Veteran to classic -- British Grand Prix

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Then and Now

This year’s British GP at the revised Silverstone circuit, described as perhaps the best of its kind in the world, provided all the excitement needed to enliven today’s F1 racing, with Nigel Mansell’s fans delighted and the drama of Senna retiring almost within sight of the finish.

The British GP was first held, at Brooklands, in 1926, a race repeated in 1927, a fact which not everyone recognises. It was revived at the then-new Silverstone circuit after the war, in 1948. The programme for that post-WW2 race reminded us that this British GP marked the opening of the Silverstone circuit and that the only two previous RAC Grand Prix races to be held in Britain were those organised by the RAC at Brooklands in 1926 and 1927. Note that no mention was made of the four pre-war Donington Park Grands Prix, won by Shuttleworth’s Alfa Romeo, Ruesch and Seaman (Alfa Romeo), Rosemeyer (Auto-Union) and Nuvolari (Auto-Union), because these races, organised by the Derby & District MC, did not rank as International races.

The first British GP, in fact named the RAC Grand Prix, and won by Senechal/Wagner (Delage), was contested over an artificial “road circuit” at Brooklands. The same race has since been run at circuits like Silverstone, Aintree and Brands Hatch. Whether these circuits have quite the road circuit aspect of pre-war Donington Park is open to debate. The RAC explained that the new (1948) Silverstone circuit had been planned to “simulate a true road circuit”. To this end the corners had been marked or defined with straw bales and marker-tubs to reduce the width where the cars turned from the old aerodrome perimeter track onto the former runways from 150 feet, to give the circuit “a true road atmosphere”. It was officially opened, by the way, by John Cobb and IoM TT racing motorcyclists AJ Bell, FL Firth and M Cann, on the morning of the race.

The rules for that revived 1948 British GP also differed from those applying today. When Mansell came to rest after 69-3/4 laps of the 1991 Canadian GP his Williams-Renault was given sixth place, based on the fact that his time for 68 laps of this 69 lap race was better than that of Martini, Comas, and Pirro, whose cars also completed the race a lap in arrears of the winning Benetton, but which were running as Piquet was crossing the finish line. Mansell thus qualified for Championship points; Martini did not. The same ruling was applied to Senna, whose McLaren-Honda ran out of fuel on the final lap of the British GP, but who was placed fourth although he did not cross the finish line. In 1948, however, the race rules clearly stated that: “It is a condition of the race that a car must be running when the winner is flagged, and must have covered at least 55 laps (the race was over a full distance of 125 laps of Silverstone) in order to be considered for any award,” and “The race will be stopped immediately after the winner has crossed the finishing line and all other competitors still running will be credited with the laps which they have completed on first receiving the ‘end of race’ flag signal.” In other words, a car had to cross the finishing line to be placed. If this did not happen a car was deemed to have retired.

This was not a ruling which applied only to the 1948 British GP. Taking a couple of pre-war races at random, the rules for the 1931 BRDC 500 mile race at Brooklands stated that: “The race will be stopped 30 minutes after the first three cars have completed the 500 miles or at 5.30pm, whichever is the earlier,” and “No award can be gained unless the complete distance has been covered as required by Regulation No 6.” The regulations governing the 1933 JCC International Trophy Race stated that: “The race will continue for forty minutes after the winner has completed his full distance, and prizes are to be awarded for all places up to eighth position, providing the course has been completed within the allowed forty minutes.” (My italics — WB). At Indianapolis they used to stop the 500 five minutes after flagging home the winner.

Whether the rule of letting a stationary car be placed according to the time it has recorded on the lap previous to that on which it has irrevocably stopped is a sop to World Championship points, I do not know. But it did not apply in former times, if you regard Championship points as awards. Another point, to me rather a sad one, that arises when comparing the 1948 British GP with the 1991 race, is that two straights and corners at that original Silverstone circuit were named after Sir Henry Segrave and Dick Seaman, the latter who died following an accident in 1939 when he was leading for Mercedes-Benz at Spa, the former racing driver fatally injured (in 1930) while attempting (successfully) to raise the water speed record for his country. These names seem to have gone with the rebuilding of Silverstone circuit, together, I believe, with that memorial to the late Pat Fairfield who died in 1937 while racing a BMW at Le Mans, which used to stand outside the entrance to the old Silverstone Paddock. Rather a pity, you may think? — WB