Keke Rosberg, Williams, Silverstone, 1985

Today in 1985: Rosberg smashes the 160mph barrier

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

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 One.

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.

Low-flying

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