.
“Our aim is to create an event that encourages people to see motor racing for the first time,” Bailey relates. “Great & British is intended to provide a family day out; the races are quite short, around 20 minutes long, and fast paced.” The concept of a ‘festival’ with a broad appeal is further extended through the inclusion of a number of peripheral events in the Great & British calendar. For example, adds the corporate communications manager, in conjunction with the Mini Challenge Dunlop also holds a Mini festival, parades, gatherings and other related activities – all of which add atmosphere to the event.
Racing remains at the heart of Great & British, however, and those who turn out to see quality on-track action are seldom disappointed. The fact that more than a handful of today’s top BTCC drivers competed in the championships now covered by Great & British earlier in their careers indicates that the calibre of some drivers competing in these races is exceptional, and amongst the grid at any meeting may lurk a future BTCC champion: Followers of the Great & British races will be able to witness and follow their racing career from its embryonic stages, an advantage not lost on James Bailey. “What’s been great about Great & British is that people are moving from one championship to another, moving up the ladder towards touring car events like the BTCC whilst being able to remain within the Dunlop family, so to speak.”
Amongst the up and coming talent competing under the Great & British umbrella is Toby Newton. The young racer won the Ginetta championship two years ago when he was just 16 years old, and is now competing in the Radical Biduro. In October Newton was crowned series champion after securing two third-place finishes on the series’ final race day. Toby Newton is certain to continue moving up the racing championship ladder, comments Bailey. Another standout performer has been Simon Shaw, who staved off 8,000 competitors to become winner of the Dunlop Race Academy in 2005. The year after achieving this distinction Shaw competed with success in the Ginetta races, and in 2007 he progressed to the Dunlop Sport Maxx Cup, a series designed as an official stepping-stone to the BTCC.
Progression up the motorsport ladder towards the top-level championships is one of the intended by-products of Great & British, reports Bailey. “Our involvement in the Great & British championships helps drivers move towards touring cars, for us it is an opportunity to put a little bit back into the sport. We have the BTCC, which is a very high profile series for Dunlop, but it is also important to nurture young driving talent and provide these drivers with publicity and support.” This last point is crucial, Bailey adds. Support is more than ensuring they achieve their best out on the track: “They may be able to drive, but television and promotional exposure can be daunting to the uninitiated, so we are able to help with this at a suitable level.”
Dunlop’s relationship with drivers moving “up the ladder” begins even before they reach Great & British, and continues all the way to the top. The previously mentioned Dunlop Race Academy is aimed at those who’ve never before held a racing licence and gives winners the opportunity to compete in the Great & British championships. Drivers who excel in these series are often to be found in touring car events, initially the Dunlop Sport Maxx Cup, a junior event that serves as a feeder to the BTCC. Sport Maxx Cup races took place at Great & British events during 2007 and Dunlop has pledged to promote the championship in a way that complements its title sponsorship of the BTCC.
This particular series is run on the same Dunlop SP Sportmaxx UHP tyres that anyone can buy from a dealer and have fitted to their own car. James Bailey explains the reason behind this choice of tyre: “We decided that as the touring cars participating in the event were basically showroom specification, the only changes being to the suspension and safety modifications, why not also run a standard tyre?” The SP Sport Maxx is fitted as OE to the Audi A8, Jaguar XK Coupe and Renault Megane 225 Trophy amongst others, and the directional multi-radius tread is designed to provide optimal road contact, even during heavy cornering.
Of course it doesn’t matter how good an event is if nobody knows about it, so promotion of Great & British has been a priority for Dunlop. This year the festival enjoyed increased television coverage, with 90-minute highlights of each meeting screening on Sky Sport and a half hour wrap up on Motors TV. Coverage of events isn’t live; there is a two-week delay in broadcasting race action, something James Bailey hopes will encourage fans to attend race meetings and savour the Great & British atmosphere first hand.
Next year Great & British will continue to “evolve”, comments Bailey. A full grid is also anticipated for the Sport Maxx Cup, which will become a fully-fledged championship in its own right in 2008. In addition the manufacturer’s commitment to touring car events will be further cemented through the supply of tyres to the BTCC supporting Seat Cupra Cup.