Leaders in Motorsport: The MSA’s David Richards on safeguarding the future of British motorsport

David Richards, chairman of the Motor Sports Association (MSA), the governing body of four-wheel motorsport in the UK, discusses how the organisation needs to help grow grassroots participation and attract a wider audience to ensure the sport stays relevant.

Leaders in Motorsport: The MSA’s David Richards on safeguarding the future of British motorsport

David Richards, chairman of the Motor Sports Association (MSA)

Having assumed the position of non-executive chairman of the Motor Sports Association (MSA), the governing body of four-wheel motorsport in the UK, in January of this year, David Richards is now responsible for the strategy and direction of an organisation representing 30,000 competitions, 10,000 volunteer marshals and officials, and 750 clubs.

The founder and chairman of motorsport firm Prodrive takes the helm during a time of rapid change for the sport: manufacturers are developing autonomous cars, while the number of MSA licence holders has dropped by ten per cent over the past decade and entries in grassroots series are down by 15 per cent.

Black Book caught up with Richards to find out how the MSA plans to boost grassroots participation, increase the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the sport, and ensure British motor racing has a sustainable future.

What are some of the key areas you are aiming to focus on in your new position?

The immediate focus for me is where we’re seeing, over the last ten years, a decline in our grassroots level of motorsport; there are a reduced number of people participating in MSA - ie governed - events in this country, especially in kart racing. There’s a high level of participation in other forms of unregulated motorsport - track-days, for example - but we’ve created, in my view, too much bureaucracy at the grassroots level of the sport, and too much cost for participants at that level.

We’ve got to look at this entire level of grassroots motorsport and try and find ways of reducing the burden of bureaucracy, legislation and cost, and open it up to more people, and be far more embracing of other elements of motorsport that today perhaps traditionalists have felt to be outside our scope.

What are some of the key strategies you think would help motorsport to become sustainable?

Today, karting has been historically the starting point for the likes of Lewis Hamilton and so many other current Formula One drivers. And yet, I was talking to Lewis about this not so long ago and he raised the question: how would it be possible in this day and age for a young boy and his dad from Hemel Hempstead to get on the bottom rung of the ladder in kart racing and end up as Formula One champions?

We have to consider that quite carefully, and I think the barriers to entry today are very high and we need to find ways of breaking those down and getting more people to experience motorsport at the starting level, and then making the steps up the ladder more affordable.

Gerry Cumiskey of Ireland drives with co-driver Killian Duffy of Ireland during the Gwydir stage of the FIA World Rally Championship Great Britain 

What are some of the ways you see the grassroots protection of motorsport being implemented and invested in by the MSA?

I think we’ve got to be more embracing. Historically, or today, if you wanted to do motor racing as a youngster, you’d end up going and buying yourself a crash helmet and a set of overalls and a go-kart and off you go to a kart track.

But there are some very good corporate kart tracks around the country that are well-managed, well-run and very safe, where you can just turn up and pay a modest amount of money and just have a go. We need to be embracing that level of participation and finding ways of communicating with these people, encouraging them to go down that route as a first test and then finding ways to take them from that level through to another.

90 per cent of people will never even want to go beyond that; they’ll have a bit of fun. But we must recognise that and not just automatically assume our whole purpose of being is to create Formula One drivers. Our purpose of being, in my view, is to create fun for people to go and participate in motorsport.

What are some of the other ways you think the MSA could invest to further promote motorsport?

Clearly, you need to have a ladder of opportunity and we need to ensure that we have young, talented drivers coming through the system, and that we have a high interest level at the top level. With motorsport today, we have the good fortune of having Lewis Hamilton, we’ve had Jenson Button recently and David Coultard, and there are other new, young drivers coming along. So that creates the awareness in the newspapers.

Perhaps we’re also not good enough at promoting the fact that, as well as the drivers, we have a flourishing industry in this country that dominated the world stage. We have the majority of the Formula One teams in the UK, we have the majority of other categories of motorsport here, too, and we’re recognised the world over as world leaders in this area. Part of our responsibility as a governing body is to promote that and to make sure that our voice is heard and that people recognise the extraordinary talents and work that we do.

A problem the MSA has had in the past is its perceived lack of consultation with organisations regarding big decisions. Do you think there’s substance to that kind of perception and how do you think that can be changed?

Well, perception turns out to be reality often and so we have got to look at areas. I think that if we’ve been guilty of something then we have to understand how that situation has been created. I think one of the things I’ve looked at recently is to say, before we introduce a regulation, before we look at something, let’s do a proper risk assessment, and use statistical evidence to understand the necessity of the change.

Then let’s understand the impact it’s going to have on our customers or licence-holders. And before we make any decision whatsoever, let’s look at both those aspects with some rigour and then decide if it’s absolutely necessary and to mitigate any cost to our licence-holders.

What other challenges do you see motorsport facing?

I think the big challenge is relevance. I think we’ve got, in my view, three categories. We’ve got the grassroots motorsport, which is participant-led, which needs to be accessible and as affordable as possible. Then you’ve got the professional level of motorsport where they are principally looking to get people to grandstands and to buy tickets and to watch on TV, whether it’s touring car racing or Formula One world championship and quite honestly, that type of motorsport can look after itself, it’s got enough advocates shouting hard enough in their corner to make sure that gets well looked after.

The bit that is going to be the challenge is the relevance of motorsport to society in general and more importantly, car manufacturers, who’ve been the bedrock of funding motorsport since it first began. It has been an invaluable way of seeing technology being developed - people have seen the benefits being brought to road cars and new technologies and marketing. But if you look at car manufacturers today, their primary focus is going to be around electrification, around autonomous driving, and around the environment. And so we have to start to think to ourselves, how do we make our motorsport more relevant to car manufacturers and to the buying public? And this is an ongoing task.

Channel 4 F1 and Renault Sport F1 reserve driver Jack Aitken helps the MSA select ten young British karters as F1 Future Stars for the 2018 Rolex British Grand Prix at Silverstone

Do you see electrification as something the MSA will invest in?

I very much do. I think that’s one of the areas in which we’ll be announcing something later this year, I’m confident about that. It’s a big opportunity for us to make motorsport more affordable, making it a more even playing field as well, especially at the lower end of the scale in go-karting in particular.

In the past you’ve mentioned the need to increase the number of young people and women participating in motorsport. Why do you see those areas as key and how will you target them?

Motorsport in general has been the preserve of middle-class, white, middle-aged men - that’s the archetypal participant, if you like, at participant level and the organiser level. And that’s not sustainable. We must appeal to a broader, diverse audience. We must find ways of communicating with them. It’s quite illogical that we have a sport in which men and women can compete on absolutely equal terms - there is no reason, if you’re fit and healthy and you have all the necessary aptitude, that a woman couldn’t compete on equal terms with any man.

And yet we don’t appeal to women. Women only make up five per cent of our licence-holders. And if you look at universities as well, there is a far smaller percentage of women doing engineering degrees. So we need to get right down to grassroots level and I think it really comes down to the education and communicating with schools at primary school level, and working to ensure we make motorsport and engineering more appealing to female audiences and diverse ethnic groups as well.

That starts with leadership positions as well. You can’t have a board of directors that fit one archetypal look and expect that to represent the rest of the organisation. We have to start from the top and lead from that.

How would you like to see motorsport in five years’ time?

I’d like to see it healthier than it is today. I think we’ve gone through periods of time where, if you turn the clock back to the likes of Jackie Stewart and the end of the ‘70s and ‘80s, motorsport was perceived as a very high-profile activity that was very well-regarded. And I think we’ve lost a little bit of our kudos in the last 20 or 30 years.

I’d like to see us get back up to the top step if you like, and far more publicity given to these activities - not just Formula One, which is obviously simply a single activity, but to a whole raft of them. I can remember Colin McRae winning the World Rally Championship, and being on the front page of newspapers. Let’s hope that the MSA fulfils its obligations in that respect and puts the sport back on the top podium.