“Why didn’t you tell me there was a Formula 1 team in South Yorkshire,” he barked down the phone at me one chilly day in November, 2009.
“Errr, because there isn’t,” I responded meekly. I’d only been at The Yorkshire Post 18 months so wasn’t quite confident enough to tell the gaffer where he could and shove it.
“Well there is. Find out more.”
And so began a surreal journey, one that lasted all too briefly but brought with it a new appreciation of motor sport, a yearning for a few more days living like the other half live, and a couple of grand days out at Silverstone.
Manor Motorsport were the vehicle – two vehicles to be precise and sadly not quick enough – who from seemingly nowhere had been accepted into Formula 1 as the sport entered a new decade trying to appear more for the common man.
John Booth was the face behind Manor, a softly-spoken Yorkshireman who kept his cards close to his chest. He had built the team out of his own garage two decades earlier and had taken them all way up to Formula Renault and Formula 3.
Manor’s base was a two-unit facility on an industrial estate in the old pit village of Dinnington on the outskirts of Rotherham, 100 miles from Formula 1’s heartland near Silverstone and another million miles away from the glamour of the paddock.
In F1 terms, it was the middle of nowhere. But Sir Richard Branson wanted to invest in F1 and Manor were the perfect vehicle, and so Virgin Racing were born.
Those first few weeks were spent trying to unearth as many stories about Manor and Yorkshire’s F1 heritage as possible before the season got underway in Melbourne and the reality dawned just how far off the pace Virgin were. It was about four seconds a lap if memory serves.
Still, Booth was tireless in his dedication and if at first a little wary of the local media, he quickly warmed to us when he realised how much we ourselves were getting out of the ride.
In the two years Virgin Racing were based in Dinnington, I had the good fortune to cover both those year’s British Grands Prix. Booth could not have been more hospitable, opening up Virgin’s £400,000 motorhome to wide-eyed hacks from ‘oop norf’ and even taking us through his team’s garage and out onto the pitwall an hour before the race.
Sadly, the journey did not last long. Within a year, Virgin were looking to relocate to the F1 belt between Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, Russian investment came in and the quiant Yorkshire narrative was consumed. By December 2011 the Dinnington site was mothballed and all that was left of the heritage of a team that was now called Marussia Motorsport was a little White Rose that Booth insisted remain on the car’s livery.
Booth left the team at the end of 2015, the team fell off the grid 12 months later. Money talks in F1, but for a couple of years Yorkshire had a bit of cash at the table.
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