"This is what we've dreamed about"

With a long-term GP deal in the bag, Silverstone has forged ahead with circuit improvements that should benefit fans at this year’s race. The results even have a royal seal of approval…
By Rob Widdows

Silverstone is a typical English village, these days bypassed by the trunk road on which trucks rumble towards Northampton and beyond; perhaps left behind by the modern world and, some would argue, the same could be said of the nearby racing circuit. But not any more.

Silverstone circuit, the ‘Home of British Motor Racing’, is now also the ‘Home of the British Grand Prix’ for the next 17 years. Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has relented, the dust has settled on one of the longest-running battles in the sport, and the old lady of Northamptonshire has gathered up her skirts to take a run at the 21st century.

I have been watching cars racing at Silverstone for half a century, ever since my father showed me to our seats in the old grandstand at Stowe Corner. We returned for the Grand Prix each year until we could face the traffic no longer, or at least until I could join the queue in my own car. The racing cars were closer to us then, of course, but times change and now there is yet another reincarnation of the circuit.

There’s something about this place. It has history, tradition and some of the greatest high-speed corners in the world. Now, thanks to the skills and doggedness of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, the Grand Prix has a home for the foreseeable future. It has not been an easy path to tread, but nothing is ever simple when it comes to negotiating with Ecclestone. He once famously described the BRDC as a “gentleman’s club without any gentlemen”, a phrase that did not pour any oil on already turbulent waters. But that’s all in the past, and it’s generally accepted that company chairman Neil England and club president Damon Hill have together brought both a toughness and a new subtlety to the negotiating table. This venerable British club has come out fighting and there are ambitious plans for the future prosperity of the former wartime aerodrome.

Silverstone has been reinvigorated, relaunched and rebranded, with a Grand Prix layout that will stage events for both cars and motorbikes. And there’s a busy summer ahead, with the British round of MotoGP on June 20, the F1 race on July 11 and World Superbikes in August. First to experience the new-look track were the FIA GT1 World Championship drivers in late April. There was widespread approval.

A key player in the successful negotiations over the future of Silverstone Circuits Ltd has been managing director Richard Phillips. Surrounded by the cream leather and glinting chrome of his Jaguar XF, I am struck by the man’s enthusiasm and energy as we take a tour of what, at the time of writing, is effectively six huge building sites. There are enough earth movers, bulldozers, graders and trucks to keep Bob the Builder busy for the rest of his life. As far as the eye can see, men in yellow hats are transforming the circuit into a state-of-the-art centre of racing and technology. ‘Let Yourself Grow’ urges the motto of Northamptonshire County Council. This message has been taken very seriously here. Apart from the new GP circuit, there is a new national circuit, new grandstands, new pits and paddock (under construction for 2011 and insisted upon by Ecclestone), new spectator banks and new corporate hospitality buildings. There are now no fewer than four circuit layouts at Silverstone, and that’s not counting the Porsche Experience Centre, the Rally School, the off-road track and various other two- and four-wheeled ‘experiences’. This lot, and further developments to come, are costing the BRDC a total of £37 million. The club very much hopes that we, the enthusiasts, will approve – and that it will get its money back as the years go by.

“We are finally investing in the long term,” says Phillips. “It’s what we’ve always dreamed about and having the contract for the Grand Prix for 10 years, and possibly another seven, we are able to see a return on the investment. We had to build a new section for the F1 circuit because the approach to Bridge Corner was deemed to not be safe for the bikes, and therefore it made sense to combine both the F1 and MotoGP tracks. The new layout is 0.4km longer, but it will still be the fastest Grand Prix circuit in the world. We think the lap times will change very little as we have a fast new corner [Abbey] after the new pits and a very fast straight [Wellington Straight] leading back to Brooklands and Luffield. Of course we still have Copse, Becketts and Hangar Straight. The bikers are very happy with the layout and the F1 drivers reckon it will be just as much of a challenge.”

So far so good then, but what about the fans? At the time of writing, 92 per cent of tickets have been sold for the Formula 1 race and a huge crowd is expected for MotoGP.

“We are acutely aware that we need to have the best possible viewing and sort out the negatives associated with watching the Grand Prix,” says Phillips. “We’ve raised the grandstands by three metres, giving the seated spectators a far better view. We’ve built new grass banks, again with plenty of height, and we are bringing the crowd much closer to the action on track, especially at the new Village Corner where we will have a raised grandstand overlooking the exit of Farm Curve, the approach to Village and the run through the Loop and onto the straight that leads back to the old circuit. Same at Becketts, where we’ve raised the spectators much higher to give them far better sight lines across the circuit. I believe these are major improvements that will go down well with the fans.”

A star-studded cast turned out on a beautiful spring morning to launch a new era for Silverstone. This was surely auspicious, a chill wind and rain holding off until the latter part of the day. The road that took our ‘tour bus’ to a vantage point at Village Corner was laid the previous night, contractors having worked 24-hour shifts to prepare for this, the grand opening in the presence of the UK’s Special Representative for International Trade and Industry, otherwise known as the Duke of York. We know that certain F1 drivers have considered themselves to be royalty, but this time we had the genuine article – and riding pillion with Damon Hill in a two-seater F1 car known, in deference to its sponsor, as the Santander. Walking out to the car with Hill, the Duke looked like an astronaut en route to his first flight, suited up in fireproofs and a new white helmet. A couple of warm-up laps, chased by David Coulthard in a Red Bull, and Damon got his foot in, throwing the red car sideways out of Village and squirting it hard onto the new straight. Coulthard, ever the diplomat, kept a respectful distance before chucking his car into a series of donuts once the royal visitor was safely back behind the fence. The black circles will be there come July.

“I could see the smile on Damon’s face right round to the back of his helmet,” says the Duke, who accepted Hill’s offer of an honorary BRDC membership. “It was interesting, a great experience.” Master of Ceremonies Tony Jardine suggested the Duke was a brave man to ride with the former World Champion. “You calling me brave?” he responds. “I don’t think so, no.” Earlier in the day he had opened a new fire station at nearby Brackley, watching a demo by local firefighters. Perhaps he had a different kind of bravery on his mind.

In keeping with Silverstone’s new era, the day was not confined to cars. Ron Haslam, who has a bike school at Silverstone, took to the track along with his son Leon, a leading World Superbike competitor for Suzuki. ‘Rocket’ and ‘Pocket’ proceeded to carve each other up in the wake of the F1 cars, father and son both enthusing about the new circuit.

Not allowed to take part due to the F1 testing ban, but a keen spectator nonetheless, was Mark Webber, who cut his teeth in Formula Ford at Silverstone. “This was the first circuit I saw when I came to England and it’s always meant a lot to me,” he says. “I’m absolutely wrapped to see what’s been done here after all the arm-wrestling between the BRDC and Bernie. I’m just looking forward to getting out here in July – it’s still going to be very quick and challenging.”

Martin Brundle, an influential BRDC member and fighter for the cause, summed up his feelings thus: “It’s really great to see Silverstone maxing out its full 760 acres. There are corners here that scare you silly, it’s a big challenge in a Formula 1 car, and it also has history and heritage.”

The plaudits continued to flow as champagne was sprayed on the asphalt. “It’s fantastic what’s been done here,” says Derek Warwick, “and this is just the beginning of an exciting new chapter for Silverstone. Not just for the drivers, but also for the fans, who I believe will have a much better experience when they come to the Grand Prix this year. The BRDC has worked hard to get where we are today.”

Equally ebullient is Johnny Herbert. “I think they’ve got it right,” says the 1995 British GP winner. “The new contract means they can invest properly in what was always a wonderful place to race. Looking at the new sections I reckon there are places to pass and that will make for better racing. And the crowd is such an important factor here, you can really feel the support all the way round.”

The investment at Silverstone is about much more than motor racing, however. There is a bigger commitment, an ambition to make this a world-class centre for high-performance engineering, education and automotive technology which, as the Duke of York told us, is vital for inward investment into the UK. The country has a worldwide reputation for this kind of engineering, and is of course the manufacturing base for F1. More than half the engines on this year’s grid were built in Northamptonshire, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the leaders of the county council, which has lobbied long and hard in support of Silverstone’s bid for a long-term GP deal.

“This is motor sport valley,” says Phillips, “and our long-term plan is to create a technological hub for motor sport that will ensure Silverstone remains a vibrant and healthy business. The new circuits represent an important stepping stone in the overall redevelopment plan, which will also help us diversify into areas such as leisure, education and high-performance engineering – which makes such a big contribution to the UK economy. We want to be a cornerstone of the success of the British motor racing industry, and we will continue to develop the circuit to ensure Britain really does have a world-class home for both racing and its related technologies. There will be hitches and glitches along the way – that is the nature of these huge projects – but I do believe the spectators will have an enhanced experience.”

Perhaps the true test will come in 2011 when the pits and paddock have moved to their new home on the straight between Club Corner and the new super-fast Abbey Corner. Meanwhile, you may be pleasantly surprised, and you can – unusually these days – still walk around the entire length of the circuit, pausing to watch pretty much where you please.

Notable by his absence on the launch day was Ecclestone who, it was said, does not enjoy large numbers of people gathered at official functions. We expect that come July he’ll be surrounded by a very large crowd indeed.