When F1 Came to Town

The Horizon factory in May 2016
The Horizon factory in May 2016

The Player’s Horizon factory on Lenton Industrial Estate had its official opening on 1 November 1972, accompanied by much fanfare, including the performance of a specially-commissioned orchestral piece called Horizon Overture by Joseph Horovitz and the unveiling of a sculpture designed by Ernst Eisenmayer. Both Horovitz and Eisenmayer were Austrian-born Jews who escaped the clutches of the Nazis shortly before the outbreak of World War II by moving to England. Eisenmayer died in March 2018, his Horizon sculpture having disappointingly been sold on behalf of Imperial Tobacco at public auction earlier this month (fetching £571) rather than being donated to a local museum or gallery.

At the time of the official opening, over 1,100 people worked at Horizon, with a projection that over 2,000 would be employed there a year later.

The Horizon factory won awards for its architecture (one set of judges noting that it made a ‘noble addition to the industrial area of Nottingham’), but listed status has proved to be elusive. The building seems to have as many enemies as friends, the managing director of property agent Innes England having referred to it as ‘probably the ugliest building in Nottingham’. For my part, I think it’s a hugely impressive and – certainly from the point of view of Nottingham’s industrial and social history – important building. Unfortunately, hard-nosed commercial considerations seem to have won the day

Whatever your point of view, the site was decommissioned earlier this year, following the cessation of cigarette production in 2016, and faces an uncertain future which currently looks likely to end in demolition. All of which seems remarkable given that when, in 2012, the Nottingham Post produced a special edition of its Bygones publication to mark Horizon’s 40th anniversary, it noted therein that the factory produced ‘around 50 per cent of the UK market and 120 million cigarettes a day, generating billions in tax revenue for the Exchequer’ (along with, presumably, a not-insubstantial contribution to the woes of the NHS).

But let’s rewind to that less strait-laced era of the early 1970s.

Player’s, as part of the Imperial Tobacco Group, sponsored all manner of sporting and cultural events at this time, but the real big-hitter was that epitome of glamour and excitement, Formula One.

Having originally become involved with motor racing in the late 1960s, Player’s most successful promotional vehicles (excuse the pun) were the iconic John Player Special (or JPS)-liveried cars that plied their trade around the grand prix circuits of the world in the 1970s and 1980s, in the hands of such renowned drivers as Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna.

When the Horizon factory was officially opened in November 1972, mutton-chopped Fittipaldi, from Brazil, was the reigning F1 world champion (the youngest to have achieved the distinction at that time), having beaten Jackie Stewart into second place over the course of 12 races between 23 January and 8 October. Fittipaldi had made his F1 debut in 1970 and was to win the title once more, with McLaren in 1974, before finally hanging up his F1 boots in 1980 to go racing in America.

On 18 and 19 December 1972, Fittipaldi – presumably still basking in the glory of his championship victory, whilst also having one eye on the upcoming 1973 season (due to start on 28 January) – paid a visit to Nottingham as a guest of Player’s, along with his wife, Maria Helena, and the Team Lotus F1 Competitions Manager, Peter Warr (later to become Lotus team manager following the death of Colin Chapman).

An itinerary was prepared, including tours of the Player’s factories, and the Guardian Journal reported in an article in its 18 December edition that, ‘A specially cleared running track round the factory will be laid out for the young Brazilian to show off to employees the car which helped to make him the youngest ever world champion.’ The article further noted that, ‘…it is hoped that 26-year-old Fittipaldi will top 100 m.p.h. for the benefit of the watching employees.’

Although the demonstration drive did take place (as reported by the newspaper in a further article the next day, which revealed that Fittipaldi and his wife spent the night ‘at the home of assistant managing director, Mr Geoffrey Kent, at Gonalston’), a combination of foggy weather and an uneven surface seems to have hampered it somewhat. However, even taking that into account (along with the second article’s report that the demonstration took place in the factory car park), it must have been a thrilling sight for those lucky enough to have been in attendance.

Fittipaldi’s thoughts of the occasion, and of Nottingham generally, appear, regrettably, to have gone unrecorded.

Footnote: Issue no. 101 (10 January, 1973) of the Player’s in-house newspaper, Player’s Post, features, according to the previous issue, ‘full photographic coverage’ of Fittipaldi’s visit to ‘the John Player Nottingham complex.’ I have, however, been unable to track down a copy of this issue. If you have one, or know where I can find one, please get in touch via this blog’s contact page!

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