It’s the racing that rocks

With the track still warm from the hothouse that was the British Grand Prix, out came the collectors’ cars and bikes for the Silverstone Classic, following the black lines laid down by the Red Bulls and McLarens. This time, though, they turned left at Abbey and plunged through the ‘old’ Bridge corner.

Full grids, great races, the return of Sir Stirling Moss, celebrity chefs in Fiat Abarths, hot rod shoot-outs, rock concerts, car parks stuffed with gleaming classics, a Victorian funfair, a ‘retail village’ (lots of shops) and hot air balloons all featured. There would have been a kitchen sink, were it on wire wheels.

There is, however, one small problem with historic racing at a modern Formula 1 circuit such as Silverstone. The place is so vast that you feel a small step away from being truly involved. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s simply the way it is. The circuit will always feel empty without a capacity crowd. Bums on seats and faces behind fences are a part of the spectacle. Sure, plenty of people came, but only the diehards watched the racing, the rest preferring to party.

Yet you cannot fault the racing. It was a sweet reminder of the days when racing cars all looked and sounded different. Close your eyes and you still knew there was a Ferrari coming, an Aston Martin thundering by. The racing, it has to be said, is what this event does best.

If only they’d preserved the old Woodcote for such occasions. Nostalgic nonsense? Maybe, but that is all a part of reeling back the years.

The latest incarnation of this meeting – previously the Coys Festival – was the most ambitious yet. An auction of historic cars is now staged by Bonhams and that’s but one of many more wide-ranging developments. The Classic offers what is described as ‘flat-out fun for all the family’ rather than a pure motor racing meeting, bringing Jedward to the same party as front-engined Grand Prix cars. Baubles and Bugattis. The balconies of the British Racing Drivers’ Club were mercifully deserted by the time rumbling exhausts had been replaced by the chirruping of John and Edward Grimes, whose music will never be described as classic.

The man in charge of this eclectic weekend is Nick Wigley, a historic racer himself and the founder of Goose Communications, which has won the Classic contract for the next 15 years. Not only is he ambitious, he’s also a realist.

“We will never be the Goodwood Revival and nor are we trying to be,” he said. “That is a masterful piece of theatre and Lord March does it very well indeed. It would be pointless to copy Goodwood. We have the British GP circuit which means we can give people huge grids, up to 48 cars, bigger than anywhere else, and we can race nearly 12 hours a day. The opportunities are endless.

“The racing, which is the core of this event, is the most important thing and it’s fantastic. You may not see many spectators in the grandstands, but the event is clustered on the infield where we have truly exceptional displays by owners’ clubs who bring a wonderful collection of cars for people to enjoy. We still have another 750 acres to play with at Silverstone, so I want to extend the entertainment around the circuit and then I think we will see more people in the grandstands.”

Selling this event as ‘Rock and Racing’ reached a high last year with the appearance of Carlos Santana. This summer, however, Wigley agreed that perhaps the introduction of X-Factor participants may have been misconceived.

“The previous organisers felt this would bring younger people in,” he said, “but I’m not sure it worked. We must do music that is complimentary to the audience we have, and in future we should have the classic rock bands as well as some classical music. Many people camp here for the weekend so we must have entertainment in the evening, like the dusk races on Friday and Saturday, as well as the concerts. Next year you can expect better music and more of it.”

Neatly combining rock with racing, Rick Parfitt Jr was the hero of Friday and Saturday nights, the karter and singer winning the Fiat Abarth celebrity race before taking to the stage with his band: “My life is complete, I’ve won at Silverstone. My first car race. I’d like to do some more.” This he achieved after an epic battle with Travis drummer Neil Primrose, who claimed Parfitt pushed him off. Celebrities, racing drivers, they all have the same book of excuses.

Those who were there for the sport itself may remember the 2010 Classic for the return of Moss, more than half a century after he first raced at Silverstone and just a few months since he fell down a lift shaft and smashed his ankles. Sharing his 1956 OSCA with Ian Nuthall in the Woodcote Trophy, he was back on track. There will surely never be another British racing driver to be so thoroughly embraced by the nation, to be so revered by those who understand what it’s all about. He is frail now, in his 81st year, but not in the usual sense of the word. Sir Stirling is made of sterner stuff. In his day few but Fangio could outfox him and, springing from his wheelchair into the OSCA’s cockpit, he was in fine form until the car let him down.

“She was stuck in fourth gear and that’s just too high here – third I could have coped with,” he lamented. “But we were flying and beating Chris Rea for the class win until I had to bring her in. I really enjoyed myself.”

Saturday evening’s race was a high point, with the Italian Historic Car Cup preceded by tenor Adriano Graziani’s fine rendition of ‘Con Te Partiro’ on the grid. The last strains of this romantic classic drifting into the sky, Italian engines were lit up for an hour’s racing. As the sun dipped below the grandstands, Michael Caine and Grant Tromans brought their Abarth-Osella over the line for an easy victory over a gorgeous gaggle of Alfas, Ferraris and Maseratis. Not so easy was Jon Milicevic’s triumph in a torrid Formula Junior scrap, which saw 61 entries whittled down to a mere 44 starters – just as it used to be in the heyday of these 1-litre screamers. Milicevic, in a Cooper T59, pipped the Caravelle Mk2 of current F3 racer Callum MacLeod by just three-hundredths of a second. The feast of noise and colour that was the World Sports Car Masters race was won by Steve Tandy, who did the full hour in his Lola T70 on his own, his fi rst big historic victory. Great stuff.

Great, too, was the much-vaunted Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy for Historic Cars, the weekend’s feature race. An impressive pitstop helped Carlo Vogele and Willie Green to victory in their beautiful Ferrari 330 GTO ahead of Richard Attwood and Stuart Graham (Aston Martin DB4GT). The crowd loved the monstrous noise and power of the Alan Mann Trophy for ‘Big-Engined Touring Cars’, with Leo Voyazides in his Ford Falcon closing proceedings in style after a battle with John Young’s Ford Mustang.

The Silverstone Classic deserves to succeed. The weekend is a lot of fun and, under its new management, there’s every sign of greater things to come.