The makings of a Classic

With growing participation and attendance, the Silverstone Classic is clearly gaining in stature
By Paul Lawrence

It’s not every Saturday evening that you can watch a pack of Lola T70 Mk3Bs thundering through Woodcote, headlights piercing the dusk after the sun has set behind the Silverstone grandstands.

This magical spectacle came in the closing stages of the World Sportscar Masters race at the 2008 Silverstone Classic, just one of many memorable sights and sounds as the circuit’s return to the forefront of classic and historic racing stepped up a gear.

Running under new management for the first time, the Silverstone Classic can be judged a great success. Huge grids across a 21-race programme, an infield packed full of displays, live music and air displays all made for a special weekend as Motion Works UK took the helm.

Silverstone’s once proud place at the forefront of the historic racing season had been wantonly squandered in the dark years when Octagon ran the venue. Back in the 1990s, the Coys International Historic Festival drew a crowd of 90,000 visitors across three days, and it is that level of attendance which event organiser Roger Etcell wants to achieve again in the future.

Sure, there were some teething problems with the 2008 event, but Etcell and his team have achieved a huge amount in barely six months. He has already pledged that 2009 will be better still, given a full year of planning.

It was a bold move by Silverstone-based Motion Works to take over the total rights to the event, but any doubters will have been silenced by an event that had atmosphere, spectacle and a whole raft of side attractions.

As the 44-car field for the headline WSM race formed up ahead of a monstrous rolling start, Etcell took a few moments to reflect on the progress of the meeting. “Hopefully we’ve brought a festival atmosphere to the event,” he said. “The competitors have been fantastic in supporting us in all the things we’re trying to do,” he added, well aware that winning the support of drivers, teams and car owners is central to the future success of the Classic.

From the participants’ point of view, the paddock layout had a mixed reaction. Keeping all race trucks out of the main paddock was a great move for the fans, who had easy access to the star cars and drivers. But managing such a move is not the work of a moment, and this is an area that will be refined for 2009.

But these are details. The overriding result was an event with a weekend attendance of 57,000, which was well over the 49,000 target. Already plans are being hatched for a bigger and better event in 2009, when Jaguar will be the featured marque and a headline race for Super Touring cars of the 1990s is likely as the race content is shaken up.

On track, four races for 3-litre F1 cars topped the action as the FIA Historic Formula One Championship and Grand Prix Masters shared the stage in a rare double billing.

Joaquin Folch bagged one HF1 win in his Brabham BT49, while US visitor Michael Fitzgerald twice fended off Peter Williams in a battle of the March 761s in Grand Prix Masters.

Peter Sowerby was in fine form, winning in his Williams FW07C in the other Historic F1 race and then sharing his Nissan RC90K to Group C victory with Calum Lockie at the end of Sunday’s programme.

The 90-minute Group C enduro ran for the David Leslie Memorial Trophy and Lockie was clearly moved at winning the race named in honour of his friend and fellow Scot. “800bhp and an oily track made for some interesting moments,” said Lockie, who had the Nissan nudging 190mph before braking for Stowe.

Unfortunately, a couple of nasty shunts marred the racing, although thankfully without major physical harm. Rob Sherrard’s damaged Sauber Mercedes, after a first-lap tangle in the Group C race, was one of the saddest sights of the weekend, while Rupert Whyte’s Widi sports-racing car was badly damaged against the wall at Woodcote after finding an XK120 sump-full of oil.

Meanwhile the stunning WSM race, which opened with a relaxed and informal grid gathering for the teams and drivers in glorious evening sunshine, was an absolute highlight.

The pack of Lola T70s, accompanied by the sublime Ford F3L of John Young, the Ferrari 512M of David Hart and three GT40s could not counter the pace of the little Lola T212 of father and son Anthony and Ollie Hancock. “Fabulous! There was a great atmosphere going into the dark,” said an elated Hancock Sr. The race may have gone into the dark, but the Silverstone Classic has clearly come into the light.