France was not quite the reputation recovery exercise that F1 might have hoped for. Alright, nothing went wrong, but the race was rigidly dull at best. We can surely hope for better at F1’s spiritual home, Silverstone.
Fast, flowing, dramatic and challenging – Silverstone is one of the best circuits in modern Formula One, a fact that is too easily overlooked during the periodic disputes over the British Grand Prix. It may not have Shanghai-level facilities, but it has a circuit with character, soul and history. It can also produce absolutely blistering racing action.
Perhaps the history of the place could mean more to the current Grand Prix crowd, but the circuit is universally popular among the drivers, many of whom cut their teeth on the British racing scene and hence know the circuit well.
After France the championship battle has crystallised into a straight chase led by Fernando Alonso with Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher in pursuit. Alonso’s French Grand Prix win was clearly aided by Raikkonen’s starting grid penalty, and McLaren are again expected to be the form team in Silverstone.
A shame, again, for Juan Pablo Montoya, who suffered engine failure in France and will be forced to run early in qualifying. A change in luck is overdue for him. And, for that matter, Alonso’s team mate Giancarlo Fisichella.
Both British drivers finiahed well enough in France to give them good running slots at home. Jenson Button finally claimed some points for BAR (though they remains at the bottom of the constructor’s points table). Running tenth from last David Coulthard is in with a chance of points at his home race.
British Grand Prix history
It was Silverstone that held the first World Championship Grand Prix in 1950. Since then the British round has been held at four different circuits, and Silverstone has mutated almost out of all recognition both in track configuration and facilities.
Giuseppe Farina won that first race in 1950 and went on to take the championship. Later in the 1950s the race organisers (the Royal Automobile Club) decided to alternate the Grand Prix between different venues, a practice that continued until the race became a permanent fixture at Silverstone after 1986.
Thus the 1955 British Grand Prix was held at Aintree and, famously, was won by Stirling Moss who out-dragged Mercedes team mate Juan Manuel Fangio across the finishing line. The suspicions of many that Fangio had gifted Moss the win on his home ground were never confirmed by the Argentine maestro, who took the secret to his grave.
Aintree held further races in 1957, ’59, ’61 and’62, alternating with Silverstone. There was some opposition to the venue getting a second consecutive Grand Prix on the sixth occasion as it was a palpably inferior circuit to Silverstone. It would, however, be the last Grand Prix at the circuit.
Instead, Silverstone would share the British Grand Prix with the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent – a gem of a circuit set in a natural amphitheatre in the Kent countryside that would see many fantastic races. British legend Jim Clark won the first Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1964 – as he had won at Silverstone and Aintree in the two preceding British Grands Prix.
The two circuits continued to share the race throughout the 1970s. In 1973, at Silverstone, Jody Scheckter caused mayhem at the end of lap one when he spun at Woodcote. In those days Silverstone lacked any really tight corners and the cars barrelled into Woodcote at near top-speed. The shunt eliminated over a dozen cars and forced a restart.
Controversy was added to start line chaos at Brands Hatch three years later. Ferrari team mates Clay Regazzoni and championship leader Niki Lauda tripped over one another at Paddock Hill bend and home favourite James Hunt, in the McLaren, tripped over them.
A restart was deemed necessary but when Hunt was barred from starting again on a technicality the crowd began chanting for him and the stewards relented, letting him race, only to disqualify him later.
On two occasions in the 1980s Britain was briefly blessed with two Grands Prix a year as Brands held European Grands Prix in 1983 and 1985, the latter yielding the maiden win for future Silverstone superstar Nigel Mansell. He won again at Brands in 1986 after a furious battle with Williams team mate Nelson Piquet. That would be last Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, however, as the potent turbo cars had clearly outgrown the confines of the circuit, a fact grimly underlined by another first-lap crash in which popular Frenchman Jacques Laffite broke both his legs.
Mansell kept the British crowds entertained in fine style during his career and no more so than in 1987 when he recovered from a tyre problem and a 30-second deficit to remorselessly reel in Piquet and pass him in outrageous style with only a handful of laps remaining.
1987 had seen the re-siting further back up the circuit of the Woodcote chicane, formerly in the middle of the bend and scene of a pivotal crash involving Gilles Villeneuve in the 1981 race which let home boy John Watson win.
The modifications to the circuit became even more dramatic three years later when practically every corner was reconfigured to slow the average speed. However, the track retained a number of fast bends and the Becketts/Maggots complex that was created is arguably one of the best places to watch Formula One cars in the world.
Of course, Mansell gave the new venue a win in 1991 and again in 1992 en route to his championship victory in that year. A tradition of British home victors has since been upheld by Damon Hill (1994), Johnny Herbert (1995) and David Coulthard (1999 and 2000).
In 1998 the Grand Prix saw one of the most controversial conclusions of all time. A heavy rain shower was belatedly dealt with by a safety car, which annihilated Mika Hakkinen’s massive lead.
Michael Schumacher moved into the lead but was racing under threat of a stop-go penalty which, astonishingly, he was allowed to serve after finishing the last lap. Whatever karmic debt he owed was more than repaid the next year he crashed at Stowe on the opening lap, breaking a leg and ending his championship quest.
The 2003 race was perhaps the best ever, although it could have been tragic. The field was mixed up first by a windy qualifying session, and then by a pair of safety car interruptions, one due to a maniac priest who ran onto the circuit. It resulted in a frenzy of close racing and overtaking which was won by Rubens Barrichello in unusually scintillating form.
This is the nature of Silverstone: it’s unpredictable and entertaining, because it is a true, fast racing circuit. Modern formulaic tracks lack originality and it shows in the quality of the racing they produce. Silverstone, which winds its way through the perimeter roads of a long-disused RAF airfield, is a wonderful place for the British Grand Prix. Long may the race remain there.