It’s been a turbulent month for Formula One, which has once again found itself on the front pages of the newspapers as well as the back. First it was the Silverstone mud, which was caused by two things: an abnormally high water table in Northamptonshire after two months of heavy spring rain; and the FIA’s arrogant insistence that the British Grand Prix should move from the traditional date it has occupied uninterruptedly for 49 years.
Apart from the opening round of the very first World Championship, held at Silverstone on May 13th 1950, the British Grand Prix date has been almost as immovable as Christmas. Ever since 1951 it has always been held on the second or third weekend in July. And the British Grand Prix is one of only two rounds to have been held in every one of the 50 years that the title fight has been running.
So, even while the FIA is proudly celebrating the half century of its World Championship, tradition apparently counts for little in Paris. It is hard to avoid jumping to the conclusion that Silverstone was lumbered with such a disastrous date because of the ongoing contractual wrangle between the BRDC and Bernie Ecclestone, who has granted future British Grand Prix rights to Brands Hatch — even though Brands currently does not have a circuit capable of holding the event, nor any planning permission to build one. Bernie pleads Not Guilty: he says he has no influence over the calendar, which is purely the FINs business. But paradoxically, in almost the same breath he promises to use the influence that he hasn’t got to ensure that Silverstone gets its July date back…
Which prompted FIA president Max Mosley, that staunch motor racing enthusiast, to say that a return to the July date could not be guaranteed – and, moreover, he has summoned the Silverstone organisers to appear before the FIA World Council on June 21st, to explain their treatment of the spectating public. They may get an immense fine, which they will have to add to the huge losses they made after they had to close the car parks on qualifying day and offer refunds to ticket holders. They may even be found unfit to hold a Grand Prix which would add a further twist to the future contract argument.
I’m afraid — and this view may be very unpopular with some Motor Sport readers — that I have little sympathy with the disgruntled spectators who spent so much time in the traffic jams on the A43 that they saw little, or no, motor racing on the day of the Grand Prix. I’ve been going to major internationals at Silverstone since 1954, and I learned long ago that the wise spectator furnishes himself with two pieces of equipment: a good road map, and an alarm clock.
For personal reasons I had to commute this year to and from London on all four days of the Grand Prix weekend, and my budget certainly didn’t run to a helicopter. On race day I left my home in London at 5.20am, and I was walking into the paddock at 7.40am. I had no special car pass, and I wasn’t in a 4×4 or on a motorbike but in a normal road car, three up. The route I used is one of many options available to anyone prepared to take the trouble to work out how to avoid the A43 as plenty of others were doing at that early hour, and they all got in as painlessly as I did. If you can’t read a map, be patient: work on the long-awaited Silverstone by-pass is due to start shortly.
I do have to accept that a lot of people had a very frustrating time getting in, and getting out, of the car parks. And I do know how they feel. My very first visit to Silverstone was as a nine-year-old, to the torrentially rainy International Trophy meeting on May 15th 1954. My father’s sedate Rover 75 got stuck going into the car park, and as a result we missed the first race. But the unforgettable sight of Gonzalez taming the Super Squalo F1 Ferrari on the waterlogged circuit made it all worthwhile.
It’s worth pointing out that not one of the 17 Grand Prix circuits we go to during the season have car parks that are totally hard-standing. Most of the other 16 would be in serious trouble if a date change were forced on them with no thought for the weather we wouldn’t expect the Malaysian Grand Prix, for example, to be run in the middle of the rainy season. Of course Silverstone must learn from the whole unhappy experience and urgently review its traffic and car parking arrangements. But it will be criminally unjust if the FIA, the author of Silverstone’s misfortunes, adds expensive insult to financial injury by punishing it for its muddy problems.
We were still debating the Silverstone mud when the horrifying news came through on the Tuesday before the Spanish Grand Prix of the air crash in France involving David Coulthard. The pictures on every television news bulletin and on the front of every newspaper demonstrated starkly how lucky he, his fiancée Heidi Wichlinski and his trainer Andy Matthews had been to escape almost unhurt from the wreckage in which the two pilots died.
Executive air travel is a way of life for Grand Prix drivers, who fly millions of miles without mishap. One remembers the 1975 disaster in which Graham Hill, Tony Brise and four others died, and the sad death of the talented Carlos Pace in 1977, but both of these crashes befell small propeller aircraft of an earlier generation. Last time I went to Monte Carlo I was lucky enough to thumb a lift with historic racer and ocean-going yachtsman Irvine Laidlaw in his magnificent Gulfstream. As we crossed France in peace and privacy at 42,000 feet and 550mph I began to see how, for millionaire F1 drivers with tight schedules demanding ceaseless tans-Continental travel, it must be the only way to go.
And there was never any doubt in my mind that David, badly bruised physically and no doubt emotionally, would fly by private plane into Barcelona two days later, with Heidi and Andy, to start preparing for the Spanish Grand Prix. Throughout the weekend he behaved with calm dignity and exemplary professionalism. He faced a media barrage in the Paddock on Thursday, answered all their questions, offered his condolences with evident sincerity to the families of the dead pilots, and then asked not to be bothered further. I only heard of one crass journalist, a Dutchman apparently, who did bother him, asking whether it would have been more appropriate to withdraw from the race as a mark of respect to the pilots. To which David answered calmly and courteously, as is his way, that if he’d been killed and the pilots had lived he wouldn’t have expected them to stop doing their jobs. He, therefore, was going to get on with his job. In fact the father of one of the dead pilots, with unselfish generosity, went to the lengths of telephoning David before the race, and wishing him luck.
Formula One drivers are different from the rest of us in many ways, and one of these is their power of concentration, their ability to focus on the task in hand to the exclusion of all else. It must have been a relief to David to be able to do just that, and exclude the horrors of that crash-landing at Lyon. It wasn’t a particularly easy weekend for him: in qualifying his car developed a fuel pick-up problem, and he had to run with a heavy fuel load. He missed out-qualifying Barrichello by six thousandths of a second.
Come the race his start was not good, and he found himself fourth behind Ralf Schumacher which became fifth after his first pitstop because his paddles somehow selected second instead of first. But his second stop was exemplary, and he came out of the pits just as Ralf hove into view. They were wheel to wheel into the first corner, but David stuck it out, later passing brother Michael into the same corner to take a richly deserved second place.
It must have been a great relief fur him to climb onto the podium as part of another McLaren one-two, even if team-mate Mika Halddrien has now moved ahead of him in the points table. But as Mika and Rubens sprayed the champagne David’s expression was sombre and his magnum remained unopened. On that weekend, he didn’t feel like being part of the usual clowning around.
David Coulthard is Britain’s top Formula One driver, and he always feels mildly bemused that the media are more interested in Jenson Button’s youth appeal, Johnny Herbert’s cheery banter or Eddie Irvine’s pungent quotes. But for me, coming after another great victory at Silverstone, the whole Spanish weekend underlined the man’s inner strength and stature. We should be proud of him.