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Opinion

Why motorsport has a lot to thank John Webb for

OPINION: The passing of former Brands Hatch boss John Webb last week was met with tributes from all corners of motorsport. He was a visionary who helped shape the landscape of racing in the UK over a 30-year period and a great many of us owe a debt of gratitude to the man

Rene Arnoux (Ferrari 126C2B), retired, leads Keke Rosberg (Williams FW08C-Cosworth), 1st position, Danny Sullivan (Tyrrell 011-Cosworth), 2nd position and Alan Jones (Arrows A6-Cosworth), 3rd position, action.

LAT Photographic

I never got to meet John Webb. More’s the pity because I didn’t get the chance to say thank you. And there’s a lot I have to thank him for. But for Webb and all that he did at Brands Hatch and beyond, I probably wouldn’t be sitting at my desk right now writing about motor racing.

Brands, thanks to its proximity to my home through my childhood and adolescence, played a key role in firing my passion for the sport that became my living. (Close enough, I have always insisted, for me to hear the bark of a Cosworth DFV when Formula 1 cars were on track if the wind was in the right direction.) I was barely in my teens when I was allowed to go up to Brands unaccompanied. Those days watching everything with four wheels — and on one occasion two — that visited what will always remain for me the greatest circuit in the world are so important in my life story.

The late Webb, who was at the helm of Brands and its sister circuits from 1966 until 1989, created a vibrant home for all forms and levels of racing. I saw my first grand prix there in 1978 and, probably crucially as it turned out, my first international sportscar race, the 1000Km[s] in 1981. But just as important were my trips to clubbie meetings. Had I lived near any other circuit in the UK I don’t believe I would have got the same exposure to such a diverse range of motorsport.

I look back on that period of my life with such joy. Just think about what I got to see over those years in the late 1970s and the first half of the ‘80s before I went off to university. Formula 1 cars on track multiple times a year, for a start, at least for a few of those years.

Webb, as long time Brands commentator Brian Jones once put it to me, believed that the race-going public liked to feel the earth rumble beneath them. That explains why he brought Formula 5000 to the UK and then created the British Formula 1 Championship — universally known as Aurora after the slot-car maker that sponsored it. Ditto Thundersports — a favourite of mine just for the sheer diversity of machinery — and Thundersaloons, a series for which I was something called media co-ordinator during a brief stint on the press office staff at Brands.

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Webb, the arch-promoter — because he was always a PR man at heart — knew that big, hairy racing cars brought paying spectators through the door. Which is why he still believed in the concept of non-championship F1 races long after they had fallen by the wayside elsewhere. And perhaps more pertinently why he could repeatedly persuade F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone to supply him with a grid of cars.

Webb was an expert promoter who understood what the paying public wanted to see

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Webb was an expert promoter who understood what the paying public wanted to see

The strength of the relationship between Webbie and Bernie explains why I can claim to have seen such a rarity as the short-lived Lotus 80 on track. The 1979 Race of Champions had been snowed off in March, yet it was rescheduled for just a few weeks later — and just one after the US Grand Prix West at Long Beach. In case you didn’t know — or weren’t there - the innovative Lotus that was also a thing of beauty was briefly tried by Mario Andretti in the race morning warm-up.

The Webb-Ecclestone axis also explains why I got to see world championship F1 machinery three times in 1983, my favourite F1 season of all time. Either side of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone (it wasn’t the turn of Brands in those days of alternating fixtures), I perched on the Paddock Hill Bend banking for the Race of Champions in April and then the European Grand Prix in September. F1 needed a replacement at short notice for the still-born New York GP at Flushing Meadows, so who did Ecclestone turn to? John Webb and his team at Brands, of course.

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That’s an important to point to make. Webb always had a team around him. Webb is credited with so many good ideas — and not just the above — but the reality was that they were probably never conceived by just him. Like all good ideas they were almost certainly hit upon in the pub, the result of banter over a beer, or something stronger.

FFirst, introduced for 1987, shows just how much Webb cared about motor racing. FF1600 was getting expensive, and Webb and his cohorts saw the need for a new bottom rung on the single-seater ladder

Alcohol played a big part in Brands culture in the Webb era. Formula Ford and its spin-offs, FF2000 and Sports 2000, and Formula First all came out of the Brands talking shop that centred on the old Club Bar and then the famed Kentagon. Members of the clique that gathered around Webb included Geoff Clarke, boss of the Motor Racing Stables race school at Brands, circuit manager Jacky Epstein and the mellifluous-toned Jones.

FFirst, introduced for 1987, shows just how much Webb cared about motor racing. FF1600 was getting expensive, and Webb and his cohorts saw the need for a new bottom rung on the single-seater ladder. Oliver Gavin, Kelvin Burt, Guy Smith, Darren Turner and Danny Watts are just but a few of those who cut their racing teeth in the quirky Van Diemen one-make racers with a Ford Escort XR3 engine slung sideways across the back.

You could add to that list of drivers hundreds if not thousands who went on to successful professional careers after starting out in FFord. So I’m probably not the only one who never got around to thanking John Webb.

Later a class winner at Le Mans, Danny Watts was one of many British racers who got their break in Formula First

Photo by: Russell Batchelor / Motorsport Images

Later a class winner at Le Mans, Danny Watts was one of many British racers who got their break in Formula First

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