Racing is a mega-buck sport with winners in pound seats

Bruce Fraser

Bruce Fraser

Oxfordshire is about an hour's drive south of London and is probably one of the more picturesque villages in England.

Home to pop stars Robin Gibb from the BeeGees, and Robbie Williams, it is also the base for a number of global Formula One racing teams.

Its close proximity to Silverstone racetrack, Heathrow Airport, suppliers and graduates from the nearby Oxford University are just a few of the reasons French car manufacturer Renault decided to make it their headquarters for their Formula One team.

Set on 44 hectares, employing just on 600 workers and with a yearly budget of US$300million (R2,4billion), it puts into perspective the enormity of F1 motorsport.

"We have 10 separate departments, ranging from aero dynamics to engineering, electronics to marketing," says Renault F1 account manager James Gilbride.

Following the spy scandal that rocked Formula One racing last year, security at the plant is extremely strict.

Visits must be authorised weeks in advance and a tour of the premises closely monitored.

Photographs and any video filming is permitted in certain sections only and these rules are strictly enforced.

Production at the plant is spread over three eight-hour shifts a day, seven days a week, 364 days a year.

Their only day off, Christmas Day, is dedicated to doing essential back-up work on their elaborate computer system.

"In the case of an emergency we have five minutes in which to shut the system down and this can be done from outside of the plant as well. There is no generator backup as three is no real need for it," says Gilbride.

"The power supply in this area is reliable and we have never experienced any major problems."

Everything related to the car is produced in-house - apart from the engine which is assembled in France.

"The engine alone consists of over 5000 individual parts which are all hand made," explains Gilbride.

"The car is then assembled here in the UK and then tested. After every race the engine is stripped down, examined, tested and then reassembled.

"Each engine lasts approximately 1500 kilometres.

"After that it may be used in cars that travel around the world as part of our road show and that you will be seeing in South Africa shortly."

An interesting aspect is that every individual piece of the vehicle carries some kind of identification number.

If a problem occurs during a race the faulty part can be identified and traced back to who actually made it, fitted it and passed it for inspection.

So, what does it take to be a F1 driver?

Pat Symonds, executive director of engineering for Renault Formula One, puts it down to a number of factors.

"Top Formula One drivers do have certain things in common - high intelligence, an inate ability to understand race conditions, a competitive instinct, high self-esteem and an incredible self-belief in what they do.

"It is a lot more than just the ability to drive. Consistency is also vitally important."

And on the huge amounts of money drivers earn?

"You must realise there are only 20 F1 drivers in the world. These are top athletes and highly sought-after individuals. Yes, they get paid a lot but they are very select people," says Symonds.