Silverstone at 70: 1940s

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RAC International Grand Prix, October 2 1948

Murray Walker was present at Silverstone’s first meeting 70 years ago… and witnessed the birth of the circuit

Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi in the 1948 British Grand Prix

Murray Walker had already started commentating as British motor sport stirred from its war-enforced shutdown, but he was off duty at Silverstone’s inaugural meeting almost 70 years ago. It was simply an opportunity to rekindle one of his passions… 

“My most vivid memory is the fact the race was actually happening,” he says. “Britain had come out of World War II late in 1945 and, in racing terms, it took much longer to get going again than the continentals. We didn’t have any circuits – Donington Park had become a military supply dump, Brooklands had been carved apart and there wasn’t much else. The RAC reconnoitred and found Silverstone by virtue of the fact that a bunch of Frazer Nash enthusiasts had been staging their own impromptu races there. That drew it to the RAC’s attention and they signed a one-year lease while [BRDC president] Earl Howe travelled overseas in an effort to persuade teams to come and take part in the proposed RAC Grand Prix.

“I was 24 and went in my mum’s Morris Minor, with her knowledge and approval, and it took hours to get in, engaging the clutch, creeping forward 10 yards… I’m sure anyone who has ever attended a Grand Prix will be familiar with the age-old routine. When you finally got close and heard proper racing engines… I’d seen the Mercedes-Benzes, Auto Unions, ERAs and so forth at Donington Park before the war, so the sound wasn’t new to me, but after several years of a cataclysmic conflict it was magical to hear it again.

“Silverstone was a very different circuit at that stage – a sort of distorted figure of eight on which drivers turned off the perimeter road at several points and charged towards each other from opposite ends of the same runway, with a closing speed approaching 300mph and not much separating them in the middle. It was a miracle that nobody hit each other at a colossal cumulative speed. But although the facilities were zilch – proper loos didn’t exist, the hangars were in disrepair, broken glass, barbed wire, bits of aeroplane were scattered everywhere and there wasn’t really any structured car parking, you just stopped where you could find a piece of land – nobody cared because top-level racing was back.

“The main race wasn’t particularly exciting, with Alberto Ascari against Luigi Villoresi for Maserati and Villoresi winning after Ascari was delayed. There were about 10 ERAs up against the might of Europe, Bob Gerard taking third in the best of them and being mobbed by the crowd as he crossed the line. But although it was archaic and primitive, pretty awful by today’s standards, we thought it absolute nirvana. I watched from one of two grandstands opposite the start/finish, which back then was between Abbey and Woodcote, and I had a paddock pass, which you could buy for 30 shillings – the equivalent of £1.50, though that was a lot more money in those days. I thought it was all fabulous. I must have blagged a grandstand pass somehow or other.

“About 100,000 people turned up and that wouldn’t be too shabby a crowd nowadays – particularly when you bear in mind what things were like in those days, with no motorways. It’s sometimes difficult to get across to the younger generation that there weren’t any motorways back then, or that most people didn’t have cars or telephones – and certainly not mobile phones. It’s hard to stress just how primitive it all was. But after all the privations of WWII, this liberation, this ability to reinvigorate your pre-war enthusiasm for racing, or for others perhaps to discover something new, was wonderful.

“Did it take hours to get out afterwards? Of course, but it really didn’t matter.”

He had little idea that when he returned a year later, he’d have a fresh vantage point of the kind that would become increasingly familiar in years to come: the commentary position at Stowe…

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