Hot on the heels of the Austrian Grand Prix, the Formula One circus heads to the home of motorsports racing, Britain. The venue has been host to exciting races time and again and especially Silverstone to the point that the track placed in Northamptonshire has become synonymous with the British Grand Prix. And why not, since it is this very track where the sport as we know it took its very first baby steps. Grand Prix racing had been in existence prior to Silverstone but the 2nd world war wiped racing avenues all the across the globe necessitating rebuilding of race tracks.
Thus Silverstone was born and it hasn’t looked back since. But despite being the homestead of Formula Racing, few people know the rich history and the stories of this track to understand what makes it one of the jewels of the Formula One calendar. The British Grand Prix is right around the weekend and on Sunday 22 drivers will do the same thing their predecessors have been doing since Formula One Racing started in 1950. So lets rewind the clock and journey through the racing history of a country once ruled by an “Empire on which the sun never sets”.
In racing history, Brooklands remains one of the true wonders of the world. Within its original 330-acre boundary, many of Britain’s earliest motoring, motor racing and aircraft businesses were born. Between the wars it was the undisputed cradle of British motorsport and car development, creating the culture that led to Britain’s modern-day pre-eminence in motorsport.
The genesis of everything was one individual’s extraordinary decision in 1906 to build an enormous banked circuit in semi-rural Surrey, like nothing that had ever existed. In just nine months, 1500 workmen created the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. Brooklands’ creator, Hugh Fortescue Locke King, was a patriot to the core. Visiting the 1905 Coppa Florio races, near Brescia, he was surprised at the lack of British-made entries, then concerned to hear from competitors that the development of cars in his homeland was stunted by a 20mph national speed limit and the lack of any place to develop their performance.
He proposed a flat track on a bowl of marshy land spanning the River Wey beside the London to Basingstoke line, but the project soon fell into the hands of an ambitious army engineer who embellished the plan to create a bean-shaped, 2.75-mile oval track, with banked walls nearly 30ft high at each end so cars could corner at 120mph.
The project cost £150,000 – an amount so huge that Locke King was almost bankrupted. Brooklands was amazing but it wasn’t perfect: from the first day of racing its new-fangled reinforced concrete began to crack (it would always need much winter maintenance) and early crowds were disappointing. Through the 1920’s, Brooklands grew to become a centre for automotive and aviation innovation, as well as a high-society hot spot. Imagine today’s Silverstone, MIRA, Prescott and Goodwood rolled into one and you only have part of the picture: Brooklands was peerless. The link with aviation was natural. In its very first year Brooklands provided reluctant shelter for pioneer airman A.V. Roe, and its infield became a regular venue for flying competitions.
Meanwhile the huge, bumpy oval had been breeding its own strain of usually aero-engined behemoths. A generation of speed kings such as Malcolm Campbell, John Cobb and John Parry-Thomas came to prominence with them, and their prowess became global via numerous land speed record attempts.
Grand Prix motor racing was first established in Britain by Henry Segrave in 1926 after his winning of the 1923 French Grand Prix and the San Sebastián Grand Prix the following year, which raised interest in the sport. The first ever British Grand Prix was won by the French team of Louis Wagner and Robert Sénéchal.
This golden era ended with the outbreak of war and failed to restart in 1945, mostly because the ageing track simply wasn’t fit for heavy cars that kept getting faster. Brooklands had been severely damaged by the onset of World War II and the circuit was abandoned. The end of the Second World War had left Britain with no major race track but an abundance of airfields. One of these surplus airfields was located outside the village of Silverstone and being roughly in the middle of England was seen as an ideal location to bring back international motor racing to Britain.
By 1948 The Royal Automobile Club had arranged a 1 year lease with the Air Ministry in the spirit of optimism and possibility that characterised the time. An ex-farmer, James Wilson Brown, was employed by the RAC and given just two months to turn the site from a wartime airfield and farm into a race track for the first RAC International Grand Prix.
On the 2nd October 1948, with hay bales and ropes protecting the piggery and the crops in the middle of the circuit and canvas barriers stopping the drivers from being distracted by 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 racing history had started.
Another year later the circuit had shortened to three miles and more closely resembled its current shape when it hosted the official British Grand Prix in which victory again went to a Maserati, driven this time by Baron Tulo de Graffenried. The first International Trophy which also catered for Grand Prix cars took place at Silverstone in that same year but in 1950 the track hosted the first event in the World Championship for Drivers which still exists today. The chicane at Club had gone which further reduced the length to 2.9 miles and Dr Giuseppe Farina’s Alfa 158 won on a circuit still defined by straw bales but whose shape would now stay unchanged for nearly 25 years.
In 1955, the Formula One circus began to alternate between Silverstone and the Aintree circuit, located on the Grand National horse racing course near Liverpool. Mercedes drivers Juan Manuel Fangio and home favorite Stirling Moss arrived at Aintree expecting to win. They took the lead at the start and the two drivers battled throughout, and Moss passed Fangio on the 26th lap; and he kept the lead for a while; but Fangio fought back and was about to pass Moss on the last corner on the last lap, and all were certain Fangio would pip Moss at the chequered flag. But he didn’t, and Moss won his first Formula One race on home soil. Moss later asked Fangio “Did you let me through?” and the Argentine replied “No. You were better than me that day.” Mercedes romped to the finish 1-2-3-4, with German Karl Kling and Italian Piero Taruffi finishing 3rd and 4th.
The even-numbered years were at Silverstone and the odd numbered years and 1962 were at Aintree. 1956 saw Fangio win in a Ferrari, and 1957 returned to see Moss win again in a Vanwall; he took over his ill teammate Tony Brooks’s car and stormed through the field to take victory. This was the first Grand Prix victory for a British-built car- Formula One would soon be mostly made up of British teams. 1958 was when Peter Collins won in a Ferrari and Bernie Ecclestone was entered in a Connaught but his car was driven by Jack Fairman; and 1959 and 1960 saw Australian Jack Brabham win in a mid-engined Cooper. The last race at Aintree was in 1962, when Briton Jim Clark won his first of 5 British Grand Prix’s; Aintree was later decommissioned in 1964.
1964 saw the first Formula One race at the southern English circuit known as Brands Hatch, located in Kent, just outside London. The track was built in the early 1950s and had been extended in 1960. Silverstone hosted the British Grand Prix in odd-numbered years and Brands Hatch in even-numbered years. Like Silverstone, the circuit was popular with drivers, and unlike the flat Northamptonshire circuit and Aintree, Brands Hatch had many cambered corners and lots of elevation change.
Brands Hatch was originally the name of a natural grassy hollow that was shaped like a amphitheatre. Although the site was originally used as a military training ground, the fields belonging to Brands Farm were first used as a circuit by a group of Gravesend cyclists led by Ron Argent, with the permission of the local farmer and landowner, Harry White. Using the natural contours of the land, many cyclists from around London practised, raced and ran time trials on the dirt roads carved out by farm machinery.
The first actual race on the circuit was held in 1926, over 4 miles (6.4 km) between cyclists and cross-country runners. Within a few years, motorcyclists were using the circuit, laying out a three-quarter-mile anti-clockwise track in the valley. They also saw the advantage of competing in a natural arena, and with the passage of time, a kidney-shaped circuit came into use. Brands Hatch remained in operation during the 1930s, but after being used as a military vehicle park and being subject to many bombing raids during World War II, it needed much work before it could become a professional racing circuit.
Following World War II, cinders were laid on the track of what was by then known as Brands Hatch Stadium and motorcycle racing continued. That was until 1950 when the 500 Club managed to persuade Joe Francis,that the future for his stadium lay in car and motorcycle road racing. The group behind 500 c.c. single-seater racing cars was the 500 Club and it, together with the owners, invested the sum of £17,000 on a tarmac surface.
Thus Brands Hatch was born as a motor racing venue, and on 16 April 1950, the opening meeting was scheduled for the first purpose-built post-war racing circuit in England, approval having been given by the RAC following a demonstration by a handful of 500s in February. The British Grand Prix came to Kent in 1964 and was to be shared with Silverstone in alternate years until 1986.
The Kentish circuit was to host the Grand Prix for the last time on 13 July 1986, after which it was to be run continually at Silverstone. The reason for this was that the international motorsports governing body at the time, FISA, had instituted a policy of long-term contracts with circuits. Brands Hatch was perceived as a poorer facility, and it did have very little run-off and room to expand, something Silverstone as a former World War II airfield had in acres.
Meanwhile the changes to Silverstone began at Woodcote. A chicane was installed after the 1973 British Grand Prix pile up and then in 1987 when Formula One lap averages had risen to 160mph and more, the original curve was reinstated with a sharp right/left leading to it.
The track underwent a major redesign between the 1990 and 1991 races, transforming the ultra-fast track (where in its last years, every corner was taken in no lower than 4th or 5th gear (depending on the transmission of the car) except for the Bridge chicane, which was usually taken in 2nd gear) into a more technical track. The reshaped track’s first F1 race was perhaps the most memorable of recent years, with Nigel Mansell coming home first in front of his home crowd. On his victory lap back to the pits Mansell even found time to pick up stranded rival Ayrton Senna and give him a lift on his side-pod, after Senna’s McLaren had run out of fuel on the final lap of the race.
Following the deaths of Senna and fellow Grand Prix driver Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994, many Grand Prix circuits were modified in order to reduce speed and increase driver safety. As a consequence of this Copse, Stowe, Abbey and Priory corners were all re-profiled to be slower with increased run off. In 1997 many corners were again re-profiled, but this time to increase the speed and flow of the circuit.
The 2.2 mile International Circuit appeared in 1997 when Becketts turned right through Ireland and across to join a resurfaced version of the old 1980s Abbey. The National circuit still used the linking runway from Becketts but now joined at Brooklands via a slight extension to the radius of the corner.
That layout is still current today.
Silverstone has gone through a raft of changes ever since it’s inception and each of it’s turns have a story to tell. The venue has never failed to provide an interesting race. Its secret? The perfect combination of a fast and flowing circuit, the aura and love for motorsports and the characteristically unpredictable English weather.
The British Grand Prix is not merely another race amongst the ever increasing and expanding F1 calendar, its a piece of history. It is Formula One’s crossroad, filled with the patina of the bygone era but also keeping pace with the future ensuring to provide a racing arena for the generations to come.