Matters of moment, October 2008

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History today

Silverstone is the most historic active race circuit in Britain. Donington Park is older, but it can’t boast 60 years of continuous history. Brands Hatch was founded two years earlier, in 1946, but only as a grass track. Yes, Goodwood matches Silverstone in age, but from 1966 until Lord March created the Revival Meeting the Sussex circuit lay dormant for racing, surviving as little more than a decaying test track. But every year since 1948, when it hosted the first post-war Grand Prix in Britain, Silverstone has been the scene of more great moments and important races than any other track in this country. It is, as it claims, the home of British motor racing. So why doesn’t it always feel like it?

Bleak, flat and featureless, Silverstone has never had the endearing qualities you’d find at Brooklands, Goodwood and Brands. It’s always been hard to love. Just ask Bernie.

But remember what Silverstone has always been up against. Aside from its geographical characteristics, it can’t afford the luxury of recreating every detail of how it used to be, like Goodwood. Heritage means nothing when you have to meet the unrelenting demands of modern Formula 1. The result is a circuit surrounded by vast run-off areas that is almost unrecognisable from what it used to be. As for the paddock, the need for functionality equates to the character of an airport car park.

In theory, organising a historic racing festival at Britain’s flagship circuit should be a cinch. But when that circuit has so little in common with the context of its own past, it becomes an unequal challenge, especially when you’re up against Goodwood’s Revival. Which is why Roger Etcell and his Motion Works company deserve great credit for the success of this year’s Silverstone Classic.

The Revival, which we look forward to in this issue, remains the undisputed champion of historic motor sport. Sensibly, Etcell has accepted that and is aiming during the remaining four years of his contract to carve his own niche for the Classic. Twenty-one races featuring over 900 cars was a great achievement, but it was only part of the story. Making it an ‘event’, not just another race meeting on an increasingly overcrowded calendar, was just as important. Which is why easy access to a paddock uncluttered by trailers and transporters was an inspired move, even if it was a pain for the teams.

And the verdict so far? Well, 57,000 people over three days is a good start. There’s a lot of work still to do, but at least in the realm of historic racing Silverstone, thanks to Etcell’s team, is on the right track.

As for character, that’s hard to fabricate and comparisons with Goodwood are pointless. But for what it’s worth, Silverstone might still have plenty of the old faults – as some of you tell us after every British Grand Prix – but next to the sparkling Shanghais and Bahrains of this world, at least it has personality. It’s not always easy to find, but despite itself, after 60 years of history, Silverstone can’t help but have a soul.

*****

Is Ronnie Peterson the biggest motor sport icon of the 1970s? That’s entirely subjective, of course, but he’s right up there with Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, the Porsche 917 and the Lancia Stratos (my personal list). Peterson drifting his JPS Lotus 72 through Woodcote has almost become a cliché of what we love about this sport – and like all clichés it’s become one because it’s so true.

We’ve been planning this 30th anniversary Peterson cover for some time, and I’d assumed all along that we’d go for the archetypal black and gold Lotus. After all, that’s what most of us associate with ‘SuperSwede’, isn’t it?

But when it came to it we couldn’t resist the lovely shot of Robin Herd’s ‘teatray’ March 711 that graces the cover you’ve just turned. It’s not the obvious choice – and it’s not the prettiest F1 car either. But it’s different, just like Motor Sport. I hope you like it.
Damien Smith

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