Where should the British Grand Prix have its home? What we are looking for is a circuit that tests the mettle of the riders as much as the metal of the motorcycle. There would be only three on my list: Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Silverstone.
To my mind, racetracks should have some primal scream to them; they should be more than mere technical exercise. On the current calendar – outside Britain – that means Brno, Mugello, Phillip Island and possibly Sepang; four circuits from 17 foreign venues.
Most of these places are old-school racetracks; no doubt drawn on the back of a napkin in a bar somewhere, not laid out on a Mac by a polo-neck-wearing architect in his designer office. And somehow, the amateur-sketched circuits work better. Mugello and Phillip Island are MotoGP’s greatest tracks, by a long way. They have everything: high-speed straights and wide open, heart-in-the-mouth corners, as well as superb use of topography and (not that this is a real requirement) beautiful scenery. Phillip Island dates from the 1950s, Mugello from the 1970s. They both make most modern tracks seem nothing more trivial squiggles in the dirt.
Old school circuits are on the endangered list. Every few years we lose another to health and safety concerns, just like World Superbikes has lost Monza, scene of some of WSB’s most magnificent battles. Once again, it’s that combination of high-speed straights and wide open, heart-in-the-mouth corners that allows riders to stay with each other, using the slipstream and riding side by side, lap after lap, all the way to the chequered flag.
WSB lost Brands Hatch long before Monza and Oulton would also fail all safety tests for WSB and MotoGP. Which, in my little world, leaves Silverstone as the only British circuit that would have Marc Márquez and the rest filling their throats with primal screams.
I think Márquez might agree with me. We all know the reigning MotoGP king is the world’s fastest, most fearless rider. I’ve only heard him admit to fear once: after a blustery Friday practice session at last year’s British GP.
“It’s a little scary,” he said. “With the wind and the bumps, everything becomes a little crazy.”
That’s what I want to hear. I want to hear the world’s bravest, most talented riders explaining how they are being pushed to the limits of their capabilities by a circuit that has them struggling to maintain control at some ridiculous speed.
Silverstone does a lot of that. It is mega-fast, with a lap record of 108mph. Only two MotoGP tracks are faster (and their identity probably won’t surprise you): Mugello at very nearly 109mph and Phillip Island at 112mph.
The former Second Word War bomber base has a superb array of corners that have created some of the best racing in recent years. Last year the top three in MotoGP were separated by 0.3sec, in Moto2 the podium was covered by 0.2sec and in Moto3 just 0.07sec separated first from third. This isn’t happenstance; it’s because the track’s nature and layout doesn’t usually allow riders to escape from the pack. Rivals can use the fast straights and fast corners to make up time with much more effect than they might at a slower, tighter circuit.
Silverstone is also quite bumpy. This perhaps isn’t ideal in 21st century motor sport with its raging culture of perfection anxiety, but it certainly forces riders to dig even deeper into their talent. As the motorcycle loads and unloads across the bumps, they’re sat on top, working hard to get the bike floating over the undulations, so it puts neither too much nor too little load through the tyres.
This is what I want to see from bike racing: fast, scary corners, populated by gangs of riders doing everything in their power to mug each other at every opportunity.
I still haven’t mentioned Donington Park, have I? I like Donington. I won a few races and stood on a WEC podium there in the 1980s. It’s a beautifully flowing circuit. It is also another old-school track, created in the early 1930s, undulating through the grounds of the Donington Hall stately home. That’s why it’s so picturesque: you’re sat in a parkland estate created by Francis Rawdon-Hastings, second Earl of Moira, a famous soldier who fought on the losing side in the American War of Independence and later subdued the Gurkhas in Nepal.
I spectated at both tracks during the late 1970s, watching Barry Sheene do battle with Kenny Roberts at the Silverstone Grand Prix and again at Donington internationals. At Silverstone I’d stand on the bank by Stowe, watching riders charge down Hangar straight, before turning hard right. At Donington I’d sit on the hillside above the Old Hairpin, watching the pack wind its way through the Craner Curves. I don’t think the viewing experiences have changed much since then: Donington is still green and homely; Silverstone is still bleak and big skies, just as it would’ve been when it was an RAF base training Wellington crews in night bombing.
There’s no doubt which venue is prettier and offers a better view. There’s also no doubt which track creates the better racing.
Could the legendary Sheene vs Roberts duel of 1979 have happened at Donington? Highly unlikely. From Redgate to Coppice, Donington is a one-line circuit, making passing manoeuvres extremely difficult. The final section is one chicane and two hairpins, occasionally the scene of dramatic overtakes, but not often in the days of carbon brakes. The overall effect on MotoGP bikes is to spread the pack far and wide.
Thus only rarely does Donington produce a classic encounter on big bikes. During its last three years as a GP venue, the average winning margin was a whopping five seconds. Over the past three years at Silverstone it’s been 1.2sec.
Following the debacle of the last few weeks, we now know that for the next two years Silverstone will host the British GP, under contract from the Circuit of Wales, Dorna’s preferred promoter for the next 10 years, even though they don’t have a racetrack and have never organised such an event.
Will the Circuit of Wales be ready for 2017? Who knows? Will it be any good? I hope so. Very few modern circuits are primal-scream racetracks. Perhaps COW will be, perhaps it won’t.