As the British circuit prepares to host possibly its final Grand Prix, our editor-in-chief recalls some of its best F1 races
Say what you will about Tony Blair, it was during his watch that the Silverstone area finally acquired a road system vaguely capable of dealing with a British Grand Prix crowd, and I, for one, have been profoundly grateful. It may not be fun, getting from the press car park to the M40, but latterly it has been possible to get back to Surrey before Sunday turns into Monday.
When it has come to putting up a few quid to subsidise the British GP, however, neither Mr Blair nor his successor has exhibited notable enthusiasm, and this has been a source of great disappointment to Bernie Ecclestone. Hence I wonder what thoughts will be in my head as I crawl along the A43 on the evening of Sunday, June 21: as things stand, I will have watched Formula 1 at Silverstone for the last time.
While I would never claim it to be by any means my favourite race circuit, still Silverstone has been a constant thread through my life, and countless fellow enthusiasts will feel the same. The place abounds with memories for all of us. Here are some of mine.
1965 A date to remember…
In 1965, when I was just out of school, I borrowed my mother’s MG 1100 (having recently trashed my Mini), picked up my girlfriend in Sheffield, and on the Friday evening set off south to Northamptonshire. Britain’s motorway network was by no means as comprehensive then as now, and it seemed to take a long time. There was no alternative but to sleep in the car.
The next day, there we were, at the British Grand Prix. I paid 50 shillings (£2.50) for an ‘All-In’ ticket (covering car and all occupants), five more (25p) for a couple of programmes, and a further quid for two paddock passes. In we went – and there, walking towards us, was Lorenzo Bandini. Amazing now to remember that’s how it was in those days. Within an hour I guess we’d seen every F1 driver, and Jim Clark’s signature was on my programme. I have it still.
Jimmy’s Lotus 33 was on pole that Saturday afternoon, joined on the front row by the BRMs of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart and the Honda of Richie Ginther. We watched from Woodcote.
As expected, Clark built up a lead over Hill and the Ferrari of John Surtees, but the race ignited in the last 15 of the 80 laps, for Jimmy’s oil pressure was falling, and Graham, notwithstanding failing brakes, began to catch him. I can still remember the commentator’s extremely English voice: “So now we’ve got Jim Clark in a car that won’t go being chased by Graham Hill in a car that won’t stop!” Every time the Lotus went by, it sounded more sick, and Jimmy was plainly coasting through Woodcote, trying to save the Climax V8. What had been a 35-second lead was down to five at the start of the last lap, but although Graham set a new lap record he was still three seconds back at the flag – which the Lotus had passed with a dead engine.
Jimmy popped a sweater on over his overalls, then clambered on to a decorated trailer, which a tractor pulled round on a lap of honour. The shyest of heroes, a man who never understood why the rest were so slow.
It took forever to get out of Silverstone that evening, and I got lost somewhere near Cannock. We stopped for a meal, and by the time I dropped Judy off it was coming light on Sunday morning. Half an hour later I momentarily dozed off, and knocked down 30 feet of dry stone wall. Now we were a one-car family, and Ma was less than thrilled. Memories of Silverstone, as I say.
1969 Rindt vs Stewart
By 1969 the Cosworth DFV – £7500, delivered to your door – powered 13 of the 17 starters in the British Grand Prix, and anyone present will likely tell you they never saw a greater race.
Jackie Stewart, in the Tyrrell-run Matra MS80, was on a roll that summer, and had already won four Grands Prix by the time the clans gathered at Silverstone. In contrast, his major rival, Jochen Rindt, had not a point on the board. The Lotus 49, now in its third season, never held together.
On the first morning the car wasn’t even there. When Rindt arrived, there was no sign of the Gold Leaf Team Lotus transporter, and in those days there were no ‘unofficial’ sessions: all were timed, and all counted. It was hardly surprising that Jochen was livid. I well remember his expression as he stood, in civvies, watching the rest go out.
In the meantime his team-mate Graham Hill made other arrangements, for if Lotus had two drivers and no cars, Brabham’s problem was the other way round. A couple of BT26s were on hand, but Jack himself had broken an ankle in a testing shunt, and Jacky Ickx was late in arriving. Ron Tauranac asked Hill to stand in, and he was happy to oblige. And they say things have changed.
In final qualifying, on Friday afternoon, Stewart crashed at Woodcote – hard. He was out of the cockpit in a trice, but the Matra was wrecked, and Jackie had to take over Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s car for the balance of the weekend. Out he rushed once more, but by now pole position had gone to Rindt.
Jochen, by now in his Lotus 49B, was delighted. Through the two-hour session, there was a bonus of £100 for the fastest man in each 30-minute segment. JYS took three of the four, Rindt the last. Ah, what a man would do for a hundred quid back in ’69. There was, for that matter, only a thousand for the race winner. We knew about those things at one time.
Hulme’s McLaren joined Rindt and Stewart on the front row, but after Copse he never saw them again. After one lap Jochen led narrowly from Jackie, with Denny already more than three seconds adrift.
There was a fine scrap for fourth place involving Chris Amon, Pedro Rodríguez, Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, Jo Siffert, Ickx and G Hill. Quite a cast list, but all were playing bit parts. The single point of focus was Stewart and Rindt, with Jochen’s car marginally better on top speed, Jackie’s a shade superior under braking and through the turns. Rindt led for five laps, then Stewart for 10.
On lap 16 Jochen again led Jackie, but now it seemed a little more settled, for he stayed in front – over the line, anyway – for the next 45 laps.
If, however, you were out on the circuit – I watched at Stowe – there was a little more to it than that. Quite often the Matra was ahead when they came past me, only to be repassed on the run down to Woodcote, in those days a flat-out right-hander, of course, unsullied by chicanes. JYS, who counts this as the most enjoyable race of his life, estimates that the lead changed hands more than 30 times.
Who knows how the battle might have ended had it gone to the flag, but on lap 62 everything changed. Stewart has a Michael Turner painting of himself passing Rindt, at the same time urgently pointing to Jochen’s rear wing, for the left endplate was chafing the tyre. Into the pits he came, and the mechanics tore off the offending piece with their bare hands. He went back out, still second, but now half a minute behind.
Nor was that the end of it. Six laps from the end, Rindt crawled in again, engine dead. The Lotus, incredibly, was out of fuel. A few gallons were sloshed in and once more he returned to the race, now fourth, and totally dispirited.
Most of the spectators around me had been rooting for Jochen all afternoon, keen to see him win a Grand Prix at last, to see someone, in this Matra summer, beat JYS. On the slowing down lap there was an eruption of applause when he went by.
If the MS80 was Stewart’s favourite car, perhaps 1969, when he won his first World Championship, was his favourite season. It was, he says, “The height of all the good times. After the year before, when we’d had so many deaths, ’69 was a relatively clean year. In 1970, though, it all started again, and by ’73 I was going off the whole idea…”
1973 Surtees on the warpath
The 1973 British Grand Prix was actually a highly memorable race, for bad reasons as well as good. At the end of the opening lap Jody Scheckter, in only his fourth F1 race, overtook McLaren team-mate Hulme into Woodcote: it looked chancey, and so it was. Halfway through the 160mph corner Scheckter’s M23 snapped out of control, triggering a shunt which put out nine of the 28 starters, but somehow injured only one, Andrea de Adamich, who suffered a broken leg.
The race was stopped for some considerable time, and there were those in the paddock who would happily have lynched Scheckter. Jody, who ironically became the most conservative and safety-conscious of drivers, was blindingly quick at the start of his F1 career, but hadn’t yet understood that you don’t win a race on the first lap. The three-car Surtees team was wiped out, and when I spoke to John that afternoon he was finding it quite difficult to say anything good about this South African upstart.
Actually, what I remember most clearly about that day was a moment on the opening lap. By now I was working in F1, had a track pass, and was watching at Becketts. Into sight they came, with Peterson’s black Lotus 72 in the lead – but as they got to me Stewart’s Tyrrell slipped past in a move that might have been choreographed. It was literally as if Ronnie had braked for the corner, and Jackie had not.
Had it not been for Scheckter’s antics, I suspect JYS might have been gone for the afternoon, but when the race was restarted his cover was blown, and Peterson was not to be caught napping a second time. For all that, the Tyrrell clung to the faster Lotus, and a few laps in Jackie made his move at Stowe – and spun off into the deep infield corn. A gearbox glitch had caused second to be selected, rather than fourth.
A few laps later the Tyrrell retired, but we were then treated to a magnificent scrap between Peterson, the McLarens of Hulme and Peter Revson, and the Hesketh-entered March of one J Hunt. Victory ultimately went to Revson, and at the flag the quartet was covered by three seconds. Sadly, this would be the last British Grand Prix with Silverstone in unadulterated form; by 1975 a chicane had been inserted before Woodcote.
1979 Arrival of the tarmac accountants
In 1979 there was on-course betting for, I think, the first time, and when I looked in on Ladbrokes before practice began, Clay Regazzoni was being offered at highly generous odds. He was, after all, driving for Frank, and by that point in the season a Williams FW07 was becoming the thing to have. I put a tenner on Gianclaudio, and advised him so. He promised to do his best, and qualified fourth. I had my hopes.
By the end of the first lap Regazzoni was third, behind team-mate Alan Jones and the Renault of Jean-Pierre Jabouille. As usual the turbocharged Renault accounted for itself (engine) after only a few laps, but AJ looked unstoppable until lap 38 when his water pump failed – at which point Clay took over, typically setting the fastest lap as he did so.
What made that day so memorable was not the race itself, but the aftermath, for this was the first Grand Prix victory for a Williams, and there is no team more loved in the press room.
Thirty years ago we didn’t have post-race press conferences (or, for that matter, releases), but sometimes there would be an informal ceremony, and they had one at Silverstone, in a marquee near the paddock. The atmosphere was unusually emotional, for Frank had become a winner at last, and everyone wanted to share his joy.
After a few minutes, his driver came in, dabbing at his face with a towel, for the afternoon was hot. On the podium, in deference to the team’s Saudi-Arabian sponsors, he had toasted his win with orange juice; now he looked ready for a swig of the scotch that his boss – an avowed teetotaller – was politely sipping. Someone had even given FW a lit cigar, and he gamely tried a puff or two. Regazzoni shook Williams’s hand. “Bravo, Frank,” he quietly said.
That was the essential class of the man. It was very much an Indian Summer for Clay, that season of 1979, and he had won a Grand Prix for the first time in three years. Uppermost in his mind, though, was that this was Williams’s day.
We couldn’t remember greater delight at a Grand Prix victory, and we told Frank so. “Thank you,” he kept murmuring. “Thank you so much…” It was all he could do to speak.
So elated was I that I went off to the press room to start writing, never giving a thought to Ladbrokes. Countless years on I wrote of it shortly before the British GP, and to my astonishment the company got in touch, graciously offering me a ‘free’ wager, which I was pleased to accept. Yes, I lost.
1987 Mansell’s dummy
By the time of the 1987 race Williams victories had long since ceased to be a novelty, and the turbocharged Honda-powered FW11Bs of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell had the front row to themselves, a clear second faster than anyone else. Team-mates they were, these two; friends they were emphatically not.
I watched that particular race from the BBC commentary booth, in company with Murray Walker, James Hunt – and, for much of the race, Greg Norman, a great Mansell fan. Given that Nigel turned in one of his epic drives that afternoon, the volume and heat generated by Walker and Norman may be imagined. When all was done, I walked back to the paddock with James. “On balance,” he said, “I think what I need is a stiff drink and a lie down in the shade…”
It had indeed been a hell of a race. At the start Piquet and Mansell got too much wheelspin, and Prost vaulted past both to lead into Copse, but such was the Honda power advantage that Alain was back to third by the time they reached Stowe. By the end of the second lap he was three seconds back. It was like Stewart and Rindt all over again: strictly a private affair, with no one else involved. Piquet continued to lead, but on lap 12 Mansell radioed in to report a severe vibration, occasioned by the loss of a front wheel balance weight. This meant a tyre stop – in those days by no means automatic – and he made it on lap 35, without losing second place.
Piquet was 28 seconds ahead now, with 29 laps to go, so the maths were straightforward. On his fresh tyres, Nigel immediately cut loose, setting new fastest laps, but Nelson seemed able to respond, to have everything under control.
Finally, with 15 or so laps to go, his Goodyears began to go away – and Mansell’s demonic charge continued: 10 laps to the flag, and he was seven seconds back. By lap 63, with two to go, he was on to Piquet’s tail, and knew he had to go for it now, before momentum was lost, before his rival had time to settle to the situation. Into Stowe he sold Piquet a perfect dummy, jinking left – and then, with Nelson coming across to block, right.
It was like sleight of hand, and there was not a thing Piquet could do. Mansell went on to win by a couple of seconds, and if ever I saw a victory come from adrenalin and inspiration this was it. Murray, meantime, had all but lost the gift of speech.
In a way, what says most about the Williams superiority that day was that third place went to Ayrton Senna’s Lotus, also Honda-powered. And lapped.
2003 Barrichello’s finest hour
In recent times the Silverstone race most indelibly stamped in my mind is the 2003 GP, when the track was invaded by Neil Horan, described inimitably by Flavio Briatore as ‘the lunatic in the skirts’.
Twelve laps into the race the kilted former priest got over the spectator fence and took to the track, brandishing a banner bearing the message, ‘Read the Bible. The Bible is always right.’ In the following days a friend of his revealed that Father Horan ‘firmly believes in his own interpretation of the Bible’. It was perhaps this which had led him to forecast the end of the world in 2000 – and to run towards F1 cars on the Hangar Straight. On balance it seemed safer to stick with a more traditional reading of the Good Book.
For a few horrifying seconds anything seemed possible as drivers swerved to miss him, and only when an intrepid marshal dragged him away could everyone breathe easily. One thing to play Russian Roulette; to risk the lives of others was contemptible.
Once potential disaster had been averted, normal service was resumed in the press room. Following news that the priest would likely be done for ‘aggravated trespass’, a colleague murmured that perhaps he might also be charged with ‘causing a motor race’.
It ranks very high in the list of things I wish I had said.
Undeniably the incident changed the complexion of the race, for, as the safety car came out, so all the front-runners pitted, and in the resulting crush some benefited, and others did not. The two big losers were Juan Pablo Montoya and Michael Schumacher.
Afterwards Mark Blundell commented that in one day he had seen more passing than in the previous five years, and he was probably on the mark. For one thing, Silverstone provides opportunities for passing, into Stowe, into Abbey, even – if you’re very brave and committed – into Copse and Bridge. For another, because of the curious circumstances, many drivers found themselves in the position of having to pass.
If several impressed with their assertive moves – Räikkönen, Montoya, Coulthard, Alonso, Schumacher – one man stood clear of the rest. At the top of his form, in a car perfectly honed to his taste, Rubens Barrichello had the measure of everyone, and his controlled aggression, as he twice took his Ferrari past Räikkönen’s McLaren, was something to savour. It was a mesmeric drive, and Barrichello had utterly shaded Schumacher, in both qualifying and race.
Rubens has always adored Silverstone, and cannot believe this year may be its last as a Grand Prix venue. As Eddie Cheever said last year when I told him, “My God! That’s like the Pope not going to Mass…”