Silverstone's take-off



The BRDC’s post-war growth was mirrored by its rapid redevelopment of an old bomber base, in Northamptonshire. Gordon Cruickshank charts the early years of Britain’s premier track

As the dust of WWII settled and everyday life began to revert to something like normal, UK motor racing enthusiasts had a big problem: there wasn’t a major functioning racetrack in Britain. Vickers-Armstrong was busy building aeroplanes within the crumbling Brooklands circuit, while the Army had charge of Donington Park and Crystal Palace. But there was a glut of suddenly redundant airfields — flat, smooth and adaptable. In particular the RAC wanted to restart grand prix racing in Britain, and consequently needed somewhere extensive and central. Silverstone in Northants ticked all the boxes.

In June 1948 the RAC announced that it had leased the track; by August it stated that it would run a British Grand Prix —just two months away.

With plenty of straw bales, rope and canvas, a circuit, pits and spartan facilities appeared just in time. Instead of using the perimeter roads, as the track would later do, the cars used the X-shaped runways: turning sharp right at Copse, they streaked up the flightpath towards the intersection, swung hairpin left back to Maggotts to rejoin the circuit that we know, only to turn sharp right at Stowe back onto the main runway again — albeit now in the other direction. Roaring head-on towards cars on the other leg, they finally braked for another hairpin left to make the fourth arm of the cross. Yet another hairpin, Club, took the drivers back onto the familiar perimeter roads, with the flimsy scaffolding and-canvas pit structures before Woodcote instead of after. (Woodcote was so named after the RAC’s country club, and Club after its town headquarters.)

British race fans, starved of entertainment, arrived in droves; their reward was to see complete domination by a pair of the exciting new 4CLT Maseratis, bringing a flash of scarlet overseas glamour to our drab, ration-ridden country. International motor racing had come to Silverstone.

Despite the crudity of the arrangements, traffic jams and muddy car parks, the grand prix was a massive success, and another was planned for the milder month of May, 1949. But this time the hairpins were dumped; instead the cars would stick to the perimeter access road, with one chicane at Club “to reduce the monotony”. They didn’t realise that sheer speed was what everyone craved…

This time the grand prix brought unexpected results: yes, a Maserati won again (de Graffenried), but Bob Gerard brought his pre-war ERA in second. And the public got to see two of the new 1.5-litre V12s from some outfit called Ferrari.

In parallel, the BRDC, under its go-getting secretary Desmond Scannell, plotted another event the International Trophy. Aiming to attract top continental teams, this was a grand prix in all but name – and the big names came: Albert Ascari at the wheel of a works Ferrari and Giuseppe Farina in a Maserati…

Even more people filed through the gates on the day, cementing a long-lasting relationship with the sponsoring Daily Express, which also pushed for a production car event, a huge success. From being an unknown aerodrome, the Northants track was suddenly a high-profile international venue. And with that chicane dumped, Silverstone now had its definitive form; it was on its way to becoming the fastest grand prix circuit in the world.

With its healthy newspaper backing, the BRDC could now afford major investment, such as a bridge to the infield. For 1950 the FIA had devised a new world championship, for which Silverstone would provide the first round — and the King and Queen were coming. A disused bomber base had become a society venue, too. Despite Ferrari withdrawing over a start-money dispute, this race was a big success, Farina leading home a trio of Alfettas, including one for a Brit, Reg Parnell.

1951 was a pivotal year for the young circuit. The RAC, which had only wanted to kick-start racing again after the war, decided to relinquish its lease on Silverstone and, after the ’51 round, to hand over the grand prix’s organisation to the BRDC. Despite Daily Express backing, the club had little in the bank and it had to ask its members to advance the money needed to take over the lease. The clincher was that the RAC would guarantee the Club the ’52 British Grand Prix, and thereby its first substantial income.

In the meantime, 1951 brought Ferrari’s first-ever GP victory, in front of ever-larger crowds, and even more grumbles about the temporary lavatories and mud-clogged car parks. Silverstone’s central location was dearly a plus, but it was time for more forward planning. By ’52 the pits had moved away from the farm to their current position, spectator banks were erected and a shorter Club circuit was set up. The Club was now ready to become a self-contained GP organiser.

At first the GP was to alternate with Goodwood, giving the rival BARC its turn, an idea which soon faded. Aintree, though, had a run, followed by Brands Hatch, alternating with Silverstone for many years. But despite (or perhaps because of) its flat topography, it’s been Silverstone which has adapted to motor racing’s ever-stricter demands.

In 1971 the Club bought it outright, becoming the only such organisation to own a major circuit, and over the years income from the grand prix has enabled it to steadily improve public facilities and the paddock complex, to modify the layout to reduce corner speeds, and to offer four distinct track options. It is now the most comprehensive racing facility in Britain — and ironically faces it strongest threat to date…