British Grand Prix - prologue


It was guesswork that guided us to the Dadford Road in 1977. Back then I had only a vague notion of Silverstone’s whereabouts, but we knew we must be getting close. The rising wail of Matra and Alfa Romeo V12s was a clue, ditto the comparatively muted rumble of Cosworth V8s. My mates and I had cadged a parental lift: drop-off on Thursday, collection Saturday evening and £16 each for a three-day pass, including campsite pitch. In 2013 it costs more than three times as much just to park your car on raceday.

This morning I drove in once more via the Dadford Road – because it’s the prettiest option, rather than the most direct – and the peripheral landscape hasn’t changed all that much during the past 36 years. It’s only when you get close, where the old country lane has been torn up and converted into a multiple carriageway, that the approach looks radically different.

That’s hardly the case beyond the gates, of course.

It doesn’t seem so many years since British GP security was relatively lax. In 1977 it was still possible to access the F1 paddock as a paying punter – freely so, if you waited until the bloke on the gate knocked off in late afternoon – and in 1985 I simply parked my car on the F1 paddock’s edge and slept therein for a couple of nights. It beat having to queue to get in and a shower block stood nearby.

Nowadays everything is far more strictly regulated and, since the Silverstone Wing’s inauguration two years ago, the F1 paddock lies a bus ride from the car park. Separation has diluted the infield atmosphere, with support acts in a different county from their F1 counterparts, and the bus trip underlines just how unfinished parts of Silverstone still look. Bernie Ecclestone often used to complain that the venue looked like a building site, which it didn’t, but it has since the BRDC installed the new paddock he craved…

There have been a few pre-weekend distractions, such as Felipe Massa turning up for a PR shoot on a Shell forecourt in Towcester: funny how you rarely see team-mate Fernando Alonso being roped in to such froth. Most of the immediate focus, though, has been on Mark Webber’s announcement that he will step down from F1 at the season’s end, in order to race at Le Mans and elsewhere with Porsche’s reborn World Endurance Championship team.

“I think the timing is perfect,” the Australian said. “I’m very excited about the next chapter in my career. I’ve known what I’d be doing for quite a while and Porsche is one of the most respected brands in motor racing. There are lots of reasons why any sportsman or woman decides to move on. You’re not 25 forever and there are big changes coming in F1 next season. If I’m going to experience change, it might as well be where my long-time future lies.”

When asked whether he’d be walking away with any regrets, the answer was short and to the point: “No.”

Webber has often been underrated. During his Jaguar days, people would accuse him of being “unable to race”… largely because he’d struggle to hold position after flattering his car in qualifying. He was in a strong position to win the 2006 Monaco GP in a Williams-Cosworth, having set a fabulous qualifying time with a colossal fuel load that allowed him to run a long, productive first stint, but engine failure put paid to that. He might well have won the 2007 Japanese GP, too, had a newcomer called Sebastian Vettel not run into him while they were running behind the safety car. And while everybody remembers the fifth place he achieved on his F1 debut with Minardi in Australia 11 years ago, that was largely a by-product of Ralf Schumacher eliminating a significant proportion of the field at the first corner. Later that season Webber finished eighth in France – and beat assorted Jaguars and Toyotas on merit. It was some drive, although relatively few people noticed.

In more recent times he has mostly played second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull: mostly, but not always. Whichever way you dress it, he has performed with distinction.

The forthcoming switch makes huge sense. He’s stepping away from F1 on his own terms – and doing so with dignity, while still competing at the front. He’s joining Porsche at a time when endurance racing is in rude health and, in the longer term, there will doubtless be ambassadorial roles to fulfil, or perhaps dealership opportunities. “For all your servicing needs in New South Wales, contact Mark Webber Porsche…”

There aren’t many good reasons for voluntary abandonment of an Adrian Newey car, but he’s found one.

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