Aintree

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Think Aintree – motor racing at Aintree – and if you’re like me, you will conjure up two streaks of silver flashing past the chequred flag, just two-tenths of a second apart. The white-helmeted figure in the lead raises a gloved hand in acknowledgement of his first win in the highest echelon of motorsport. “And Moss wins the British Grand Prix,” the plummy voice declares excitedly before adding, grudgingly, “albeit in a German car.” Patriotism, they called it. Ah, but Mercedes-Benz were wise to that, had learnt their lesson from Le Mans three years earlier, when a 1-2 for the silver cars had been greeted in silence by the French crowd. So Stirling’s W196 bore a Union Jack on its flank. And maybe as Moss himself has wondered since the victory, too, was a gift to a Briton in Britain. Whether it came from Alfred Neubauer or Juan Manuel Fangio, who knows? If there was a secret, the men involved took it to their graves.

Over 45 years on, I’m in a Mercedes at Aintree, but my thoughts are not of Stirling’s wins here, nor are they with German aristo Wolfgang von Trips at the head of a Ferrari 1-2-3 in 1961. No, what I am wondering is how Aintree wooed the CSI away from the green fields of Northamptonshire to a three-mile course just a 10-minute drive from smoky, dank Liverpool. Don’t get me wrong; having a circuit set against the backdrop of industrial Merseyside has more appeal than on a wind-ravaged ex-airfield. There is the thought that here motor racing was being brought to everyone, rather than being perceived as a clandestine event where the trilby-and-tweed set drove down goat-tracks in the middle of nowhere to chatter patronisingly in Home Counties accents about the right crowd and no crowding. On that hot summer’s day in 1955, an estimated 150,000 people piled through the gates to watch Stirling lead home his three team-mates, Fangio, Karl Kling and Piero Taruffi. Had they been there a little over a year earlier for the Aintree 200 — the tuck’s first race — they would have seen Moss win then too, but in differing circumstances: he was in a Maserati 250F; it was wet; and everyone was going the other way round.

Believe it or not, at the first Aintree meeting, the cars went the same way as the horses, anti-clockwise — and couldn’t cope. Or, to be more precise, their drivers had problems with Bechers Bend which, approached in that direction, possessed an ever-decreasing radius. Colin Chapman was one of those to drop it there that day and, so the story goes, Mirabel Topham, Aintree’s patrician owner, was annoyed at seeing her virginal grass chewed up by sliding crossplies. So clockwise it was. Circulating in the traditional way, Bechers was — and remains — merely an endless, undemanding right-hander, devoid of any character, in stark contrast to the view 90 degrees to the left of its exit. Becher’s Brook, even for those of us who care little about horse racing, is an awesome sight, which instils a sense of respect for the nags that each year hurtle over it and cope with the five-foot drop between take-off and landing platforms, all for the greater glory of a short man dressed in multi-coloured silk pyjamas.

Aintree has been home to the Grand National since 1847. Its foray into cars, at the highest level at least, was much briefer. But I am pleased to report that the Grand Prix circuit is intact. Along the start/finish straight — now an access road — there are still the bricks, which marked the beginning and end of the pitlane. And across the other side of the resurfaced track looms the main grandstand, now clumsily interrupted with a modern glassy reworking, complete with a large ugly overhang. But there the elegant arched balconies remain, and the view is magnificent for those lucky enough to find a high vantage point. Looking down the straight to Waterway Corner, you realise that this was definitely a turn which demanded respect.

Get it wrong, or get a puncture, and on the exit there’s just a foot of grass before striking a wall — on the other side of which lies a canal. It made me shudder to stand there and think of Moss flinging team-mate Tony Brooks’ Vanwall through Waterway in 1957, carving up the British GP field, desperate to retake the lead which he’d held in his own car until its engine expired. Sure, he might never have succeeded had Jean Behra not had his Maserati’s clutch explode 20 laps from home, but let us not underestimate Moss’s dedication to duty that day: his fastest lap was a full second under his pole position time. Running parallel to the canal wall, we reach Anchor Crossing, where the track first transects Melling Road. And this is where we are brought to a halt by razor wire.

However, when we do reach the exit of Anchor, it is gratifying to stand on the inside where photographers once crouched to get that shot that said ‘Aintree’, and note that the hump-backed bridge still has those black and white chequers on the wall. Pleasing too, that the straight where even the 1.5-litre F1 cars drifted to the very edge of the grass, hasn’t been resurfaced. On the left there is now a small football pitch where there was once a car park, and at the end of the straight there is another metal gate further preventing an uninterrupted circuit. But even so, it is easy to see how, having built up momentum since the first turn, an underpowered car would be shown up long before it was time to brake and change down for the left-handed Cottage Corner.

This is where it strikes me: the lack of an obvious line. A paucity of landmarks, combined with the topography of a snooker table, makes Aintree far from being an easy circuit to learn. Joining the Club Circuit — still in use and therefore resurfaced — you pass a clubhouse on the left and reach Country Corner, which remains what it always was: the archetypal 90-degree left-hander. Swoop in from the right, kiss the apex — same concrete kerbing, though its paint has long since disappeared — and run out wide on the exit to head once more towards the canal wall. But this time there is the beautifully manicured horseracing course between you and a watery oblivion.

By common consensus, the next part of the circuit — curiously named The Picnic Loop — was rather dull, for drivers and spectators alike. But a circuit where it’s straightforward to drive flat out often makes for great racing. The Aintree 200 of 1958 finished with the battling Cooper T45s of Moss and Brabham just 0.2sec apart The following year’s British Grand Prix saw Moss in a BRM P25 split the superior Coopers, finishing a mere wheel ahead of Bruce McLaren.

I am reminded at this point that Jackie Stewart regarded the 1973 Italian GP as his finest race. Yes, he’d won at the Nurburgring and Spa, but if you were the best at what you do, that was expected. What made his Monza performance special was that it was on a track where anyone could drive fast, yet he made up a whole heap of time by driving perfectly, to climb from 19th place after an early puncture to fourth. Aintree, I daresay, was much the same, but that is no cause to denigrate it. As a place where tenths of a second counted, where momentum was hard won and easily lost, if you missed an apex by six inches, the chasing pack would be swarming all over you. It should be no surprise that Moss won so often here. Or that Jim Clark led the ’62 GP from start to finish to win by 50sec — the same year in which he won the Aintree 200 by a minute and a half.

Bechers Bend leads onto the longest blind of the lot, Railway Straight, which passed the massed ranks of spectators perched on the banking that stretched along its length. A length long enough for the timid to fret about what was awaiting them at Melling Crossing, and for the heroes to ensure they were ready to squirm over the cinders left by the horses. Oh yes, where the track once more transected Melling Road, a fast right-left-right-left that was the place’s one true challenge, there were demons in wait behind the huge gateposts. Phil Hill conquered them in practice for the 1961 British Grand Prix. Driving the exquisite shark-nosed Ferrari 156, he set pole. But raceday would be a different matter.

In his biography of Hill, William F Nolan wrote: “The sky over Aintree was soot-dark, a combination of factory smoke blown downwind from Liverpool and fat-bellied storm clouds… By 230pm, rain was falling hard and steadily…” Phil had changed his brake balance in dry practice, putting more to the front Leading the race on lap six, he hit the middle pedal for Melling Crossing and the front washed out, putting him off line, forcing him to get off the power and pitching him sideways. He told Nolan: “I could see that big post coming right at me. But then I just barely managed to get pointed in the proper direction again and, using all my power and what traction I still had, shot through the gate and on down the road. I remember thinking, ‘They can have the damn championship!’ That was a frightening moment and it affected my entire performance during the remainder of the race.”

Indeed it did: his team-mate von Trips won by almost 50sec, and Phil was only second because his other Ferrari team-mate, Richie Ginther, backed off and waved him through.

The golf course exit at Aintree echoes the shape of the entry to Melling Crossing, but has moved about eight feet to the right and the gatepost has been removed. Two now stand on either side of the horse course, but it requires little imagination to realise how threading a 120mph needle here, while coping with barely-cleared cinders horses don’t enjoy galloping on Tarmac would have been a hold-your-breath moment of minimal wheel movement and delicate on-off-on throttle-tickling. Having drifted out left towards the barn, which has been replaced and moved slightly, it must have been a relief to finally have the rear wheels in line with the fronts to ensure a nice straight entry into the relatively simple Tatts. As I gently rolled our Mercedes over the speed humps that now lead to that final corner, it struck me there was another element of fear attached to Melling Crossing. Make a mistake, and your cockup and its consequences were plain to see for all those in the main grandstand. And was your peace of mind helped or hindered knowing that an ambulance waited near that corner with foreboding prescience?

Sauntering past where the pits used to be, I still find it hard to associate this track with motor racing. The Club Circuit on the far side of Melling Road was the scene of Aintree’s last big car meet, when Gunnar Nilsson’s F3 March-Toyota won the Blakeford Trophy in 1975, and it is still used by motorcycles and for a few test days, but aside from tyre marks on the grid, there are few signs that it is used by anything more powerful than golf buggies. One should perhaps not shed too many tears over that, however, for there are no significant challenges on the Club Circuit, the Zolder of Merseyside. The full three-miler is a different matter and it’s sad that, here if you didn’t know it had hosted five British GPs, there are no signs to enlighten you.

I will concede that in Aintree’s challenges lay its downfall not enough run-off at crucial corners for an increasingly safety-conscious motorsport world. On the plus side though, it is worth remembering that Aintree’s organisers overcame its flatness by providing elevated spectating facilities, while the local police and vast car parks by all accounts coped well with the huge crowds at F1 races. And most important of all, the track rewarded the best, whatever the category.

But this was deemed insufficient to prevent the GP from heading south permanently from 1963 onwards; one year later, Aintree’s GP circuit ran its last race. I would be the first to admit that Brands Hatch is the better track, but I can’t help but feel that Aintree deserved more time in which to jangle its jewellery.

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