Date 20 July 1985, 3.12pm
Location Silverstone Circuit, Northamptonshire
Event Final qualifying, British Grand Prix
Point of interest The fastest F1 lap of all time
Before qualifying for the 1985 British GP, no Formula One car had ever lapped a track at over 160mph and none has since. Keke Rosberg tells Adam Cooper how he and Williams made F1 history that day
Not many Formula One races are best remembered for qualifying rather than the race, but that is certainly the case with the 1985 British Grand Prix. On a July Saturday Keke Rosberg ensured himself a place in the record books; he remains the only man to have set a Grand Prix pole position at an average speed of better than 160mph. What’s more, he did it twice in one session.
It’s very important for a driver to control himself,” recalls Rosberg today, “but that was one of the few days in my F1 career when I got carried away…”
In 1985 Keke was into his fourth year with Williams. World Champion in his first season back in 1982, he’d subsequently struggled to get results. The team was among the last to abandon the DFV for a turbo engine at the end of ’83, and the first Williams-Honda wasn’t up to much, as the engine had throttle response of the on/off switch variety. However, Keke did luck into a win in the 1984 Dallas GP by staying in one piece on a deteriorating track. It was horrible in ’84,” he remembers, “and it was still horrible at the beginning of ’85. But by the latter half of ’85 the Honda power started to be fairly sophisticated, and the car was quite good.”
As the 1985 season progressed, so the Williams package became consistently competitive, if not always reliable. In June Keke won the Detroit GP, and then next time out at Paul Ricard he gave Williams-Honda its first pole. The race after that was at Silverstone, then just edging out the Österreichring as the fastest venue on the calendar. Testing had suggested that the 160mph barrier was under threat.
Perhaps only in hindsight can we appreciate the quality of a field which included Main Prost and Niki Lauda at McLaren, Ayrton Senna and Elio de Angelis at Lotus, Nelson Piquet at Brabham, Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson at Ferrari, and of course Keke’s own upstart team-mate at Williams Nigel Mansell. At Silverstone, Rosberg humbled the lot.
Back then qualifying was spread over two days, and on a rain-affected Friday, Keke first laid claim to pole with a lap of 1m06.107s – just off the magic 160mph mark. The changeable weather stayed on for Saturday, and final qualifying was interrupted by brief showers, but the track dried pretty quickly.
During a break in the weather Rosberg climbed aboard his FW 10, bolted on his first set of sticky qualifiers, and set out to improve on Friday’s pole time. Despite the tricky conditions, it was clearly an impressive lap, but at Woodcote – in those days still a fast flick of a chicane – he had a big slide.
It took a few seconds for the time to register on the monitors, but he’d done it; 1m05.967s, just breaching the 160mph mark. When he got back to the pits Keke discovered that his front left tyre had all but deflated, which at least explained that moment on the final corner.
Others went out and tried, but only Piquet’s 1m06.249s came close. Some, including Senna, couldn’t better their Friday times; indeed as the session drew to a close nobody had beaten Keke’s first day pole, so the Williams man held the top two times. But evidently that still wasn’t enough. With just a few minutes to go he slipped on his helmet and set off again on his second set of qualifiers.
“Patrick Head said ‘We don’t really need to’, and I said ‘Give me the tyres, I want to go out again.’ I was just on a high.”
So was the car that good?
“It must have been good if it was so enjoyable! There wasn’t pressure, I was on pole anyway. So it was pure enjoyment. And I’m glad that somebody like Patrick or Frank would sometimes allow you to enjoy yourself. I don’t know if the current system would allow it, but in those days it was acceptable.”
Some corners were still a little damp, but this lap was something special; a 1m05.591s, good for 160.925mph.
“Stowe, Club… it was just fantastic. I can remember coming out of Woodcote with a completely blistered left rear, hardly able to keep it on the road any more in the last corner. But I beat my own time.”
Keke denies that records were on his mind that day.
“Not really that consciously, but we knew that we were quick. You knew that you were travelling really fast, and that’s what it was about. The statistics came after. Setting a 160mph lap wasn’t the target; our target was to get the pole with the first set, and with second set have some fun.
“I remember Niki Lauda criticising me – what was the point and all that? I felt that there has to be some fun left in driving racing cars. It can’t be all mathematics and numbers, you know. It was one of those days when driving the car was just tremendous fun. At the same time I knew that professionally, you shouldn’t get carried away, you shouldn’t have fun, you should just concentrate on the job. The left hand said it was great to have fun, the right hand said you shouldn’t do that.”
The left hand won on the day. The result was a standing ovation as Rosberg toured back to the pits for the inevitable drag on a cigarette. But while the public was delighted, Keke says the reception back at the garage was a little cooler.
“They never said a lot. Frank would smile a little bit out of the corner of his mouth. I think it’s one of the things missing from F1; there isn’t this backslapping and saying, ‘We enjoyed that.’ When you see other forms of racing, there’s more of that. But then they probably don’t work as intensely and in as well-controlled an environment as F1.”
For Rosberg, Sunday was one of anti-climax. Senna put the Lotus into the lead at the start, and later Keke lost second to Prost before slowing and retiring with a turbo failure. Curiously, after two in a row, Rosberg would get no more poles that season.
It was two years before the F1 cars returned to Silverstone. By then Keke had retired and a new ‘left-right’ had been added before Woodcote. In theory the Finn’s record was safe, but such was the pace of development of the turbo cars that Piquet’s pole for Williams was a pretty impressive 159.267mph. In later years the circuit would change beyond recognition and lose its place as F1 ‘s fastest track. Despite the FIA’s ongoing attempts to slow circuits and rein in car technology, the 160mph barrier did subsequently come under threat from two of Keke’s old rivals although not in Northamptonshire. In 1991 Senna hustled his McLaren-Honda around Monza in 159.951mph, while in ’93 Prost managed 159.822mph at the same venue for Williams-Renault. The accidents of the following spring sounded the death knell for such average speeds.
“It’s a shame we don’t have tracks like the old Silverstone,” says Keke. “I can understand that the game has been made safer and safer. Professionalism has increased in all areas, and it should increase in safety too. Of course a lot of changes have taken place, and it’s good that it’s so. But back then driving F1 was not only about the millimetre work to make a good time, it was also about challenging yourself in fast corners.”