Cleared for take-off

Necessity rendered this one of the briefest ‘decades’ in the annals of motor sport, yet it would also be one of the most pivotal in Britain as the business found its future direction
Writer Simon Arron

The world had rather more pressing concerns than a monthly price rise, but that was one of the headlines when the January 1940 issue of Motor Sport reached the shelves of a nation at war. It is somehow appropriate, given the magazine’s occasionally quixotic past, that it should continue to be published at a time when its core subject remained in a state of indefinite suspension – and that untimely hike (to one shilling per month, or 13s 6d for an annual subscription) can’t have helped. That issue ran to just 20 pages and, in the absence of any competitive events close to home (save for the odd trial or speed event in Ireland, while farther afield the Indy 500 ran in both 1940 and ’41), the editorial content focused on the finer points of tuning an Alvis, the extent to which motor racing had helped the aviation industry and snippets from around the UK’s motor clubs, most of which continued to function on a social basis.

There was speculation in the March 1940 issue about the possibility of a short war-time sports car race, whose proponents sought anonymity for fear of a backlash at a time of fuel rationing. Contemplation of motor racing’s future (or otherwise) was reprised many times and woven around racing retrospectives, while in 1944 the magazine published a treatise on the potential suitability of diesel as a sports car fuel.

Following the cessation of hostilities, racing didn’t so much roar back into action as trickle: the August 1945 editorial championed the Cockfosters Rally, a demonstration event on an industrial site in the London suburb of the same name, organised by A F Rivers Fletcher.

Bill Boddy noted that, “Almost everyone of note was present, and Raymond Mays telegraphed his regrets for not attending.”

The following month, Motor Sport reported the first RAC-sanctioned post-war speed event, the Naish hill climb at Clapton in Gordano, near Bristol. Bob Gerard set fastest four-wheeled time, in his ERA (slightly slower than the briskest motorcycle), and the event was said to be “primarily for competitors, though spectators were tolerated rather than encouraged”. Given all the previous clamour about the nation’s appetite for competition, the Motor Sport report ran to just half a page, tucked away towards the back (after the book reviews and a feature on ‘500 miles in the Scott-engined Morgan 4/4’).

In October 1945, Gerard again beat rivals in a sprint at Filton, also in the West Country, but the event was closed to the public. This was for reasons of pragmatism, however, rather than anything more sinister: motor racing was re-emerging against the backdrop of a landslide Labour victory in that July’s general election – and there was a political will to eradicate some of the social divisions that had previously existed in the UK.

Right crowd and no crowding? No thanks… 

Momentum was certainly gathering. In July 1946 Motor Sport opened with a page packed with short reports of events all around Europe – including Raymond Sommer’s victory in the Grand Prix du Forez and Jean-Pierre Wimille’s success in the Bois de Boulogne GP, both men driving Maseratis – before presenting a report headlined ‘Circuit racing at last’ (opposite an advertisement for a forthcoming Prescott hill climb, admission 2s 6d).

The Cambridge University Automobile Club was first to organise a full post-war race meeting, on June 15 at Gransden Lodge – one of many disused airfields that peppered the country. It didn’t take much to convert such sites into usable circuits – straw bales and oil drums to mark out the course, some metal stakes and a bit of tape to keep the crowd at a suitable distance and you were pretty much in business.

“Since racing was resumed,” began the Motor Sport report, published without author’s initials, “some of the smaller clubs and newer organisations have certainly shown us the way. It was left to the CUAC to provide us with real circuit racing, incidentally proving wrong those pessimists – including the RAC – who thought aerodrome runways and perimeter tracks would be too rough. A bigger difficulty was to be found picking out the corners, with no hedges or trees bordering the course.”

It would obviously have been much safer with adjacent sycamores…

Highlights included a 1500cc racing car event, in which Reg Parnell (Maserati 4CL) tussled with Bob Gerard (ERA R4A) until the latter spun and left Parnell in the clear. Motor Sport’s notes from the meeting included the following about the other side of the Gerard household: “Mrs Gerard set a fashion note, with grey flannels and white helmet. And how lucky you found your umbrella, Mrs G.”

Setting a tone that endures at British circuits to this day, it rained.

Notable competitors included future Mini designer Alec Issigonis, in his Lightweight Special, and Motor Sport contained a written request to “the person who rushed around the paddock in the morning, blowing his horn. Will you behave better next time, please?”

There would be only one more ‘next time’ for Gransden Lodge, a meeting in July 1947, although the airfield exists to this day as home of the Cambridge Gliding Centre.

In their conclusion to that first report, Motor Sport’s correspondent deviated from matters of Mrs Gerard’s appearance to note, “Altogether it was a good meeting and proved that disused aerodromes can offer excellent motor racing facilities. The Government, having taken Brooklands and Donington, might heed this.”

By late 1947, with the Grand Prix title restored to major events in mainland Europe, the RAC began casting around for suitable sites on which to host such a race of its own – and focused on decommissioned airfields. It had little real choice, given that Britain’s major pre-war facilities were no longer considered suitable: significant slices had been cut from the banking at Brooklands to accommodate the aviation industry, Donington Park remained under the War Office’s jurisdiction and Crystal Palace had become a little frayed.

In the end, the RAC whittled its short list down to just two. Had fate determined otherwise, “Welcome to Snitterfield, home of the British Grand Prix” might now be a familiar racing mantra. The Warwickshire village (a short hop from Stratford-upon-Avon) lost out, however, to another ordinarily sleepy community on the Northants/Bucks border.

In some ways RAF Silverstone had a slightly unfair advantage, in that its suitability had previously been tested, albeit unofficially.

The airfield commenced operations in April 1943 and had served principally as a wartime training base. In September 1947, one month before it was officially declared surplus to military requirements, a dozen drivers, on their own initiative, took cars to Silverstone. They sought to establish its suitability for competition, but their unsanctioned efforts were apparently hampered by the wilfulness of local sheep, which kept wandering on to this new ‘circuit’. 

Ovine intervention was no impediment to adoption, however, and the site was duly selected. The RAC was granted a lease for its use in August 1948 – only two months before the first scheduled event. As at Gransden Lodge, however, there was no need to construct anything beyond the primitive and a 3.67-mile circuit was marked out with the finest technology of the day (more straw bales, then).

For that first year, the circuit featured a cocktail of perimeter roads and runways: drivers turning sharp right at Copse and Stowe corners… and hurtling towards each other from opposite ends of the same runway. In the middle, where both streams of cars were supposed to turn left down the next straight, only bales and oil drums separated them. 

“That’s one of the memories that most stands out,” says Murray Walker, who attended as a paying punter just short of his 25th birthday. “Cars were charging towards each other at a closing speed of 250mph or more, with not very much between them. That caught my eye – and so did the high quality of the continental cars and drivers that had been attracted, particularly the Maserati 4CLTs of Luigi Villoresi and Alberto Ascari. It was awe-inspiring to have entries of that calibre.

“I can’t remember how much it cost to get in, but there was an absolutely fantastic atmosphere, a feeling that racing’s rebirth was real. I’d attended the 1937 and ’38 Donington Grands Prix and was interested in cars, although bikes were my main love. My first post-war event would have been the Manx GP in September 1946, when Ernie Lyons won the Senior event on his Triumph, but there hadn’t been a great deal of racing in the war’s immediate aftermath. I went to Silverstone because it was a major event.

“There were no proper roads at all back then, of course, and I remember a bloody great traffic jam. It took ages to get in.”

That motif would be repeated in future decades – as would another. Behind the Maseratis of Villoresi and Ascari, Motor Sport reported that, “Gerard finished third, a stupendous effort for which he was mobbed by the crowd, which surged uncontrolled on to the course in a most alarming manner as soon as the race was flagged.”

In its editorial, though, the magazine took a wholly positive stance and insisted that the exercise be repeated one season hence.

As, indeed, it was, this time with the inner runways discarded and a new layout around the perimeter roads, the circuit’s defining silhouette – barring a few tweaks – until the 1990s, when changes would be made to most of the lap.

“I was back there in 1949,” Walker says, “this time as a radio commentator. Max Robertson was the lead broadcaster, but knew about as much about motor racing as I did about tennis, which was his sport. He didn’t much care for it, either: he thought it a terribly dirty, scruffy business.

“I was in a small, single-tier cabin at Stowe and don’t remember as much about Emmanuel de Graffenried winning for Maserati as I do about seeing John Bolster having a huge accident in front of me, in his ERA. I think I blurted out something along the lines of, ‘And Bolster’s gone off’, but that was a new boy not ­­­­knowing what to say, because in reality I assumed he was probably dead.”

Bolster recovered to become a fulcrum of the automotive press, Walker went on to fame as the sport’s defining voice and one year later, on May 13 1950, Silverstone made history as host of the first world championship Grand Prix.

Today Silverstone is a self-contained community, a racetrack surrounded by industrial units and with the odd distinction of having separate paddocks in different counties. Since the new one was built, in time for the 2011 British GP, the place has had a slightly unfinished feel, with long-promised developments – including hotels and an international kart track – on hold pending further investment.

Look closely enough and you can still see faint traces of its airfield roots, but drivers relish its atmosphere and challenge. As David Coulthard said a few seasons back, “No other circuit has as fast a sequence of corners [from Copse to Becketts] as Silverstone. It’s humbling to go through there because you have to have the bit between your teeth. It’s incredibly impressive to watch and there aren’t many circuits with corners like that. Everybody talks about Eau Rouge at Spa. It is a great corner – but Silverstone has four that match it in terms of speed and difficulty.”

And Snitterfield? Lying just off what is now the A46, part of its airfield has become a golf course, but a section remains and is used by the Stratford-on-Avon Gliding Club. We went to take a peek, to see what might have been, or whether anybody knew of its bygone brush with sporting celebrity, but the gates were locked – and a 20mph speed limit would make it difficult to assess its true potential. School run apart, there wasn’t a great deal going on.

As the 1940s drew to a close, and with a handsome selection of events to report, Motor Sport had expanded to 52 pages, but the cover price had increased commensurately.

It now cost 1s 3d.

From Motor Sport November 1948

There is no doubt about it – our first post-war RAC International Grand Prix at the new Silverstone circuit on October 2 was an immense success, and must be repeated in 1949.

The three-mile course is a very good one, although rather better definition of the corners is called for. The record lap, set by Villoresi’s Maserati at 76.82mph, we may assume by a car not really very hard-pressed, compares favourably with the lap record for Brooklands Campbell Circuit of 77.79mph held by Raymond Mays’ ERA, although it does not quite approach the Donington lap record of 84.31mph, admittedly held by the larger German GP cars.

Criticism of Silverstone’s first meeting would be unfair, in view of the very short space of time in which the RAC got everything ready. Indeed, the organisers deserve credit for achieving so much and, in case the magnitude of their task is incomprehensible, let us remind you that, from the purely physical angle, some 170 tons of straw bales had to be correctly positioned, 250 mark tubs put out, 10 miles of signal wiring laid and 620 marshals briefed for duty. Apart from these matters, there was the enormous amount of paper-work involved, even to obtaining insurance for the Scuderia Ambrosiana lorry and ensuring that RAC patrols met the Italians and conducted them from docks to circuit. It was certainly a mighty task and Col Barnes could be excused for getting somewhat harassed at times.

Practically everything worked well, although the uprights of the temporary bridge over the course only went in concrete on the Tuesday before the race, the grandstands were still being completed on the Friday and some of the official offices in the outbuildings of Luffield Abbey Farm were a little spartan. Some friction seemed to arise between rival posses of marshals, and although it must be assumed that each and every one of them was prepared to work hard in return for a free view, either they were unable to stem the crowd as it invaded the course at the end of the race, large as were their numbers, or they had been ineffectively placed for a rather obvious emergency. It seems, too, that some of the 60 policemen present might have been directed to this vital duty. However, doubtless all that will be put right by next year, when one hopes that better accommodation for drivers will be available at the course. Nobody seemed very bright when the Italian drivers sought facilities for removing the grime of practice and the stains of victory. Many people philosophically said that the race would be more open since the Alfa Romeos weren’t coming. But we cannot agree with a contemporary that, “There is very little doubt that the reputation of Alfa Romeo and maybe Italian prestige in general has declined sharply in this country since it became certain that Alfa Romeo cars would not run.” As Italian cars finished first and second in our race, it is hard to see how Italian prestige can have suffered. True, British drivers have raced in Europe since the war entirely at their own expense, whereas Alfa Romeo wanted some £2500 to fly their team to Silverstone and home again in time for the Monza race on October 17. But British independents race for sport, Alfa Romeo as a business proposition.