Silverstone at 70: The way we were

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Three modern racers slip out of their comfort zones to get a taste of Silverstone’s early days as a Grand Prix circuit

The faces are familiar, the décor anything but. Deep-pile Nomex has been cast aside for flimsy cotton and carbon helmets cede to glorified pudding bowls, though a barrage of Go-Pros and a couple of stout roll-hoops rather give the game away.

This isn’t so much period drama as period documentary. Multiple Grand Prix winner and 2015 world endurance champion Mark Webber is here with fellow F1/sports car racer Karun Chandhok and former Williams test driver Susie Wolff, each of them assigned to cars of a type that raced in Grands Prix at Silverstone when it still looked very much like a disused airfield. Their mission is to produce footage that will air on Channel 4 during its British GP coverage this year – and also to draw attention to the anniversary parades that will take place during the Silverstone Classic weekend on July 20-22, to highlight 70 years since the venue got the nod over RAF Snitterfield as the nation’s first post-war Grand Prix host.

Webber has been allocated Duncan Ricketts’ ERA E-type, which looks a bit like a scaled-down Mercedes W154 and has the added distraction of a centre throttle pedal. It is one of two E-types built – and both were entered for the inaugural RAC International GP in October 1948. This one should have been driven by Peter Walker, but after a troubled opening day he switched to an older B-type. Despite its driver missing Friday practice because he had to attend important business in London, the sister car of Leslie Johnson qualified fifth – the outside of the front row on a 5-4-5 grid – and was vying for second place on the opening lap when he clipped an oil drum and broke a driveshaft.

Chandhok and Wolff are both in F2 cars, a Cooper-Bristol and an Alta from Ian Nuthall’s IN Racing stable. It was in a Cooper T20-Bristol that Mike Hawthorn enhanced his growing reputation, finishing third in the 1952 British GP [the first of two run only for F2 cars, in line with period regulations] behind the Ferraris of Nino Farina and Alberto Ascari, the 23-year-old Englishman’s first podium finish in a world championship GP.

This isn’t a serious test, but a cocktail of slow-speed filming duty and brisk experimentation to give all three a decent feel for the days of yore. Chandhok has raced a few times at the Goodwood Revival and Wolff has driven a number of Mercedes Heritage cars in demonstration events, but for Webber it’s a fresh phenomenon. “I did once get to run an ex-Jochen Rindt Lotus 49 at the Red Bull Ring,” he says, “but that’s probably as close as it gets – so absolutely nothing like this.”

Motor Sport is allowed into C4’s makeshift green room, within Silverstone’s Wing, to listen to the trio gather their thoughts.

First things first: three cars and a single centre throttle pedal. So how come the Aussie got that one?

“He’s Mark Webber,” says Wolff. “We thought he’d best be able to cope…”

Webber: “I’m sure we could all have driven it, but it did take some mental adjustment – particularly at the end of longish straights, coming in to Copse and Stowe. Once on the Hangar Straight I lifted off the throttle, coasted for a while – this was while we were filming – and then put my foot back on it again when I’d meant to brake…” He makes a few noises to describe the sensation, then releases a couple of expletives almost as quickly as he’d had to release the throttle. We get the picture. “I’ve raced for 27 years or whatever,” he adds, “but no matter how aware I was I still slipped up a couple of times.”

Chandhok thinks for a moment about parallel experiences… and conjures a 1961 Lightweight Jaguar E-type that he drove in the RAC TT Celebration at Goodwood.

“I know that was obviously different,” he says, “because it has a roof and all the rest of it, but in terms of technology it’s only nine years removed from this. The way it rolled around, the way it moved and the wooden tyres were similar, though I wasn’t exposed the way I was in this thing. I have to say, though, I was massively impressed with the precision of the Cooper’s gearbox, given when it was designed.

“Once I’d got the hang of it with the throttle blips, I started to think, ‘Blimey, this is becoming quite intuitive.’ I wasn’t having to think about it, unlike Mark – I’m not sure how I’d have coped with that. The more I drove, the more predicable the car felt.”

“When you’re building up speed you can feel the whole thing start to wobble”

Webber: “It’s nice to be able to see other drivers working, too. In a modern Grand Prix car the eyeline is so aggressively low that I might have caught a flash of Lewis Hamilton’s helmet from time to time, but that would be it. In these you can see much more of the human form – if all the cars were identical you’d be able to recognise the drivers from their stature and poise. You can see so much more.”

Chandhok: “And then there’s all the crap that flies around. You get water in your face – and stones…”

Wolff: “I actually quite liked that – to me it brought the whole experience alive.”

Webber: “It’s the scent, too. I know Martin [Brundle, driving a Ferrari 246 for Sky] wasn’t part of our group, but when he came past he was driving pretty hard and the smell was something else.”

Chandhok: “When you’re building up speed you can feel the whole thing start to wobble – it happened halfway along the Hangar Straight. I don’t know what the speed was – about 5000rpm in fourth, whatever that might be – and you don’t want to press the brake at that point because it doesn’t feel terribly stable. And then you reflect on the fact that people used to race these things for three and a half hours or whatever. We’ve been driving on a nice, safe version of Silverstone and if we lose concentration we’ll probably slither through a run-off area. If you lost concentration back in the day, you might well have died.”

Webber: “I’ll get crucified for saying this, but it reminded me of a really, really elegant, fast tractor. When I was younger I drove Massey Fergusons on the farm back home and, as with those, you’ve really got to put your elbows into it. There are no belts, obviously, you’re exposed and the ergonomics are super-crude – but those are absolutely not criticisms because at the time it was all cutting edge. I mean look, the ERA is almost 80 years old and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

“When the car was new its dashboard would have been a piece of art – that’s what I was thinking when I was looking down at the gauges.”

Wolff: “I found it quite hard getting my head around the fact that the Alta is as old as it is, because even today it looks and feels incredibly impressive.”

Webber: “The whole thing has been a beautiful time warp, and then you mix in the heritage of the circuit – the whole triangle of track, car and the fact Murray Walker has been here contributing to our programme… I was really chuffed when I heard Murray would be with us – he was commentating on the 1994 San Marino GP for Australian TV, when Ayrton Senna crashed and I started crying into my cornflakes.”

Has the experience tempted any of them to try their hand racing such cars in today’s climate? A thoughtful silence descends momentarily.

Chandhok: “I’ve done the TT at the Goodwood Revival, mostly up against a complete bunch of lunatics, and I’ve also done the St Mary’s Trophy for saloon cars. That’s more my cup of tea, really – no more than about 90bhp, all nice and calm.”

At this point Tiff Needell wanders across to negotiate an interview of his own, doesn’t realise we’re recording and joins in: “I think Goodwood should be reserved for drivers over 50 – no more touring car stars turning up in their gaudy overalls…”

Wolff: “I wouldn’t mind. I enjoy all the stuff I do for Mercedes Heritage, but can’t think too much about racing at present because life is reasonably hectic [she became a mother for the first time in April]. It’s definitely something I’d like to look at in the future, when things have slowed down a bit.”

Webber: “Not a chance, mate. I’ve kissed enough angels in my career and dodged a few bullets, so I’m not prepared to find out whether an old drum-brake system is going to look after my legs over 20 races – plus, in cars like this you are part of the crash structure. It’s like somebody from the modern age going back to play with The Beatles’ equipment – however good they might be, they’re not going to do it as well. I wouldn’t want to race something that has been driven better in the past. Doing demonstrations is fine and I completely understand why people want to compete in beautiful old cars, but as far as racing goes I’ve had my turn.”

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