Modern times

Simon Taylor

As far as victory was concerned, the German Grand Prix was finished at the first corner. It was always going to be won by one of three Michelin-shod cars: but two of them, Ralf Schumacher’s Williams and Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren, were eliminated at the start. This left Juan Pablo Montoya with a straightforward job to do, and he did it to perfection. Helped by the new scoring system, he has now garnered a remarkable 50 championship points from the last six races, and is just seven behind Michael Schumacher with four races to go. This year, it should go all the way to Suzuka.

However, there was some fine racing at Hockenheim behind the distant Montoya: the Renaults featuring strongly, Schumacher M heroic on his outclassed Bridgestones until one of them blew, Coulthard on a fine drive from another poor grid position to second place. But it wasn’t in the same class as the great sporting event we’d witnessed two weeks earlier.

Quite simply, this year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone was one of the best F1 races of modern times. It is our lot to live in an era when, all too often, motor racing’s supposed pinnacle treats us to a monotonous procession while the lapchart unrolls as a neat row of unchanging figures; or the final finishing order is effectively decided by qualifying on the Saturday afternoon; or the only unpredictability is offered by the refuelling pitstops.

This, by contrast, was a truly epic battle. The victor, Rubens Barrichello, drove the race of his life — and both outqualified and outraced his Ferrari team leader. Standing wet-eyed on the podium’s top step while the Brazilian anthem played, he could savour a victory hard earned, for it had been a long, tough weekend. On Friday he blew an engine in practice, and then slid off the track in first qualifying. On Saturday he took pole with a wonderfully committed lap. On Sunday, 15 laps into the race, he found himself down in eighth place. So he drove his heart out to pull all those positions back, and wrenched the lead from Raikkonen’s grasp in a truly wonderful move on lap 42.

And there was equally good racing all the way down the field: Schuey and Alonso side by side down Hangar Straight at nearly 200mph, neither wanting to yield, even though the hugely brave little Spaniard ended up on the grass. Schumacher again, up against old nemesis Jacques Villeneuve, who was giving as good as he got. Montoya coming back from 13th to second. Trulli and Raikkonen leading the race — Cristiano da Matta, too. Jenson Button, starting dead last, climbing rapidly to 11th, falling to 19th again, and still coming back to eighth place and a richly deserved championship point. For the full 90 minutes, everywhere you looked, there was great motor racing.

So what was different about this particular race that made it what we’d all like to see, 17 times a year? After it was over, FIA president Max Mosley declared himself bemused. “There was something interesting going on”, he said with unconscious irony, “because the cars seemed to be able to overtake… We’re not sure why.”

Two safety car periods early in the race played their part in shuffling the pack, of course. One was to retrieve part of David Coulthard’s bodywork which had fallen into the road, and the other came when a lunatic ran onto the track on the Hangar Straight. However well any racetrack is organised, it is always possible for a member of the public who is very determined and very deranged to breach the security for a brief period. Fortunately, the drivers all managed to avoid him before he was brought down by a quick-moving marshal. The last time an F1 car hit a human being, when Tom Pryce was confronted at Kyalami by a marshal crossing the road, it killed both of them.

This second safety car period produced a traffic jam in the pits as more than half the field sought to use the slower track time for refuelling and tyre changes. Using an old ChampCar trick, the Williams pair were able to discomfit the two Ferraris briefly as they all queued in the crowded pitlane. Rubens fought back from that delay better than Michael did.

Also, this was a weekend when Michelin’s recent advantage over Bridgestone (which was to return with a vengeance two weeks later) was briefly in abeyance. Helped by the new rules which restrict changes to the cars between qualifying and race, the two types of tyre seemed well-matched over the length of the Silverstone race. Their characteristics vary from lap to lap, too: the Michelins tend to lose efficiency a short way into their life, and then get it back again, all of which mixes things up. When the Bridgestone-shod Barrichello was closing on Raikkonen’s Michelin-shod McLaren, the Ferrari clearly had more traction out of the corners at that point.

But the real magic ingredient was dear old Silverstone. So long sneered at for being just an old aerodrome, flat, wide and featureless, it has two vital features which help any track to encourage good racing. One is that the comers are wide and open enough to allow more than one entry line: so if you get alongside the car in front under braking, you can go for it and still have a chance of coming out on the Tarmac. The other is that the corners follow each other with sufficient variety to allow an overtaking move to be built up over a long part of a lap.

You can pluck from Silverstone’s 55-year history countless examples of races that have supplied constant excitement, right back to the historic day when Froilan González’s Ferrari, after a frantic battle, vanquished Juan Fangio’s 159 Alfa in the 1951 British Grand Prix, and changed the face of F1. Another favourite was in the 1962 International Trophy, when Graham Hill’s BRM caught Jimmy Clark’s Lotus-Climax on the final lap and, on a damp track, went round the outside at Woodcote in a four-wheel slide to beat him by inches.

Barrichello took the lead from Kimi in a wondrously committed sequence that started under heavy braking from 200mph on the Hangar Straight, went through the right-hander at Stowe, tight left through Vale and up into the right at Club, wheel to wheel into the tight left and opening right at Abbey, and then blind into the sensational 140mph downhill right under the bridge. By now the Ferrari was on the inside and the McLaren on the outside, on the loose and sliding wide. Thus was resolved this wonderful joust between two great gladiators, which had gone on for a mile or more.

If this had been at one of your modem F1 tracks, which obediently do Bernie Ecclestone’s bidding and have Identikit paddocks and artificial layouts consisting of short straights into abrupt constant-radius corners, it could never have happened. At the Hungaroring, at Barcelona, at the dreadful (but oh-so-smartly-equipped) Magny-Cours, Raikkonen would probably have been able to sit in front of Rubens until the chequered flag, with Montoya making up a three-car queue. Which is what we’ve become used to putting up with on Sunday afternoons. Instead, at Silverstone we had a real motor race as we probably would have done at those two old racetracks, Spa and Interlagos.

But the Brazilian circuit, which admittedly has the worst facilities by far of any venue in the F1 season, is now under threat, and Spa has already fallen victim of politics and is lost to us this year, although it now seems it will return in 2004. And now the British Grand Prix is threatened, too.

Ecclestone, a lifetime dealer, has never tried to hide his dislike of the blazered, old school tie image of the British Racing Drivers Club, which owns Silverstone. The BRDC leases the track to Brands Hatch Circuits Ltd, which has a contract to run the grand prix but no circuit capable of accommodating it: but now BHCL, which belongs to Interpublic, is up for sale after a disastrous financial performance. Meanwhile, the main criticism of Silverstone, the traffic routing in and out of the circuit, has been met. Never as bad as Interlagos or Suzuka, it is now first-class, and the A43 has been totally modernised so that it is possible to drive from the hire-car pick-up point at Heathrow to the paddock entrance without encountering any single-carriageway roads.

But Bernie wants Silverstone to build a new F1 pits and paddock, and the arguments rage on about where the money should come from. Crucial in this debate is the East Midlands Development Agency, which will decide how much Government money should be sunk into the project. Unfortunately, the politicians’ perception of F1 being awash with money doesn’t help here.

But while Bernie sticks out for his new pits, he should appreciate that Silverstone can give him what he wants most of all – great racing to boost his TV ratings. He seems happy for races to run at the Hungarorings and Barcelonas, but Silverstone can offer him far more: a place not just with heritage and history, but one which can still run exciting F1 races to the 2003 rules. That’s an asset that he should be fighting to keep.