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NOTICE OF DEATH - JOHN WEBB (1931 - 2024)

Many Members will no doubt already be aware of the sad news of the death of John Webb. We have received the following obituary from Chas Parker, author of the definitive history of Brands Hatch:

'John Webb, who passed away on 11 January 2024 at the age of 92, will forever be synonymous with Brands Hatch but his vision and entrepreneurial skills moulded the structure of the whole of British motor racing over nearly four decades. 

John was born in Caversham, just outside Reading, the son of an accountant. Born with dislocated hips, he walked with a distinctive rolling gait having been told that nothing could be done and that he might even be in a wheelchair by the age of 25.

The young John, who was “nuts about aeroplanes and railway engines” but not about road cars, was sent to a private school where he showed an aptitude for mathematics and history, but not science. His father wanted him to join a bank “because you get a pension”, but instead he left at the age of 16 to pursue a career in press and publicity work for the aircraft industry. 

His first job was at Miles Aircraft, an aeroplane manufacturer based at Woodley in Berkshire. He immediately showed a flair for publicity and also became a freelance aviation journalist. When the company went broke after the war, John worked for the Royal Aero Club before becoming assistant press officer for the Farnborough Air Show. He then took over press work for Silver City Airways, which was the first company to fly cars across the English Channel commercially. To the young John Webb, generating publicity about such a glamorous subject came easily and in September 1953 he formed his own press and PR company John Webb Press Services. One of his first clients was Brands Hatch, which at the time was managed by John Hall, an accountant appointed by the shareholders in order to safeguard their investment.

John’s first impression of the place was not exactly favourable, describing it as having poor amenities, but he pressed ahead with writing and sending out press releases detailing forthcoming meetings. One of his first specific jobs, in February 1954, was to announce the opening of the Druids loop extension to the track.

Up until this point, John’s interest had been almost exclusively in aircraft, but as a result of the Brands involvement, he also acquired the account for the Connaught Formula One team and began to take more of an interest in motor racing, acquiring a Jensen 541 which he entered in various races, sprints and hill climbs with a degree of success, at one time holding the Brands Hatch saloon car lap record. 

John’s fertile mind was always looking for new ways to publicise Brands Hatch and one innovation was the 1954 Boxing Day meeting, at which some 20,000 spectators turned up on 26 December for a seven-race meeting which included an ox-roast and Stirling Moss dressed up as Father Christmas.

In January 1960 the Grand Prix loop was added to the circuit and, less than a year later, the track underwent a complete change of ownership, with Grovewood Securities Ltd, a general investment company headed-up by John Danny, taking over. Three other circuits were acquired - Oulton Park, Mallory Park and Snetterton – and in May 1966, a separate company, Motor Circuit Developments Ltd, was formed, with John as full-time executive director. 

Prior to that, in July 1964, Brands Hatch hosted its first British Grand Prix, which then alternated with Silverstone for the next 22 years. John was criticised at the time by some purists for providing a spectacle for the paying public with a number of activities ancillary to the racing. It could be said that he was pointing the way for the ‘festival’ style of entertainment which is so prevalent at today’s Grands Prix. The following year Webb instigated a season-opening non-championship Formula One race, the Race of Champions, which continued until 1983. 

John was instrumental in introducing a number of innovations to British motor sport, but perhaps the most successful and long-lasting was the concept of Formula Ford, which provided a cost-effective introduction to racing for many, while at the top of the scale, the noisy, ground-trembling Formula 5000 cars also proved hugely popular.

There were many other John Webb-inspired formulae that came and went over the years – Formula F100, Formula Ford 2000, Sports 2000, Formula Atlantic, Multisports, Formula Turbo-Ford, Formula First, Thundersports and Thundersaloons, to name just a few, with some enjoying more success than others.  There was even a methanol fuelled Formula Talbot as an insurance against the petrol crisis.

At the bi-annual Grand Prix, Webb continued to offer ever-more lavish entertainment for the spectators, particularly in the form of spectacular air displays. The Red Arrows put in their first appearance at the 1966 event and were joined over the years by a Vulcan V-bomber, a Harrier Jump Jet, and even Concorde, which diverted while on a scheduled flight to the Middle East.

John retired with his wife Angela to Spain in 1989 but continued to take an active interest in motor sport. 

Chas Parker
12 January 2024

John was elected as an Associate (General) Member of the BRDC in 1962. By then, as full-time executive director of Brands Hatch Circuit Ltd, he had masterminded the Grand Prix extension of the circuit to 2.65 miles. One of John’s clients, Silver City Airways, gave its name to the non-championship Formula 1 race which took place on August Bank Holiday Monday 1960, the day after the German Grand Prix from which many of the drivers had flown back overnight. John’s ambition to have a Formula 1 World Championship race at Brands Hatch was achieved four years later as Brands Hatch replaced Aintree for the 1964 European (British) Grand Prix. The switch happened quite seamlessly since the owners of Aintree Racecourse, the Topham family, were losing interest in motor racing and decided to focus on the Grand National Steeplechase.

Over the next two decades or so, with the British Grand Prix alternating between Brands Hatch and Silverstone, John used his entrepreneurial skills to shape not just Brands Hatch but also the world of motor racing in the UK. Supported by Grovewood Securities, the portfolio of circuits was expanded to include Mallory Park, Snetterton, Oulton Park, Cadwell Park and, for a time, Castle Combe and Mondello Park. Working through the BRSCC together with Jimmy Brown at Silverstone and Sid Offord of the BARC at Thruxton, each season’s calendar was set in good time, championships were established on a national basis rather than circuit-by-circuit, and date clashes were ironed out harmoniously. The governing body was then presented with a fait accompli which it was happy to endorse.

From time to time the blue blazer brigade muttered into their beers that the Brands Hatch way was OTT and not the way things should be, but John and Jimmy worked away behind the scenes to ensure that there was always a World Championship Formula 1 Grand Prix in the UK. It was also Webby who brought the World Sportscar Championship to the UK with the BOAC 500 in 1967; Silverstone did not follow suit until 1976 with the first 6 Hours. John brought Indycars to the UK for the first time in 1978 across two weekends split between Brands Hatch and Silverstone. Other innovations were the ShellSport Ford Mexico races at the end of a day’s racing in which all the race winners competed. The Mexicos were also deployed in the Lords v Commons parliamentary contests and for celebrity races.

After John and his wife Angela, who had a major part to play in arranging and organising the off-track displays at the major events, moved to Spain they continued to keep a close eye on both the British and the wider motor racing scene and when the Motor Sport Vision consortium of Jonathan Palmer, John Britten and Sir Peter Ogden acquired the Brands Hatch circuits in 2004, Webby served as a much valued consultant for some time.

When interviewed in retirement some years ago for Motor Sport magazine by Simon Taylor, John was asked how he would like to be remembered. His response was perfect: ‘I am just a motor racing enthusiast who enjoyed making things happen’. Things, far too numerous to cover in this tribute, most certainly did happen during John’s reign both at Brands Hatch and in the world of British motor racing generally. The contribution which John made to British motor racing has been huge and should never be forgotten. To his wife Angela, and to his family, the BRDC offers its deepest condolences.

The Club regrets to report on the death of Hugh Chamberlain, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 1988
The Club regrets to report on the death of Tony Sugden, who was elected as a BRDC Member in 2002.
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