In the beginning...
Veteran French journalist ‘Jabby’ Crombac hitched to Silverstone for that 1948 race, and has attended most of Britain’s GPs since. But while he rates the Northampton track as one of the best, it was very different then
We are celebrating this year the Fiftieth anniversary of the British Grand Prix of the modem era, leaving aside the Brooklands races of 1926-27 and the Donington ones – on a proper road circuit, these between 1935 and 1938. The latter were of course only demonstration runs by the German teams with absolutely no opposition. But nevertheless, Donington assumed a great importance because many of the initiators of Britain's climb towards complete domination in recent years recalled their enthusiasm for Grands Prix had been fired up by watching the Donington races.
Road-racing was revived after the war in England with difficulty, and apart from more or less clandestine club events here and there, British enthusiasts had to go to Jersey or the Isle of Man to watch it. So it was good news when the RAC finally decided to do something about it in 1948 and organise a proper circuit event, on a suitable private course as dictated by British laws. And after a long search, they came up with a disused wartime airport near Towcester, Northamptonshire, which was hired from its owners.
The first GP which took place there in October 1948 was not taken seriously enough by the HA to be granted the title of 'British Grand Prix' and the rank of 'Grande Epreuve' equivalent to a World Championship event of today. So it was just 'the RAC Grand Prix' and in 1998 we should celebrate in fact not 50 years of the British GP, but 50 years of Silverstone. Alternatively, one could call it 50 years of F1 in Britain, because the appellation Formula One began in 1948!
The cautious executives of the organising club did not allow it a budget large enough to attract the stars on the day: the Alfa-Romeo Alfettas. Despite that, such a large crowd turned up that the traffic jams were even worse than they are today! As an avid follower of Motor and Motor Sport, when I read about that first Silverstone I simply had to be there. But the British touring agency in Paris really knew nothing about Silverstone, so the trip was an eventful one and finally I hitchhiked from Dover in the lorry bringing Louis Chiron's Talbot T26C.
On race day, I was put in charge of the lap-chart. That first Silverstone was something quite incredible. Having watched several Grands Prix on the Continent, I wasn't too impressed by the actual organisation. Of course, this was the first important event in England since the war, while on the Continent we had had already a dozen proper GPs. But one easily forgave the weaknesses as the enthusiasm was simply unbelievable. Today, the BRDC Committee has understood it can keep the GP only if the track is regularly kept up to date and it has lavished a lot of money to please both the HFIA and the spectators, as a result of which Silverstone is now one of the world's best tracks.
But in those days, it was frankly not on par. The use of the actual aerodrome's taxiways and landing strips made it terribly flat and dull. It was also rather bumpy but the cars of the period could put up with it, and many drivers wore stomach belts. The pits were rather rudimentary. They were located after Abbey curve, not at all where they are now as the track layout was completely different from today's. I remember the paddock accommodation was so primitive that the men's toilets consisted of a tent under which a large hole had been dug and people were circling the hole!
However, one of the most impressive things was the car park. This was at a time when new cars were reserved for export, so all the spectators turned up in pre-war cars; being enthusiasts many of them were driving cars which now change hands at Brooks for small fortunes. And they had been shepherded by makes. So Gregor Grant, Autosport's future founder, whom I had met there, took me round the 'corrals' to show me a gaggle of Alvis 12/50s next to a fleet of 4½-litre Bentleys (funny, I didn't see a single 'Blower' and nowadays so many Bentleys are supercharged!). The MG corral was by far the largest one, there were rows and rows of every model.
The track layout was changed the next year and again for 1950 which was the third Silverstone, the second post-war British GP and the first one to count for the World Championship. Frankly, the Brits didn't give a hoot about the World Championship in 1950. It was rightly perceived as a manoeuvre from the Italian Federation within the FIA to create a championship which at this period could only crown the driver of an Italian car. Nor were people much concerned by the fact it was granted its title of Grand Prix d’Europe. What interested the media as well as the public was the fact it was the 'Royal Silverstone' attended by the King, to whom the drivers were introduced.
I didn't watch this one, but perhaps the British GP I remember best is the next one, in 1951, when the burly Gonzalez beat Fangio. The important thing of course is that it was the rust defeat of the Alfettas since they had failed at St Cloud in 1946, when they had been too hurriedly taken out of hibernation. The thing is that Gonzalez's Ferrari V12 was a simpler but much more modern car. To stay ahead of it, Alfa-Romeo had pushed the power so far that to avoid refuelling too often the car was carrying a massive 332 litres of fuel in several auxiliary tanks — one of which was alongside the engine, another one next to the legs of the driver. With the fuel level changing, it was impossible to keep the car in balance for more than a few laps, and on this day Fangio just couldn't cope with Gonzalez, who was in scintillating good form all week-end. He had taken pole position as well, despite the power handicap of his Ferrari 375, which was the 'T-car' for the wain with single ignition.
Actually Gonzalez wasn't supposed to drive for Ferrari at all that season; the car was destined for Taruffi, but the latter was also the team manager of a motorcycle team which had kept him busy during the previous GP in Reims, and Gonzalez had given up his Maserati-Milan to deputise for him. He did well and kept the drive for Silverstone. Gonzalez wasn't as consistent as Fangio, but, on his day, he could beat the Great Master fair and square. After 1951 he did it again in 1954, also at Silverstone.
This was another epic David and Goliath' affair I am not likely to forget. Ferrari was having terrible financial problems and Mercedes was making good use of the Marshall plan of US financial help to steam-roller Formula One. The German firm probably had eight times more engineers and mechanics than the Italian one, but it was defeated on the wet circuit because Mercedes insisted on a hundred per cent German machine, and Continental, who supplied the tyres, lacked the experience of Pirelli or Dunlop. Poor Fangio was all over the place and dented his all-enveloping bodywork against the marker drums. This was the only time a W196 was beaten without having suffered a mechanical gremlin. Each of the nine Mercedes victories in 1954-55 were Fangio's, except the one which went to Stirling Moss at the British GP in 1955.
All previous British GPs at Silverstone had been organised by the BRDC, which had taken over the lease on the circuit from the RAC and later bought it altogether. But the RAC was tempted into taking back the GP (which belongs to them according to the rules of the FIA) and made a deal with Aintree where the GP would be held alternately with Silverstone. Officially this was to hold a GP more conveniently placed for the enthusiasts of the North. I felt this was more a matter of inter-club politics... and money! Aintree was built around the horse-racing track and only five GPs took place there, which was just as well: the industrial environment made it a nightmare. The nearby factories were spitting pestilential smoke. How far from the pleasant environment of Silverstone or Brands Hatch.
I only went there once so I missed the big event of 1955: Stirling Moss had joined Fangio in the Mercedes team and of course he wanted to win his home GP and stated it firmly in qualification when he put his WI96 on pole, 2/10th quicker than his team-mate. They were going to trade first place throughout the 90 laps but in the end Moss was ahead, just to prove this was well deserved, he equalled his qualifying time two laps before the finish, then he slowed down to allow Fangio to catch up and they crossed the line separated by only 2/10th. This was the first time a British driver won the British GP. I can imagine the enthusiasm was tremendous, but had Fangio deliberately let Moss win at home? To this day, Moss doesn't know, but he told me: "If Fangio gave me the victory, he certainly had the elegance never to tell me!"
Funnily, Aintree was the scene of another blockbuster which I didn't watch either: Vanwall's first GP victory in 1957. As he was leading from Behra's Maserati, Moss's Vanwall engine started misfiring and he had to pit. Brooks, lying fifth, wasn't feeling well because he was suffering from the effects of a recent crash in an Aston Martin at Le Mans, so he was pulled in to switch cars and Moss restarted in anger, caught up with the leaders and won the race...
After Aintree, the RAC decided to alternate Silverstone and Brands Hatch, and Kent was much more pleasant than Liverpool. Brands Hatch really was my favourite. It scored over Silverstone on the ease of getting in and out. The trouble at Brands Hatch was the pits. They were linked to the paddock by a tunnel for both cars and pedestrians, and this was not at all convenient. Against this, the visibility for the public was fantastic, at least on the old small circuit. To get the Grand Prix, Brands Hatch had to build an extension to bring it up to the minimum lap distance and this was out of sight from the main grandstands.
I do remember Brands had plenty of atmosphere of its own. I will probably be sneered at by BRDC members but may I suggest that Silverstone isn't the cradle of British motor racing? Silverstone in the early days is where one invited the foreign teams to cane the local ones. Meanwhile, at Brands, the 500cc movement was gathering strength and it is out of this movement that one finds the oldest roots of modem British motor racing: don't forget the Vanwall started with a Cooper chassis!
Excluding the bad crashes I don't wish to recall here, I think the worst British GP was at Brands Hatch in 1976. The fight for the World Championship was between Hunt and Lauda. The former had won at Madrid, only to be excluded because his car was a couple of centimetres too wide. Come the British GP at Brands Hatch and there was a massive collision on the first lap. The regulation then stated that only the cars which had completed the first lap by their own means were allowed to restart. This wasn't Hunt's case: his car was damaged and he had to take a short cut to get back to his pits. Ferrari protested and the stewards upheld the protest. Hunt couldn't race. But the public became so vociferous that he was allowed to start. He won the race but was obviously excluded later. The thing is that it is most unsavoury to see the stewards let the public run a motor race for chauvinistic reasons. One expects this in Italy, not in England...
Of course I have many other fond memories of the British GP, especially Jimmy Clark's victories, because I was so close to him. He won four times in succession from 1962-65, then another time in 1967. I watched all his victories except, sadly, the most sensational one, which clashed with the F2 race in Rouen where I was working on the organisation. It was in 1965 when he dominated even though he suffered an engine misfire after 20 laps, then an oil pressure drop in the corners. He showed his mastery by completely altering his driving style and switching off when the needle of the gauge was clown round the corners. He still beat Graham Hill by more than three seconds. Graham was the perennial loser at the British GP; he never won it but finished second twice. They told me all about it in the evening when I picked them up at the Rouen airport: in those days the Silverstone GP was run on the Saturday — at the church's request — and the drivers were free to race on the Sunday as well.
In the Sixties, Graham Hill gave a party on Sunday night after the British GP. If the race was at Silverstone, it would be in his home in Hampstead; if it was Brands' turn, we went to the cottage he hired near Maidstone from Lord Braboume. There were also Les Leston parties and the cricket match. All the drivers attended; in those days there was social life within motor racing. It was a happy time...