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.

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

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

  1. James said on 20th July 2010, 20:32

    Really well said!

  2. Daffid said on 20th July 2010, 20:48

    Oh for the days of no safety cars…

    • DaveW said on 21st July 2010, 1:51

      …and no safety. Check out what appears to be a rank of 2x4s sticking out of the ground just outside Stowe. Was that some sort of primitive speed-arresting system?

      • PeriSoft said on 21st July 2010, 2:48

        Watching a few guys get decapitated, have their faces smashed in with fire extinguishers, and burn to death kinda puts a damper on the ol’ nostalgia.

        I think that the issues with modern F1 have more to do with technical restrictions aimed at creating a NASCAR-like spec series than any real emphasis on safety.

        We could have safety without doing what’s been done, which is boxing the cars in so tightly that there’s no technology to get excited about anymore, and boxing the tracks in so tightly that there’s no racing to get excited about anymore.

      • Yukirin Boy said on 21st July 2010, 4:45

        Catch fencing
        rows of wire fencing held by stakes in the ground that was supposed to slow and catch a car before it hit the wall.

        Not one of the best ideas. It worked but a driver could get trapped in all the mangled fencing.

        They were done away with and replaced with gravel traps.

  3. Charles Carroll said on 21st July 2010, 4:56

    I would LOVE to see them break the speed records again.

    Bring it back!

  4. moose said on 21st July 2010, 8:38

    I think if we bring back the rules to the 80’s we will see more than 200mph lap on track like ol’ silverstone. and, no overtaking what so ever as the difference between teams is too big and our drivers nowadays are too perfect, they rarely make mistakes.

    we cannot compare to the good ol’ days as things are different now….

    • Charles Carroll said on 21st July 2010, 17:52

      I understand your point about “the show” and I agree to a certain extent. However, I would love to see F1 pushing the performance envelope nonetheless, because here in America (and elsewhere) that is something that excites many.

      Whenever I say I am an F1 fan, my fellow countrymen will inevitably reply, “Yeah but those cars aren’t even the fastest…”

      I usually try to talk about all of the other amazing things about F1, but that trips up many.

  5. TeamOrders said on 21st July 2010, 12:19

    I loved, loved that clip. I started watched F1 in 85 and that brought back great memories. Senna v Mansell at the front in turbos at Silverstone. Wow, doesn’t get much better than that. :)

  6. RobR (@robr) said on 21st July 2010, 20:35

    So I guess there’s no video of this? I’m sure we would have seen it by now. =/

  7. Paulipedia said on 22nd July 2010, 16:47

    Luckily for me I was there, and I met Prost afterwards. Awesome to re-live it, I was only 7 at the time.

  8. Really great article with tons of great information for someone who is playing catch up with the history and legacy of Formula 1. Excellent video for its age too. Thank you Keith!

  9. BTW Keith, this spawned a great article idea for me which I am working on now; Are vintage motorsports a glimpse into a crazy fast past? Thank you muse…

  10. JUAN.PABLO.MONTOYA.
    Holds lap records in at least 3 venues currently, Sepang, Monza and Interlagos.

  11. Peter Tuckey said on 23rd May 2015, 9:41

    I was there, with a friend and remember it all too vividly. The description of the car appearing to be low-flying says it all. We were absolutely stunned!

  12. HoHum (@hohum) said on 20th July 2015, 0:43

    BAH HUMBUG, you’re all wearing rose tinted glasses, F1 was boring until Bernie fixed it with refueling!

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