White elephants, rain and Nigel Mansell – Jennie Gow on the magic of the British Grand Prix.
For 49 years, Silverstone has hosted the Formula One World Championship Grand Prix and the history of the track is somewhat magical. Built in 1943, Silverstone Airfield became the base of the Royal Air Force’s 17th Operational Training Unit. Its prime function was to instruct aircrews in the flying of Vickers Wellington twin-engined bombers. At the end of the war – as with so many airfields – Silverstone was decommissioned. So how did it become a race track?
Well, local legend has it that, in 1946, a Silverstone resident was looking for somewhere to take his Frazer-Nash sports car for a spin. He took his shiny new car to the disused airfield and was delighted with the ready-made circuit that he found.
The next year, he invited a few of his friends to host an illegal 12-car race. It was to be named the ‘Mutton Grand Prix’ as a result of a collision with a wandering sheep.
A year later, an ex-farmer by the name of James Wilson Brown was employed by the RAC to turn the site from the wartime airfield and farm that it was into a functional race track. He would be given just two months to complete the task. Brown succeeded, and the first RAC International Grand Prix was born.
On 2nd October 1948, with hay bales and ropes protecting the piggery, crops in the middle of the circuit, and canvas barriers stopping drivers from becoming distracted by the cars coming the other way, an estimated 100,000 people flocked to see Luigi Villoresi beat a field of 22 others in his Maserati. Silverstone’s racing story had started.
Since then, all the biggest names in F1 have wanted to show the crowd what they can do at the home of British Motorsport. Alain Prost has five Silverstone wins to his name and Jim Clark won 3 times at the circuit. Possibly the most cherished of all wins at the Northamptonshire track came in 1992, when Nigel Mansell won in front of his home fans. The crowd poured onto the track and Mansell had to be pulled out of the melee by marshalls to take his place on the podium. There isn’t a single motor racing fan in the country who can watch those scenes without getting tingles down their spine.
And yet, his isn’t the only recent win to inspire greatness. Lewis Hamilton won at the track in both 2008 and 2014 – the years he went on to win the Drivers World Championship – so this weekend could be a pivotal moment in this season’s title battle.
Hugely knowledgeable, committed and thankfully – given the unpredictability of British weather – in possession of a great sense of fun, the fans are one of the best things about Silverstone. Last year, 328,000 people attended the British Grand Prix over the four days. By comparison, Glastonbury festival drew in 175,000. This year it looks like the race will again be a sell-out.
It’s a very rare Silverstone GP that sees clear blue skies and sunshine for the entire four days. The deluge of rain that fell on the 2012 race saw crowds asked to stay away and refunds having to be issued. Watching cars and vans being pulled from the quagmire at the end of the Sunday was a very sorry scene indeed.
The timing of Silverstone is always a love it or hate it issue, in that it tends to either clash with Glastonbury or Wimbledon. It’s great to celebrate the Great British Summer with these marquee events but why they always have to be organised on the same weekend is anybody’s guess.
Talking of Britishness, it’s hard to believe that Jenson Button has never won the British Grand Prix. In fact, in his 15 British GP starts, he has never even had a podium. The race means an awful lot to the man from Frome. But as the years tick on, it seems more and more unlikely that he will ever taste F1 success at Silverstone. A crying shame for all British JB fans.
On May 17th 2011, The Silverstone Wing was opened. Three storeys high and 390 metres long, it cost £27m to build. Not only does it play host to the podium, the Wing also hosts corporate events and even weddings for the F1 ultra-fan. For many, it seems like an expensive white elephant, sat bang in the middle of the circuit whilst the National Pit Building is still being used. Time will tell if this was a wise investment, but I feel for the fans when it comes to the new pit lane. Many of the garages are obscured from view because of the large slope on pit exit. For those hardy Manor/Marussia fans – or even McLaren this year maybe – seeing into the pits and feeling part of the action is hard work. I wonder if a better solution could have been reached?
We all know getting to Silverstone can be a bit of a headache, and that getting away can be even worse. I have spent hours stuck in traffic trying to leave the F1 event. Let’s face it, the transport links to the circuit are terrible. It’s not like inner-city racing, where there are several different routes in. The council do their best and have found great solutions but, in an ideal world, we’d all choose to build a Silverstone railway station with a direct route from places like London or Birmingham. Either that, or we’d fly in on a private helicopter.
Last but not least, the ugliest of all things at Silverstone, of course, are the queues for the loos on the campsite.
Yet, regardless of the good, the bad or the ugly, Silverstone is without doubt one of the jewels in the F1 Crown. It’s challenging and engaging for drivers and teams alike, it always offers up drama and the organisation and marshaling are arguably the best in the world. What started off from humble beginnings as an RAF Airfield has now transformed into one of the UK’s most loved sporting venues.
You never know. Sometimes, miracles do happen. And if we all cheer loud enough then maybe – just maybe – Jenson can lift his Silverstone hoodoo and get that McLaren podium position finish we’re all hoping for. After all, what Brit doesn’t love supporting the underdog?