As Bernie Ecclestone threatens to say goodbye to one legendary track, it is time for another to remind him that there is more to Formula One than money. Silverstone returns this weekend as it hosts the British Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious races on the calendar.
This weekend is special. Silverstone is set to host its 50th British Grand Prix, a truly remarkable achievement for a former World War airbase. And, despite the recent modifications, the track has retained its ‘old school’ feel.
The fast turns of Copse, Maggotts and Becketts are world famous. Stowe corner is the scene of many overtaking manoeuvre, while Brooklands and Luffield add a more technical challenge. Silverstone is held in high regard by all the drivers for its circuit, atmosphere and sadly, weather.
Thousands of fans have had their afternoons ruined by the typical British weather but without a splash of rain, you wouldn’t have the true experience of a weekend at Silverstone, the place where it all began.
The track still retains some of the WWII runways that were used as an RAF base. After the War finished in 1945, the site became abandoned before some locals decided to race around a makeshift track. In 1948 the site was leased by the Royal Automobile Club, who was looking for a place to stage a race. The inaugural British Grand Prix was won by Italian Luigi Villoresi.
Two years later, and with a World Championship created for Formula One, Silverstone seemed the ideal race to kick it all off. The event was the first ever official Formula One race, and was attended by King George VI who remains the only British monarch to attend a race. The first race was won by the first champion, Alfa Romeo’s Giuseppe Farina.
In the years that followed, early greats such as Alberto Ascari, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jack Brabham claimed wins. Sir Stirling Moss only ever won at Aintree. But through a dominant decade, it was the Brits that ruled the sixties. Jim Clark, Sir Jackie Stewart and Graham Hill changed the face of British Motor Sport. They were celebrities and inspired generations of racers. Hill never won at his home event but Clark and Stewart shared five Silverstone wins. Including successes elsewhere, Clark won the British Grand Prix five times, a joint record with Alain Prost.
The unique atmosphere and support from the crowd and a summer’s afternoon in the countryside had a happy knack of inspiring the home racers. 22 times a Brit has won his home race. James Hunt, John Watson, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert and David Coulthard ensured regular home success through the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s. Since then, it’s been slow progress as only Lewis Hamilton, in 2008, has provided a home win.
There have been some memorable races too. In 1976 James Hunt won, but was later disqualified, after protests made by Ferrari and Niki Lauda. Nigel Mansell, who had the heart of a lion, thrilled the crown by hunting down and passing Nelson Piquet in 1987. In 1991, after winning the race again, he gave a lift to stricken Ayrton Senna. In 2003, Rubens Barrichello came from the back to win a thriller and only last year, tyre explosions made the race a nervy classic.
Throughout the years the circuit, which is based just behind a sleepy Northamptonshire village, has had to compete with other notable British circuits for the right to stage the race. Donnington, Aintree and Brands Hatch have all had their turn but in the end it has always returned to its rightful home. The home of British Motor Sport and, proudly, Formula One: Silverstone.