In the beginning

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Silverstone International Trophy 1954

“I only touched the tyres…”

It is interesting how many readers saw and heard their first racing car in action at Silverstone. Since 1948, when the old RAF aerodrome was turned into a racing circuit, it really has been the home of British motor racing. Of course, Donington Park gave British motor racing enthusiasts the chance to see Grand Prix racing, as monopolised by the Italians and Germans in the 1930s. The four Donington Park Grand Prix events, in 1935, 1936, 1937 and 1938, set the seal on the rise of popularity among British spectators. Had Donington Park re-opened immediately after the war, that rise in popularity would undoubtedly have stayed in the Derby area, but the British Army refused to de-requisition it; they had commandeered the site for a transport base and were not interested in giving it up.

Thus Silverstone aerodrome came into being to replace Donington and for 45 years has provided untold numbers of people with their first opportunity to see motor racing. Even as I write this, shortly before Easter 1993, I met someone who was about to take his young son to Silverstone to see and hear the opening round in the British Touring Car Championship. It was the young lad’s first attendance at a motor race, and his father said wistfully, the day before, “I am not sure what he will make of it all.”

Nearly 40 years ago another enthusiastic father was taking his young son to his first motor race, and no doubt was thinking the same thoughts. I am sure that both young boys were equally wide-eyed with excitement. That race meeting, in 1954, was the Daily Express International Trophy and it certainly set the fire alight in Peter Whale, for since that meeting at Silverstone his enthusiasm for motor racing has never wavered. Today Peter Whale is a Frazer Nash owner and a stalwart supporter of the Vintage Sports Car Club and the Frazer Nash section of that powerful body. When he goes to VSCC race meetings at Silverstone he takes a mobile shop, selling regalia for the club.

He can look back to that meeting in 1954 when, at the age of 10, he experienced racing cars at close quarters for the first time. It was a very wet day but did not diminish the pleasure and excitement of seeing Froilan Gonzalez win the main race of the day for Ferrari. It was a Formula One event, run in two heats and a final, and during the interval and lunch break it was possible to wander round the paddock (happy days!). Peter writes: “The tour of the paddock was wondrous – there was a machine making knifecuts across the tyre treads to improve the grip in the wet (the famous Pneugrippa machine DSJ). The rather ugly looking Vanwall Special with its radiator mounted on the surface of the nose cowling was another memory, but the most vivid recollection of all was seeing and touching – only the tyres of course – the brand new 250F Maserati of Stirling Moss (pictured above). I did so want it to win.” Sadly for young Peter the Maserati was forced to retire when its de Dion tube broke and Moss had to leave the car at Club Corner with its rear wheel leaning inwards.

The Vanwall may have looked ugly to young eyes, but it was a significant day for British motor racing. It was the first entry by Tony Vandervell of his Vanwall Special, built in its entirety in the VP Products tool-room in Acton. It was the prototype for the forthcoming Vanwall team, which three years later won the British Grand Prix at Aintree, and a year after that won the World Championship for Manufacturers. It is interesting that so much happens at a race meeting that is inevitably missed by a young boy at his first race. In the final of that International Trophy race, in 17th (and last) place, was one Colin Chapman, driving Paul Emery’s Jaguar-powered Emeryson, with an XK 120 engine linered down to 2.5 litres for the new Formula 1, which was just beginning.

In the production touring car supporting race Jaguar Mk VII saloons dominated the scene, but in the two- to three-litre class there was the unlikely occurrence of two Daimler Conquest saloons finishing first and second, driven by Reg Parnell and George Abecassis.

In closing his letter, Peter Whale, of South Yorkshire, reflects about Moss’ Maserati: “Since that day the 250F has been my favourite racing car. It seems to encompass all that a Grand Prix car should be and have in looks, performance, handling and reliability. I know all about the awe-inspiring pre-war German cars and the latest high-tech machines, and I appreciate the capabilities of both, but I have always felt that I could enjoy driving a 250F with my limited experience, whereas a pre-war Mercedes-Benz would make me nervous! I doubt that I could even get into the cockpit of a Formula 1 car of today.”

I wonder sometimes if motor racing has become too popular, and with it has gone that reverence and respect for the racing car as being something very special. When I see young hooligans today clambering over a Williams or a McLaren after a race, with no respect whatsoever, I am saddened. I can understand why the world of Formula One is forced to surround itself with wire fences and walls. It is sad that among that unruly mob there are probably small boys who would love to be able just to stand by a Williams or a McLaren, and perhaps being brave enough, and respectful enough, “just to touch the tyres… ” D S J

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