25 years today: Rosberg’s record lap

Keke Rosberg became the first man to lap an F1 circuit at an average speed of more than 160mph (258kph) on this day 25 years ago.

His record stood for the best part of 20 years. That sub-66 second lap of Silverstone in a Honda turbo-powered Williams remains one of the most celebrated pole position laps in Formula 1.

Fast cars, fast tracks

The 1985 season was Williams’s second full year using Honda turbos and the partnership was just coming good.

An up-rated E specification engine, introduced at Canada a month before the British Grand Prix, put the FW10s at the front of the field on pure pace. They had between 1,000 and 1,250bhp on tap in qualifying trim.

But it wasn’t just the outrageous power of the turbos that was causing lap times to fall. Carbon fibre chassis construction, introduced by McLaren a few years earlier, was now being taken up by the rest of the grid. The FW10 the first Williams to benefit from the lighter, stiffer material.

The velocity of the cars had become too much for some of the older tracks. Silverstone in 1985 was almost identical to the fast layout which hosted the first world championship race in 1950.

The only significant difference in the circuit’s configuration was a chicane at Woodcote, built in 1975 following the huge crash at the corner in 1973.

But by 1985 it was clear the cars were navigating the chicane far too quickly. Some were tackling it in fourth gear at speeds of more than 125mph – and this was the slowest point on the track. It would be the last race with the fast Woodcote chicane.

The prospect of record breaking was high when the F1 cars arrived at Silverstone for the 1985 British Grand Prix. The only problem was, it was raining.


Persistent rain on Friday meant the medical helicopter could not take off. Sessions were cancelled, re-scheduled and, inevitably, arguments broke out. Finally the sun came out again and everyone got on with it.

Come Saturday the track was dry for qualifying. A tense shoot-out for pole position got underway involving Rosberg in his Williams along with team mate Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost’s McLaren-TAG, Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari and the Lotus-Renaults of Ayrton Senna and Elio de Angelis.

Rosberg headed the list: a 1’05.967 putting him a fraction away from the 160mph mark. But then the rain returned, seemingly preventing any further improvement.

Back in the pits Rosberg lit up a cigarette and waited to see if any of his rivals would go out. Almost half an hour later, they did.

On a drying track Nelson Piquet’s Brabham-BMW took second place, lapping within three-tenths of Rosberg’s time on a 1’06.249. Senna went out and did a 1’06.794. With less than five minutes remaining, Rosberg left the pits.

Circuit commentator Keith Douglas described Rosberg’s lap afterwards:

The crowd rose as he came through the bends and he looked like he was low-flying. The car looked like an aeroplane, twitching as it cornered. Quite incredible. It was almost as if the car was off the ground. It lives in my memory as one of the most outstanding sights I’ve seen yet.
Keith Douglas

As he neared the end of the lap fresh rain began to fall, and his front-left tyre was losing pressure due to a slow puncture, but he kept his foot in and took pole position by more than 0.6 seconds.

In the days before electronic timing and video walls at every corner of the circuit, there was a pause after Rosberg crossed the line before confirmation came that the 160 miles per hour barrier had been broken.

Team mate Mansell was over a second slower in fifth place. But Rosberg praised his team mate when talking to the press afterwards, reminding them about the serious crash Mansell had suffered in Paul Ricard two weeks earlier which had kept him from racing.

Breaking the record

Rosberg’s record was almost four seconds faster than Rene Arnoux’s pole position time had been at the last British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1983. But the rate of progress in F1 has slowed dramatically since then.

It stood for 17 years, until Juan Pablo Montoya set pole position at Monza in 1’20.264. His average speed was 161.4mph (259.827kph). Appropriately, he was driving a Williams, with a BMW V10 engine.

But today’s cars are not as quick as they were eight years ago. Last year in Italy during qualifying F1 cars were the best part of three seconds (8.5kph) off Montoya’s lap.

There are tracks which current Formula 1 cars could lap at far greater speeds than we see today, including many of America’s oval racing circuits. But will F1 cars ever be allowed to go chasing ever higher lap speeds like these again?

Silverstone: 1985 configuration

Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find any footage of the lap – if you can, please post it in the comments. Here are the opening laps of the race which give a good impression of how fast a lap of Silverstone was 25 years ago.

Image (C) Williams/Sutton

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69 comments on 25 years today: Rosberg’s record lap

  1. Flyguy said on 20th July 2010, 9:45

    1000 to 1250hp in a ±600kg car is absolutely epic.

    Can anyone give an idea about what power todays F1 cars using during Q3 these days ?

    • sojcarter said on 20th July 2010, 10:13

      I think nowadays it is about the same as the power used all weekend, which is between 740-770bhp. They’ll have a setting on the engine to produce a little more power but the crucial difference between now and 1985 is that the engines have to last a lot longer.

      Back then they would use a specific engine for qualifying which would produce enourmous amounts of power (BMW turbos in the Brabhams were producing 1,500bhp!) for a very short period of time before they would becomes unusable, usually because they exploded and /or disitergrated. Unsurprisingly, they were known as ‘Grenade Engines”

      In the race, they would use a more durable, normal engine (if you can call 900bhp engine normal) but even then, with the technology they had and the massive pressures of the turbo’s, they would still explode.

    • Simon said on 20th July 2010, 10:36

      One of the best formula 1 seasons ever! Multiple drivers won a race, multiple teams were competitive, tracks like brands hatch, the old A1 ring, Zandvoort, Kyalami, Paul Ricard with the Mistral straight at full length, rio, Silverstone and the first year of adelaide. Senna, Lauda, Prost, Mansell, De Angelies, Rosberg (the tough one not the girly one) Albereto, Piquet. Manual gearbox’s, Massive horsepower, the old chicane at the harbour at monaco.

      How our sport has withered and turned limp…

  2. Magnificent Geoffrey (@magnificent-geoffrey) said on 20th July 2010, 9:48

    Without doubt one of THE coolest records in all of motorsport.

  3. Dan Thorn (@dan-thorn) said on 20th July 2010, 9:50

    When I was a boy I had a book called ‘Speed and Power’ and in it was a section about the ten fastest laps in F1. I remember reading the page on this lap several times and not only was it an amazing feat by Rosberg, but it’s one of the pieces of history that really got me hooked on F1 and for that I thank him!

  4. Robert McKay said on 20th July 2010, 9:57

    Oh for such a beautifully simple track configuration nowadays.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 20th July 2010, 10:03

      Hear, hear.

      • Webber fan said on 20th July 2010, 10:21

        How I miss the original Silverstone circuit.

        • Hairpin said on 20th July 2010, 12:24

          And which of the SIX iterations of Silverstone are you referring to as original?

          • Tom M in Australia said on 20th July 2010, 14:24

            If they put Stowe and Club back to the original config (fast right, fast right) today they would have the best F1 track in the world at Silverstone.

            Copse, Maggots / Becketts / Chapel and the new Abbey are all awesome. You can keep the old Abbey chicane, Bridge and Priory thanks.

            Do it Silverstone, you know it makes sense.

  5. TommyB (@tommyb89) said on 20th July 2010, 10:10

    Great article. I was actually thinking of Lap Records as when watching the Moto GP Pedrosa set a lap record for the circuit on bikes.

    Now because of the cars changing so much every year lap records don’t happen in F1 any more and if they do it’s meaningless.

  6. Oli said on 20th July 2010, 10:10

    Funny how rosberg is still about a second faster than his teammate

  7. Oli said on 20th July 2010, 10:18

    Also that’s the worst chicane I’ve ever seen!

  8. GeeMac said on 20th July 2010, 10:28

    Keke’s nature adds to the legend of this lap. You can just picture him sitting in the garage, surrounded by cigarrete smoke, huge tasche blowing in the wind and then he thinks “Ok, lets go and show these boys how its done”.

    The fact that he pushed on with a slow puncture is just awesomem, he already had pole but just wanted to go faster…

    • CJD said on 20th July 2010, 11:10

      Yes GeeMac, someone reported how
      “Keke would flick the fag end over the side and take off with a burst of opposite lock brio that drove Frank and Patrick mad”
      Only later did he explain that the Williams needed a lot of heat in the rear tyres.

  9. Oli – Why’s that the worst chicane you’ve ever seen?

  10. johnny said on 20th July 2010, 11:38

    Senna being Senna.

    • Maia said on 20th July 2010, 14:19

      I replay the video to check whether Senna jumpstarted or not. He didnt. I hope we can see such brilliant start. It’s senna being senna at “silvastone”.

  11. tobinen said on 20th July 2010, 11:59

    My memory is vague on this, but didn’t Mansell come close to this record soon after, but had to abort the lap due to being blocked/some other reason?

    Maybe ’86/’87/’88? Again I’m not 100% on this but this has jogged my grey matter.

    A case of “we’ll never know if he would’ve beaten it”?

  12. BasCB said on 20th July 2010, 12:46

    How nice and simply fast was Silverstone back then, almost a laid flat oval, apart from the funny chicane at Woodcote they are taking pretty fast.

  13. Namesis said on 20th July 2010, 12:53

    Great information I had no idea about except the 1500hp turbo.Must have been like riding a rocket.
    and the partnership was just coming good.? becoming good?

    introduced at Canada a month before teh British Grand Prix. the british grand prix

  14. W154 said on 20th July 2010, 12:58

    Perhaps if Nico grew a moustache he could ( almost) be as fast as his old man !

  15. GWbridge said on 20th July 2010, 13:53

    Keke Rosberg is one of the great ones! If I understand what the article says, it sounds as if Montoya currently holds the record for the fastest F1 qualifying lap ever. Is that correct?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 20th July 2010, 14:27

      I avoided covering this in the article as it gets a bit complicated because of the silly changes they’ve made to qualifying in the last few years.

      The fastest pole position time was set by Rubens Barrichello at Monza in 2004 – a 1’20.089 which is 260.395kph (161.8mph).

      But in 2004 qualifying was done in two parts and in the first part Montoya had lapped even quicker – a 1’19.525 which is 262.242kph (162.9mph). However, that did not count towards the grid.

  16. DaveW said on 20th July 2010, 15:24

    And smoking in the pits? Those were really the days of dare-devils.

    • Rock n' Roll Shaman said on 7th July 2011, 22:00

      I was there…….camping in the centre of the circuit, I remember that there were numerous cars circulating at what looked like racing speed, when suddenly this missile speared through the other cars, going at an incredible speed with a visible amount of spray at parts of the track. Awesome, absolutely awesome.

      What was even more incredible was that we were in the pits when KR did his first quick lap. He came through Woodcote absolutely flat on opposite lock…he never lifted…….and set the fastest lap. He came back into the pits, got out of the car and berated Patrick Head….”We must have more power” What a guy, what a Racer.

  17. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 20th July 2010, 15:59

    Back in the pits Rosberg lit up a cigarette and waited to see if any of his rivals would go out.

    Keith, that is blatant tobacco advertising. You could have at least put a barcode over the paragraph.

  18. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 20th July 2010, 16:06

    It makes me a little sad to think F1 will probably never go chasing speed like this again. Sure, cornering speeds have to be kept low but paradoxically F1 is just letting aero get crazy again and instead cutting back on power; the logical end point of the direction F1 is heading it that we’ll have laps that are mostly flat-out simply because the cars won’t have to slow down from high straight-line speeds. Qualifying engines might be wasteful, but isn’t Renault bringing a new wing every race also a waste?

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to turn this into a rant.

    Rosberg’s achievement will be one remembered for generations, just like the 4-minute mile and breaking the sound barrier.

    • Robert McKay said on 20th July 2010, 16:31

      “Rosberg’s achievement will be one remembered for generations, just like the 4-minute mile and breaking the sound barrier.”

      …but by a much smaller segment of society.

  19. Bebilou said on 20th July 2010, 16:31

    What a wonderful track it was ! Only Becketts is better nowadays… I wish they could bring Club and Abbey the way they were and I miss the “fast corners only*” feeling… ‘sigh’

    *: well, apart from Woodcote

  20. F1NATIC said on 20th July 2010, 16:57

    That just brings to memory the good old days of F1 where the sport was about development, speed, and wits (although I wasn’t alive at that time, it was all my uncles used to talk about and the commentators bring back at every race). Unfortunately by the modern standards of sports the sport had to change after the F1 day of Infamy of Senna’s death (I think this was the changing point for the safety push, everyday a driver or fan perished on track falls in this category). Now I’m no fan of Mosley, but he did all he could to improve safety which is good. But at the same time it cost the sports its sheer speed, and in a way its “cool” factor. The McQueen, Fangio, Hunt, Keke, Senna, or whatever days you want to call them came to an end with the modernization and civilization of sports.

    How I wish only certain regulations where in place that still gave us the thrills of the old days, where the thought of speeding to the afterlife always lingered in your mind as the engined roared like a beast out of this world. I’ve said it many times before, give me the wage of the “cheapest” F1 driver and I would happily risk my life for the enjoyment of the ultimate driving experience on a hell machine.

    All we have left know are those early footage takes that will last an eternity. I hope that coming documentary is able to successful capture the magic of those F1 days.

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