From Fangio to Schumacher, some of the world’s finest racers have given their all at the British Grand Prix. Simon Taylor looks back at Silverstone’s greatest races and previews the 1999 event.
As you’ll be tired of hearing, the British Grand Prix is meant to be moving to Brands Hatch in 2002. In itself; this is nothing new: of the 52 championship rounds that have taken place on British soil, 14 have been at Brands Hatch, five at Aintree and one at Donington. But for half a century the traditional home of the British Grand Prix has been Silverstone, ever since the first round of the first World Championship season happened there on May 13th 1950.
Anyone transported by time machine from that day 49 years ago to this year’s World Championship round would have difficulty recognising the place. In contrast to today’s multiple-circuit layout with permanent grandstands and huge modern pits, photographs of those early meetings show a naked airfield marked out with straw bales and oil drums – although by the time Farina’s shrieking Alfa won that first Championship race the track layout had abandoned the runways and was using the 2.92-mile perimeter. With few changes, this continued to form the circuit for over three decades, apart from the inevitable appearance in 1975 of a chicane at Woodcote – which spelt the end of sights like Ronnie Peterson taking Woodcote flat on his way to pole in 1973, sawing away at the wheel and steering on the throttle at the same time.
Speeds and grip levels continued to rise, and Stowe went from a corner that needed heavy braking to a mere confidence lift at the end of the Hangar Straight. Further changes altered the sections at Becketts, from Stowe to Club and between Abbey and Woodcote. But, despite the unavoidable pressures of modern Formula One, Silverstone has remained surprisingly true to its original format: a fast, wide, open circuit that has played host down the years to some truly titanic struggles.
And some historic turning points. In 1951 the hitherto invincible 1.5-litre supercharged Alfa Romeo 159s of Farina and Fangio were beaten at last by the normally-aspirated 4.5-litre Ferrari of Froilin Gonzalez. The thirsty Alfas had to carry a heavy fuel load if they were to make only one pitstop, and the Ferraris clearly handled better. The bulky Argentinian wrested the lead from Fangio after a battle which had the crowd roaring in a decidedly un-British manner, pulling away to win by 51 seconds after almost three hours’ racing.
For Ferrari it was the first of what are now over 120 Grand Prix victories: for Alfa it was the beginning of the end. They only ever won one more Grand Prix, and withdrew at the end of the season. There was something else that day that proved, sadly, not to be a turning point: a V16 BRM, driven by Reg Parnell, finished fifth, five laps behind. He’d earned the only two championship points ever scored by a BRM V16.
Although BRM finally found greatness, and were champions in 1962, they were destined never to win their home Grand Prix. They came closest in 1960, when Graham Hill turned in one of the most inspired drives of his career. He’d qualified on the front row, but when the flag fell he stalled. He finished the first lap in 22nd place but, chin jutting and moustache bristling, had passed 15 cars by lap 10. He then progressively battled past Bonnier, McLaren, Clark, Surtees and Ireland to take second place by half-distance.
The leader all this time had been reigning champion Jack Brabham. Hill wound him in, and it became a battle of the hard men as these two tough nuts fought it out. Finally Hill forced past at Club to take the lead. For the remainder of the race Brabham tried everything to retake the lead, but Hill was imperturbable. And then, with five laps to go, he lost it at Copse, spinning off onto the grass and stalling the car. Almost in tears he trudged back to the pits, while Brabham went on to win.
Nine years later there was an even more titanic battle for the lead which lasted for 63 laps – more than the length of a current Grand Prix – between the era’s two fastest men in Formula One. Jochen Rindt and Jacltie Stewart were perfectly matched, having started with the Lotus 49 on pole and the Matra alongside. Rindt led from the start, Stewart passed him six laps later into Stowe, then Rindt went ahead again, and so it went on. Finally, after well over an hour of this, the endplate on Rindt’s rear wing came adrift and started to rub against his wheel. He rushed into the pits to have it torn off; then he needed another stop for a splash of fuel because the Lotus consumption calculations were wrong. Stewart won by a lap, and Jochen was a furious fourth.
I’ll always remember the aftermath of that race. I’d got to know Jochen well that year, and when it was over he waved me into the Lotus truck while he changed. With the adrenaline still pumping, he was in a towering rage, railing against Colin Chapman: that season the Lotus had repeatedly let him down – fuel pump, rear wing failure, drive shaft and as I listened he decided then and there to leave Lotus at the end of the season. (It later took all Chapman’s powers of persuasion, and drawings of the forthcoming Lotus 72, to change his mind. The 72 did bring him the World Championship he so coveted, but he never tasted the title, for it also killed him when a front brake shaft broke at Monza.)
The battle for second place in 1973 was one of the all-time greats, but most people remember this, the last race without a Woodcote chicane, for the accident at the end of Lap 1 that took out a third of the field. Lying fourth in only his fourth Grand Prix, Jody Scheckter spun his McLaren into the pit wall and bounced back into the howling pack. Nine cars crashed into him. As Woodcote was a 150mph comer in those pre-chicane days, it was a miracle that the only injury was to De Adamich, who was trapped in his car with a broken ankle.
The restarted race was superbly won by the McLaren of Peter Revson, and an unbelievable battle for seeond place ensued between Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72, Denny Hulme’s McLaren and young James Hunt, having only his third Grand Prix in Lord Hesketh’s private March. Hunt passed Denny and got his nose inside the Lotus at Becketts: then Denny passed him again. On the last lap through Woodcote it was like an F3 race, with Ronnie on the ragged limit, oversteering wide, Denny trying for the inside, and James trying to force between the two. Over the line they were covered by 0.6 sec and Hunt demonstrated he was a future champion by posting fastest lap.
Two years later Woodcote had its chicane, but there was another multiple pile-up. This time it came late in the race, and not before seven different drivers had held the lead nine times. It was a race that started dry, suffered a brief shower and dried out again. Several cars had slid off already: then with 11 laps to go, with Emerson Fittipaldi’s McLaren leading, a cloudburst swept over the south of the circuit. Suddenly finding themselves confronted by a wall of rain, a dozen drivers went off between Stowe and Club. Tony Brise was first in the Hill: a wooden catch fencing stake tore his helmet off his head, knocking him out. Scheckter, Pace, Morgan, Hunt, Wilson Fittipaldi, Henton, Nicholson, Donohue, Mass, Watson and Depailler slithered helplessly after him. A marshal who’d gone to Brise’s aid was bowled over, breaking bones.
Through it all sailed Emerson Fittipaldi. He and five stragglers were still running when the red flag flew. At that point Vittorio Brambilla’s March was second, but the stewards correctly decreed that the finish order had to be taken at the end of the lap before the accident, giving Scheckter and Pace second and third. But the March team boss protested vociferously, so the result was only ratified some days later. The protester was one Max Mosley…
In 1981 came one of the most heart-warming British Grands Prix of all. John Watson qualified his McLaren fifth, but in avoiding Villeneuve’s Lap 4 accident at Woodcote dropped to 10th. He then began a rugged drive up the field which took him successively past the Ligiers of Lafitte and Tambay, Andretti’s Alfa Romeo, Reuternann’s Williams and finally Arnoux’s Renault to take the lead with eight laps to go. Well before Mansell-mania, this was the first time we’d seen a spontaneous display of affectionate celebration from a British race crowd, and as dusk fell on Silverstone that evening Wattle, blinking in disbelief at it all, was still signing autographs.
But Silverstone memories inevitably involve N Mansell, and none more so than the 1987 race. His team-mate at Williams was double World Champion Nelson Piquet, who went on to win his third title that year. In qualifying he beat Mansell to pole by 0.07s, and Mansell spun off trying to better him. But come the race, on his home soil and in front of his home crowd, Our Noige was irresistible.
From the start he shadowed Piquet, saving his charge for late in the race; but it all went wrong when a wheel balance weight came off. In those pre-refuelling days a tyre stop should not have been necessary, but with the vibration getting worse Mansell dived into the pits with 30 laps to go. When he rejoined he was half a minute behind. Cheered on by the crowd, Mansell rose magnificently to the occasion. With 10 laps to go, the gap was 7.6s; with six to go it was 1.4; with three the Williams-Hondas were nose to tail. By now Mansell’s fuel reading was minus zero, but it was win or nothing and he stayed on the limit.
On the Hangar Straight and down to Stowe Piquet covered the left, Mansell went to the outside, Piquet moved across to block him, and bought the dummy. Realising his mistake the Brazilian jinked right again, but Mansell was already there. Wheels almost touching, Red Five was through on the inside and the crowd shrieked and sobbed in ecstasy. At Copse on the final lap Mansell’s engine coughed, but there was just enough fuel to carry him to the flag to win by 1.8s, with World Championship leader Ayrton Senna a lapped third. It was film script stuff.
All that was 12 years ago. But last year’s rainswept drama, with Hakkinen performing a 140mph spin which started at Bridge and finished at Luffield, and Schumacher winning the race while serving a stop-go penalty in the pits, was stranger than fiction too. The next bout of Ferrari versus McLaren will be re-enacted on July 11, and the fast, flat corners of Silverstone promise excitement again. If it’s dry it should be a perfect race for Mika: if it’s wet – or if, as so often at Silverstone in July, the weather alternates between threatening gloom and squally rain – I’d put my money on Michael.
And then there are the Brits. So often in the past Silverstone has rewarded its partisan crowds with a good home story – remember Johnny Herbert’s win in 1995? We might see David C.oulthard as top McLaren dog, or Eddie Irvine repeating his Melbourne win.
But the script that would really please the crowd would be for their still-beloved Damon Hill to put Jordan, the team that lives just outside the gates of Silverstone, on the top step of the podium. You’d get long odds on that, because it would require a few problems for others. But look back at Silverstone’s Grand Prix history, and you’ll see that stranger things have happened.