Britain should be proud it has produced some of the finest racing drivers in Formula 1 history. Sir Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Lewis Hamilton, the list goes on and on. 157 drivers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have entered at least one Formula 1 race.
But just one person has come from the North East of England.
Hailing from the glorious city of Durham, Leslie Marr was born in 1922 and was also a professional painter during the Second World War, painting in Palestine. The earliest records found of Marr’s racing is from 1952, when he retired in a Aston Martin Club Owners race. After a year competing in various events, including Formula 2, he was entered into the 1954 British Grand Prix at Silverstone with his private Connaught team.
Despite qualifying in 22nd place, being behind all but one of his Connaught team mates (Don Beaumman, Bill Whitehouse and John Risely-Pritchard, with Leslie Thorne in 23rd), he managed to end up in a respectable 13th place, in a race won by Froilan Gonzalez in a time just short of three hours.
The following year, Leslie Marr once again took part in the British Grand Prix, this time at Aintree. He improved on his qualifying performance, starting in 19th, but his race ended on lap 18, where a brakes problem led to an accident. The race was dominated by Mercedes-Benz, with Sir Stirling Moss leading a 1-2-3-4 finish for the Germans.
After that, he raced for a year in New Zealand and eventually settled down in Norfolk and resumed painting.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem likely that a driver from the North East will enter Formula 1 in the next few years. Only two people from the North East are in top level motorsport at the moment, Robert Bell and Warren Hughes.Both of these drivers compete in Endurance Racing, with Bell the younger. He won the 2007 and 2008 Le Mans Series in the GT2 category, as well as racing in the popular Drayson Racing during the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. For the upcoming season he is set to drive for JMW Motorsports in the Le Mans Series and Le Mans 24 Hours.
Warren Hughes on the other hand has had an even more impressive career, winning the British Formula Ford, MGF Cup and the most important one, the 2005 LMP2 Le Mans 24 Hour winner with RML. Along with this, he has tested for Team Lotus and Williams. Quite something to have on your CV.
But we don’t have to look far for the most inspirational person to come from the North East of England who is in F1. Decades in the sport, he is instantly recognisable and a popular figure in the paddock.
Born on the 16th April 1942 (sharing my birthday), in the lovely part of the world, South Shields, Sir Frank Williams is the ultimate legend to come from the North East (for Formula 1, we shouldn’t get into the football). Starting the well known Williams F1 team along with Patrick Head.
Since the initial set up of the team, they have competed in over 500 grand prix, 113 wins and 9 constructor champions. Sir Frank Williams has seen the likes of Nelson Piquet sr, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill and Juan Pablo Montoya enter the team. There has been the odd controversy, the aftermath of the tragic accident involving Senna. But if you are looking for the one person who could be promoting the sport in the North East it should be him.
But there is a more concerning reason why there hasn’t been a F1 driver from the North East of England in the last 56 years.
Where on earth is all of the circuits?
I go on and on about saving the great Croft Circuit, it is the local track to me, albeit a good hour drive away. If that goes, the nearest tracks are Knockhill, in Scotland and Donington Park, a construction site near Derby. The options are frankly rubbish. Why isn’t there a single adequate circuit in the North East of England. Sure, there are a few decent karting tracks, a very impressive one in Sunderland for example. But Croft Circuit is the only one in the North of England able to at least host a BTCC race.
There is plenty of opportunity to place a track on the northern outskirts of Newcastle or in Northumbria, Croft is pretty much in the middle of nowhere (near Darlington, but it is still fairly rural). Because of this, there is no opportunity for young people to easily go down and watch any club racing or BTCC without a ridiculous car journey and basically making a whole day of it.
There is no promotion of motorsport in the North East, nobody can be possibly hear of Leslie Marr and him being the only driver and all that. Rob Bell and Warren Hughes are restricted to a short column in the front pages of the sports section of the Evening Chronicle and The Journal. I doubt anyone actually knows of the brilliant Sir Frank Williams who comes from the North East, nobody is inspired to do anything.
Sure, there are the occasional events when the touring cars arrive at Croft. But apart from the hardcore fans and a few motorsport event on the television, I wouldn’t doubt many people from the North East of England have the age old opinion of driving around in circles in motorsport. There needs to be changes. Now.