50 British Grands Prix

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With the 50 post-war British Grands Prix behind us, Gordon Cruickshank looks back at our premier race

When an aerodrome near a village called Silverstone hosted the first Grand Prix in Britain after the war, it must have seemed unlikely that this desolate and hastily converted expanse of concrete would become central to motor racing in this country. Yet with last month’s 50th running in post-war times of Britain’s greatest race, Silverstone circuit can convincingly argue a place as the home of one of the world’s finest motor races.

The honour of holding the country’s top international event has of course been shared with others. Aintree and Brands Hatch have both been the show-ring for the Grand Prix circus, sometimes through the floating European Grand Prix fixture, which also brought the world’s greatest drivers to the revived Donington Park in 1993. Yet these rival locations have usually alternated with Silverstone, so that time after time it has been the narrow hedge-lined roads of Northamptonshire which have echoed to the chatter of thousands of excited fans queueing to get there in time and then to get out.

It was really a little optimistic of the RAC to select the date of October 2, 1948 for its first post-war Grand Prix. It wasn’t for any lack of enthusiasm; large crowds, starved of entertainment through the war, had attended the first renewed flickerings of motorsport. Nor was it because of a dearth of entries; there would certainly be enough proper racing cars from Italy and France and, a little way down the grid, Britain, to make a race.

No, there was another problem. A circuit. The only real road-racing circuit on the British mainland was Donington Park, scene of two spectacular pre-war Grands Prix, but it had been requisitioned by the military, and they weren’t giving it up. Crystal Palace was desperately narrow for Grand Prix cars, and in poor shape. Brooklands, scene of the first two British GPs in 1927 and 1928, had little to offer except its old-fashioned bankings of ageing concrete.

Attention turned to the rash of suddenly redundant aerodromes, of which one seemed ideal. Silverstone airfield was extensive; it was in good shape, and it was relatively central. A one-year lease was signed in July 1948, leaving two months to prepare it for a major international motor race.

It was, though, only just an international event. Neither prize-fund nor prestige of the fledgling race was enough to attract the all-conquering Alfa Romeos or the Ferraris to this non-FIA event, but Maserati and Talbot came, putting exotic continental names onto the bill-posters.

What they found was a bare airfield with tents for pits, oil-drums for corners, and hay-bales for crowd protection; but the numbers attending were huge, jamming the lanes for hours. And though the British representation was far from strong, and the race hardly dramatic (Ascari and Villoresi first and second in Maseratis, with Bob Gerard’s ERA behind) it proved there was the will, and the customers, to make it worth repeating. As there were still no other circuit options, Silverstone was booked for the 1949 event, planned for May, well within the RAC’s one-year lease. Now dignified by the FIA with full Grand Prix status, it was finally officially titled the British Grand Prix. On occasions it has also been granted the duplicate title of Grand Prix d’Europe, which can be confusing, for the European fixture has sometimes been an additional event here or abroad, and sometimes an honorific label attached to one of the existing GPs.

Heavy duty sponsorship of the GP began with that 1949 event, which displayed copious banners for the Daily Express newspaper. The paper, however, refrained from inserting its name into the race title, a practice which began in 1971 with Woolmark, and has seen it turn into the John Player, the Marlboro, the Shell Oils, and the Fosters British GP.

Despite its new status, the second Silverstone GP still failed to draw Ferrari, now the star Italian team; but 1950 would be different. Despite the crude facilities at Silverstone, the British Grand Prix was about to become the first event of the inaugural World Championship.

Ferrari not being ready, it was champion-elect Farina who took the flag from a front row of four Alfas, but with a Briton (Parnell) third in one, and the King and Queen present, the British Grand Prix had arrived. The next race, 1951, has gone down as one of the greats, when Froilan Gonzalez founded the Ferrari legend with the marque’s first win. But during that year the RAC announced that it would not continue to lease Silverstone, deeming it inappropriate that the governing body should be so involved with the venue. Having kickstarted the affair, it was time someone else took a hand. The obvious choice was the BRDC, whose secretary Desmond Scannell had been central to the Silverstone deal; backed by the Daily Express, the club took on the circuit, and built the first permanent buildings there, a new set of pits.

With the event now a permanent part of the championship, there was no more difficulty in attracting the right teams, even if British cars were behind cars were way behind the Ferraris which took the 1952 and ’53 races. But a novelty for 1953 was the arrival of BBC television cameras, the first time the Grand Prix had been broadcast.

Interest soared as the fans waited for a British win, finally delivered by Stirling Moss whose fractional victory over Fangio in 1955 confirmed his position as local hero. But it came in the first post-war GP not run at Silverstone, or by the BRDC. Mrs Mirabel Topham had spent £100,000 on a motor circuit at her Aintree racetrack, and the smart stands rather eclipsed the other track. Despite dreadful traffic jams from the huge crowds (some say 150,000), and complaints about the BARC’s organisation, Aintree alternated with Silverstone until 1962, when the RAC caused a furore by giving it to the Liverpool track in Silverstone’s year.

That was Aintree’s last Grand Prix, but now there was a new contender. Brands Hatch circuit in Kent. Facilities there had improved dramatically, and non-championship F1 races had already proved that the place was a real test of car and driver. The honour of the British GP was finally bestowed in 1964, beginning an alternating pattern with Silverstone which lasted until 1986. In those less restricted days, both also ran nonchampionship Formula One races in their `off’ year, Silverstone its International Trophy, and Brands its Race of Champions. But increasing safety worries in the early Seventies focussed on the Kent circuit, which had less latitude for adjustment than Silverstone, where the BRDC had been buying up land to ensure its future. Then, with no warning, the unwritten year-about system stopped dead in 1986, when FOCA announced a five-year deal with Silverstone. Brands ceased overnight to be a Grand Prix circuit, and Silverstone has hosted every British GP since.

The British event is one of the immutable fixtures in the World Championship, its mid-July date as firm since 1951 as the date of Le Mans or Monaco, and the range of ‘firsts’ it has witnessed is extensive. The first championship win for a British car came in 1957, when Moss took over Brooks’ Vanwall; 20 years later Renault unveiled the first turbocharged GP contender; 1979 gave Williams its first Grand Prix victory. It was the first Grand Prix to carry a sponsor’s name, and has done so more consistently than any other; scarcely a year has passed since 1971 without it promoting cigarettes, oil or beer.

Today the running of the event is considered to be at the top level, but that hasn’t prevented several chaotic happenings in its time. In 1973, Jody Scheckter, on the first lap, spun across the track at Woodcote, then blisteringly quick and unforgiving. For following cars there was no margin; when the debris settled there were nine wrecked cars blocking the road. Soon work began to emasculate Woodcote with a chicane for ’75. Ironically, that race saw an even bigger disaster, when heavy rain arrived late in the race and sent a dozen cars into the barriers. Emerson Fittipaldi, leading when the red flag came out, had his last victory, one of only two cars running at the end.

The Brands ’74 race was overshadowed by an FIA inquiry as to why Niki Lauda, pitting his punctured Ferrari with a lap to go, had his exit blocked by officials and lost a probable fifth place; though reinstated by a tribunal, it left a nasty taste. That, however, was eclipsed by what happened at the next Kentish race. James Hunt was Britain’s hero in 1976; the Hesketh adventure had popularised him, and now he was winning races in a McLaren. But when the organisers tried to stop him using the spare car after a first-lap shunt, a wave of displeasure ran through the crowd; there were jeers, boos and whistles, and then beercans began to fly. It was an ugly moment, but in the end the authorities did not have to back down; the McLaren team got the original car repaired, and Hunt went on to win an emotive home Grand Prix. The FIA was lucky to be out of beercan range when it stripped Hunt of his win in a Paris courtroom months later.

However firm the rules, individuals must carry responsibilities, and in 1985 at Silverstone Alain Prost, having lapped the field in his McLaren, was surprised to see the chequered flag waved at him a lap early. It was a mistake, but it was official. The canny Frenchman did the extra lap to be sure of his points, but there were no legal recriminations, as the finish order was not going to change in the last tour.

A new wave of fans, boosted by BBC coverage, brought a new problem when Mansell won at Silverstone in 1992. Like a football crowd, onlookers surged onto the track while other cars still ran; Mansell himself bowled one of his fans over. Crowd restraint is now part of the circuit brief; even after Damon Hill’s emotional 1994 British victory, achieving what his father never managed, the track remained clear. With 50 manifestations behind it, the British Grand Prix is one of the core events in the calendar. As the Grand Prix map spreads ever wider, television brings an expanding worldwide audience. Our home event may not always be at Silverstone a race at Donington or even an upstart rival is always possible. But as things are, for two hours every July, millions of people are watching those same corners Woodcote, Copse, Abbey whose names were invented to glamourise a barren airfield in 1948.