The racing club changing the face of UK motorsport

MotorSport Vision Racing is one of the newest racing clubs in the UK, and under the guidance of Jonathan Palmer it has grown in only a decade and a half to become one of the most successful. STEFAN MACKLEY explores

The racing club changing the face of UK motorsport

For close to a century racing clubs have been the focal point for motorsport enthusiasts across the UK, and although many have come and gone during that time, there remain a handful that can trace their roots back to before the Second World War.

But while there may be older and longer established clubs, one of the newest has also become one of the most successful since it was created less than 20 years ago.

The MotorSport Vision Racing club has continued to expand since it was established in 2005 after ex-Formula 1 driver Jonathan Palmer had acquired the Octagon group of circuits - Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Oulton Park and Cadwell Park - the previous year under the umbrella of MotorSport Vision.

"With the fact that we were getting a number of major international events at Brands Hatch like A1GP, World Touring Cars and DTM, naturally we wanted to have more control over their operation," says MSV chief executive Palmer (below).

"We were handling virtually every aspect of each event including promotion, ticket sales, managing spectators, even arranging support race content, but at that time we were having to hand over the on-track delivery to a third party and that was a situation I was keen to change.

"We knew we needed an international race director and experienced team to persuade governing body the Motor Sports Association [now Motorsport UK] to allow us to fast-track a very cumbersome and lengthy approval process.

"Our first step was to appoint David Scott, who's done a great job for us as race operations manager, and he very quickly assembled an outstanding group of individuals and scrutineers, many of whom are responsible for organising the British Grand Prix.

"Simultaneously we were being approached by various series - some existing, some new - asking if we would consider setting up a racing club as they would be keen to come across and join us. We were already running Formula Palmer Audi at that point and it was increasingly logical for us to form our own race division."

The first in-house event was a one-off meeting at Cadwell for Caterhams in October 2005 - under the Brands Hatch Racing Club name - before the first official MSVR event was held at Brands the following season and the first MSVR series, the Lotus Elise Trophy, was created in 2007.

"I think it has [raised the game for clubs in the UK], and I think all the other clubs would admit that too. But that's what it had to do if we were going to get MSVR off the ground as a new club" Jonathan Palmer

MSVR has expanded over the following 15 years, creating and managing new series, holding more events and growing its entries. By 2009, GT Cup, the Production BMW Championship and Toyo Tires Racing Saloons had all joined MSVR, with the club organising UK rounds of the FIA Formula 2 Championship, which continued under parent company MSV's stewardship until 2012.

The GT Trophy, Champion of Brands and Heritage GTCC were just some of the series to join at the turn of the decade, and others such as the Radical SR1 Cup, Mini Challenge and Heritage Formula Ford have also come under its remit.

On an international level, MSVR was responsible for running the FIA Formula E London ePrix, held in Battersea Park in 2015 and 2016, and welcomed the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series for American Speedfest in 2013, an event that is still one of the most popular on the national racing calendar. Perhaps the flagship series of MSVR, though, was the BRDC Formula 4 Championship, created in 2013 as an affordable step onto the single-seater ladder for aspiring drivers.

It morphed into the BRDC British F3 Championship (below) for 2016, with its alumni including ex-IndyCar driver Matheus Leist, FIA European Formula 3 race winner Enaam Ahmed, as well as Aston Martin Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award winners Tom Gamble and Johnathan Hoggard.

The club's focus hasn't just been on four wheels either, as it created a two-wheeled division in order to become organiser of the British Superbike Championship in 2008.

MSV itself has also expanded, with the acquisition of Donington Park in 2017, development of the Snetterton 300 circuit and general improvements at all of its UK venues. But while things have gone from strength to strength, Palmer admits it has been challenging having to compete in a marketplace previously dominated by more-established clubs and championships.

"The big challenge was to actually get some customers, and we developed the club fairly slowly because we didn't want just to go and poach championships and series from other clubs who are [already] our customers," he says. "So we really tried more than anything to generate our own ideas, our own new series, hence things like FPA.

"But on the major events side MSVR's first major event was British F3/GT at Oulton Park in April 2006, and then World Touring Cars at Brands Hatch followed very quickly in May. And that was our first FIA world championship event - so in our first year of the club we were running world-class events. It was a huge amount of work behind the scenes in those early days and we had a great deal of pressure, but I'm pleased to say it all paid off and MSVR has gone from strength to strength and is a very solid, substantial race club now.

"I think it has [raised the game for clubs in the UK], and I think all the other clubs would admit that too. But that's what it had to do if we were going to get MSVR off the ground as a new club.

"It's a very traditional sort of world - racing clubs tend to be very well established and traditional. So for us to come in and get a foothold and succeed in that market, we had to do things very well. So we had to look at it careful and see how we could do a better job. Clearly we had ideas about how we could do that, and it was really to give better customer service, quality, good value, all those kinds of things. Everyone knows how committed and perhaps obsessional I am about quality and we applied that to the club."

The most popular MSVR-run series, the Trackday Trophy, is also one of its most affordable and cost-effective, and was primarily created to allow drivers to make the transition from trackdays into racing as easily as possible.

With the capacity to take ARDS tests at MSV venues and by offering help and support throughout the process, it's little surprise that since it was created in 2010 the Trackday Trophy has continued to attract capacity grids, averaging 31 entries across its races last season.

Such has been its success that further stepping stones have been created - the Trackday Championship in 2016 and SuperCup in 2019 provide a logical next step for the club driver wanting to race more high-powered machinery.

Stuart Garland, championship manager for all three categories, believes their quality and price point match perfectly with the intended demographics.

"It's important to understand that the competitors are the customers, they are the people that are coming along with their hard-earned cash and their pride and joys" Stuart Garland

"Racing is a commercial entity first and foremost and with that in mind you have to cover the cost of being able to provide those races," he says.

"That being said, there's a stark difference between making a profit and profiteering, and I think that where we sit within the market shows clearly that by listening to the competitors and putting their needs and requirements alongside those of a business, it's very possible to have a successful and long-lasting series, such as the Trackday Trophy.

"You have to make sure whatever you're doing from a racing point matches up financially with the demographic that you're trying to sell it to. I don't think it would be responsible to have a GT championship at our sort of level, with our sort of price points, but at the same time you can't expect our entry-level series and championships to be priced at a point where the GTs would normally sit.

"It's important to understand that the competitors are the customers, they are the people that are coming along with their hard-earned cash and their pride and joys. And these are much more than cars to them - that's their five hours of overtime this week to try to make sure they've got the latest bits that they need for the car.

"This is what that they spend all their spare time tinkering with and working on in the garage, and you have to understand thepassion - it's much more than just a race weekend and £500 on entry fees. It's a way of life for them and that is their racing family."

'Racing family' is a phrase often heard among racing categories and clubs throughout the UK, and that same philosophy applies to MSVR-run series. Darren Goes has competed in the Trackday Trophy, Trackday Championship and SuperCup across the past decade and knows what experiences they offer.

"I've been doing this for over eight years now. I started off as a complete novice, never been in a race car before, never even had a race licence or a suit before, and there's a lot of support via MSV for grassroots racing," says the 2019 SuperCup champion, who drives a SEAT TCR.

"Eight years later and I don't feel I've outgrown the series, they are constantly developing it. I still say the same as I did after one year - number one, this is a very friendly paddock. There's a lot of mutual respect. We go there typically with our families and friends, and it's friendly in the paddock and competitive on track.

"What the series has done is they've not only progressed it to bring drivers on, but they've also progressed the series to bring in more current machinery. I've been in a TCR now for the past three years, and what's interesting is under the 2020 regulations, even though I'm in Class S, my car is not at the top of Class S. It just shows the kind of cars and that they are trying to bring in. They are constantly moving it on, so even someone like me, I've got room - if I can figure out how to do it - to upgrade the power to weight and try to race at the top of Class S.

"MSV make motorsport affordable and safe and enjoyable. The race entries, the way they control the tyres, the way they write the regulations so you can have competitive racing... And it's not people with the biggest budgets that win, it's a very level playing field."

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown means that instead of focusing on expanding, clubs will now be just trying to survive. It's a matter of fighting to maintain numbers over the remainder of 2020 and into next year, but if entries at the delayed
first meetings this month are anything to go by, there is cause for hope.

Garland is optimistic that MSVR is in a strong position to overcome this latest challenge, and that listening to its members is now more important than ever.

"We need to ensure we don't make any changes too soon, that are too big," he says.

"Now is the time to reflect on what's going on around us in our championships and series to really understand that if there are competitors that aren't racing with us, why aren't they racing with us? And to look a bit deeper at the normal avenues of feedback.

"There will certainly be no knee-jerk reactions coming out of the series and championships that I operate because of the pandemic" Stuart Garland

"Just make sure that whatever we do is responsible and in the best interest of the competitor, because you need the competitors to believe in the products that you're offering.

"We have a history of offering a well-run, well-managed set of series and championships that will carry on being that way. There will certainly be no knee-jerk reactions coming out of the series and championships that I operate because of the pandemic.

"We'll be looking very closely into what's best for the competitor and then obviously keeping an overview on the figures and the business as well."

Pictures by Jakob Ebrey, Mick Walker, Richard Styles, Gary Hawkins.

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