No matter how hard you graft, how skilfully you work, how proud you stand, if the money runs out, that’s it; game over.
The withdrawal of Support Our Paras Racing from the 2016 British Touring Car Championship didn’t come as much of a shock. Ever since I first ventured to the team’s new base at Mallory Park last year, it was obvious that two key ingredients were missing; firstly a reliable source of long-term funding, and secondly a lack of structure to the implementation of the plan.
The idea behind the team was sound, and the objective admirable, and to be absolutely fair, despite the countless number of obstacles pitched against them, the crew worked relentlessly, not only to develop and hone their skills but clearly and more importantly, to represent the regiment and its charity in the only manner they know how.
So what went wrong and what hope is there that the mission can still continue?
Without a doubt, the absence of funding has always been at the core of the team’s troubles. At inception, it was never envisaged that this would be pitched as a manufacturer-backed team. However, it was quickly recognised that the best way forward would be if a car-maker could be enlisted to support the effort.
As easy as this might sound, you only need to look at the current level of manufacturer activity in BTCC, or F1, WEC, WTCC, WRC or any of the numerous high-level GT series to see that each can only garner a handful (or less) of major brands willing to invest their time, cash and reputations. And on those rare occasions that the green light shines, there are any number of successful, established and well-resourced teams available for the collaboration.
Yet when the Paras met (then) Infiniti Chairman Andy Palmer (and Chief Planning Office of Nissan), a spark was ignited that saw the two immediately forged together in an attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible. Infiniti, whose name appeared on the side of the fastest Formula One racers, would enter the BTCC with an untested car, two unknown drivers and a core crew of (yet) untrained injured former paratroopers.
It’s easy to see why, when Palmer left Infiniti (soon after the deal was struck) to become the new CEO of Aston Martin, that those left to shape Nissan’s premium brand in the UK stood uneasy as to how they could make the relationship work, and perhaps more importantly, how they could justify the expense.
As the season drew ever nearer, time also became a key factor in determining the team’s fate.
When I made my first visit to Mallory Park in early March, the crew were struggling with a shortage of parts to assemble their first Q50 race car; the second shell hadn’t even arrived. Had Infiniti truly understood what was at stake, I hope they would have reacted better. But they didn’t. I would have hoped that they would have put somebody in to the team to manage the purchase and supply function. But they didn’t. And I would have hoped that they would have ensured that they delivered two lightweight shells, well ahead of time, to allow the cars to built-up. But they didn’t.
At the point of Palmer’s departure, Infiniti should have either fully committed to the project, or pulled the plug and made a goodwill gesture donation to the Support Our Paras charity. It felt to me that they did neither.
With all the mounting pressures resulting from late-deliveries, little cash and the knowledge that most other teams were already successfully testing and refining set-ups, it’s understandable that team principal, Derek Palmer (no relation to Andy Palmer), was already over-stretched with the burden of having to mount a damage-limitation exercise, rather than coordinating a structured campaign.
By the time the Brands Hatch opener came along, there was still just the one car built, with only a handful of shakedown miles under its belt. Nevertheless, BTCC series director, Alan Gow welcomed Infiniti and the Paras to the grid, echoed by a lauded reception from the near capacity crowd.
This was, perhaps, as good as it got. On track, the heavy, under-developed car lacked pace, especially over the all-important qualifying lap. Off track, the newly assembled, part-novice crew were learning fast, yet finding themselves cast further behind the established teams who were taking advantage of weeks spent lapping in the winter sun. For the Paras, the struggle to overcome reliability and build issues and the ever-present cash constraints confined them to scrapping for results at the tail-end. With performance determining continuance, it was only a matter of time before Infiniti pulled the plug.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. On the one hand, if it wasn’t for Infiniti, the Paras probably would have never made it to the touring car grid. But then with or without them, the project was only ever going to end badly.
Despite Infiniti’s mid-season withdrawal, there was still strong support for the team. The charity and the regiment both marshalled resources to fill the paddock and the sky above it. And on the car, TENA’s branding was ever present. However, the original financial operating forecast had assumed that two driver budgets would be received.
The growing shortfall meant that unless a major new principal sponsor could be found, debts would accrue and the ability to return for a second season, with just one car, would flounder (only one TOCA BTCC Licence was available to the team). And this is the position the Paras have now had to face. Despite the obvious attraction of a combined force of the Paras and the BTCC being used to promote their products, TENA haven’t re-engaged and neither has a headline sponsor been found. On paper, the commercial argument appears sound yet for whatever reason, the ability to find funding has failed.
Failure is an unfamiliar word amongst the Paras ranks. For the sake of all those who either are currently serving, or have ever served, I need to stress that the men who stood on the front line of this operation; the injured former paratroopers, retrained so that they could compete in one of the toughest arenas that motorsport has to offer, have served well beyond any expectation.
They’ve faced whatever has been thrown at them and have diligently and skilfully gone about their duty, often pitched against a rapidly reducing clock and more often without the resources either enjoyed by others or simply required as a matter of fact. It has been a tough and steep learning curve but I know of nobody in the paddock who doesn’t respect the professionalism and ability of the Paras crew.
So where do they go from here? Without backing, they can’t compete, and if they’re not competing, they’re not in a position to earn a living and pay their bills.
The easy option would be for the guys to now leave and find jobs with other teams or businesses. They’ve proved their worth. However, I don’t think that they’ve ever really been interested in ‘easy options’. Plus there’s the Support Our Paras charity to consider. The whole point of doing this, going racing, was to raise awareness of the charity and to show the world that irrespective of whatever injury they might have suffered, these are still very capable men, who given the opportunity will continue to excel.
A new motorsport season is rapidly approaching and so options to continue as a stand alone team (without financial backing) are out of the question. There is, however, a strong commercial case to be made for supporting the crew and, in turn, allowing them to support their charity. This could involve an existing touring car team offering some sort of assisted ‘sub-team’ structure, or possibly a move to one of the BTCC’s support packages where they can still maintain paddock presence and build their reputation in a less costly, more equally framed environment.
Whatever happens, my hope is that the Paras can continue their journey, deploying all of their skills and reminding us all that men who have served and suffered injury are now and will always be ready for anything.