The Peaks and Troughs of the British Grand Prix
// NORTHERN OUTPOST
Although better known these days as the home to the infamous Grand National, a British horse race that is a virtual institution in its domestic calendar and every bit as notorious as The Kentucky Derby, Aintree, near the west coast port of Liverpool, used to be home to the British Grand Prix. In fact, the race was held at the 3.0 mile long circuit a total of five times between 1955 and 1962.
As the circuit shared much the same course as the horse racing, it also shared the main grandstand and other outlying buildings, which meant that it offered far better facilities than Silverstone, with which it shared the Grand Prix duties. It was originally built in 1954 and was referred to as ‘The Goodwood Of The North’, mainly because the landed gentry that owned Goodwood (these days famous for its Festival of Speed Weekend and classic Revival events) were close friends with their opposite numbers at Aintree Racecourse.
The commercial prospect of running an ‘autodrome‘ as well as a ‘hippodrome‘ was considered to be no less than appropriate. In 1955, at its inaugural British Grand Prix, both Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss set the race pace, with Moss scoring the first British GP win by a UK driver. While many observers believe that the circuit is now disused, it only applies to the former GP track (the lap record of 1:55.000 is held by Jim Clark in a 1962 Lotus-Climax).
As a result of the actions of a group of ardent enthusiasts and local car club members, a Sprint Circuit uses some of the east end of the original track, but incorporates a revised infield section, which means that several sprint meetings are held throughout the year and, unlike the GP, there is no need for the current circuit to cross a public highway (twice). It is reward indeed to most visitors to sample the remains of this fine circuit.
// KENT VENUE
Now owned by former F1 driver, doctor and entrepreneur, Jonathan Palmer, as part of a combine that includes Snetterton (Norfolk), Cadwell Park (Lincolnshire) and Oulton Park (Cheshire), plus the corporate driving centre of Bedford Autodrome, Brands Hatch, in Kent, is a wonderfully iconic motor racing venue.
Originally, it was a popular dirt circuit for motorbikes. However, with freshly laid tarmac, it started as a 1.0 mile anti-clockwise loop, in 1950, around a natural dip, which would become known as the Indy Circuit. The Druids section was added in 1954 and it was decided to run the circuit clockwise instead.
Its location, 20 miles south-east of London, was a perfect spectator draw. Permission was granted in the early 1960s to extend the circuit length to meet GP demands. It coursed through the wooded area behind the track and incorporated several testing bends and changes of altitude. Now of 2.6 miles in length, it presented a fantastic challenge to drivers and provided some great vantage points at several places around the circuit for spectators.
Between 1964 and 1986, the circuit hosted 12 British Grand Prix and also acted as the European Grand Prix base for 1983 and 1985. Several safety issues, narrowness and insufficient run-off areas thwarted the potential for the circuit to host another F1 race but it still resounds to top class, international competition throughout the average season.
// MIDLANDS ONE-OFF
Boasting its first-ever race on Whit Monday 1931, Donington Park, in the East Midlands, was the first ever parkland racing circuit in the UK and, while Brooklands is the British original, it was Donington that ended its monopoly. Fred Craner, a motorbike racer, was the instigator, who approached the owners of the Donington Hall Estate to enable access to some of the expanse of land for use as a racetrack.
Using existing estate roads to a lap length of 2.18 miles, the first race was such a success that, two years later, the new track having been laid, the first Donington Park Trophy Race was held. The circuit was not much different to today’s layout, albeit without the ‘new’ Melbourne Loop, as the original dipped over a hillock at Redgate, returning up the other side to rejoin what we know as the main circuit today.
In 1937 and 1938, the venue reverberated to the monster soundtrack of the Auto Union ‘Silver Arrows’, victories going respectively to Bernd Rosemeyer and Tazio Nuvolari. The circuit was forced to close in 1939 due to World War Two, when it became a military vehicle store. It was acquired in 1970 by Leicestershire businessman and car collector, Tom Wheatcroft, who took it on enthusiastically, opened his world-renowned motor museum in 1973 (which now boasts the greatest Grand Prix collection in the world) and the revised circuit in 1977.
Although 1.957 miles long, it was decided to introduce the new Melbourne Loop in 1985 to extend it to 2.5 miles of smooth, flowing tarmac that provides the real challenge of changing elevations and eleven quite different corners. Ayrton Senna claimed a famous victory in the pouring rain of the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington, also establishing its only modern F1 lap record of 1:18.029 in a Ford-powered McLaren.
Fresh plans for the venue to host the British GP from 2010 for a period of ten years were thwarted, when it was discovered that the new circuit operators were enduring some ‘financial irregularities‘. Their redevelopment programme was also over-ambitious. It is now unlikely that Donington will ever be revived as an F1 venue, although its history remains relevant.
// THE REAL DEAL
Justifiably, on a road sign outside the Northamptonshire/Buckinghamshire county border village of Silverstone, is the legend ‘The Home of British Motorsport’. In post-World War Two Great Britain, countless airfields had been established across the English countryside and, with the GP organising RAC Club seeking a suitable, central venue upon which to recommence motor racing activities, Silverstone looked ideal.
At the time, its infield was being farmed by James Wilson Brown and he was employed by the RAC to turn the perimeter roads into a circuit, having been given just two months to do so. He achieved his task and the first RAC Grand Prix was held at the venue in October 1948. The original track was 3.67 miles in length, although its layout, with traffic running against itself along a former main runway, was somewhat different to today’s circuit.
The layout has actually been altered on several occasions during its existence, having been switched to the full airfield perimeter road circuit in 1950, while a chicane was added in 1975 to slow access speeds to the notorious Woodcote Corner and a deviation was added at Bridge in 1987. In 1990/91, a major redesign was carried out to create the new Luffield Complex and introduce some much-needed elevation to other parts of the track.
It is known as one of the fastest of all Grand Prix circuits and on premier race weekend, its main runway becomes Britain’s busiest airport. The circuit was altered radically for 2010, with a new pit lane and paddock complex, now incorporating a substantial conference venue. However, the changes were carried out by the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC), which owns the venue, in a successful attempt to pacify Bernie Ecclestone, who admitted publicly to loathing Silverstone but had been disappointed by the upset at Donington Park.
The place has been shoved from pillar to post by the inevitable politics, which were a key to Mr Ecclestone backing the resurrection of Donington. However, Silverstone under the chairmanship of Damon Hill (former World Champion GP driver and son of Graham) faced up to the challenges, improved the facilities dramatically and has now won the contract to host the race for the next few years, thereby providing some much-desired stability for the British Grand Prix.
// A LAP OF THE GODS
Now increased to 3.66 miles in length, Silverstone is one of the longest tracks in the F1 calendar. It can still boast one of the fastest straights and some of the most challenging bends and complexes of any racing venue. Although aspects of its elevation were improved by some substantial earth-moving exercises over the years, it remains fairly flat, although its skyline has been improved by the substantial new ‘Wing’ building that constitutes the new International pit-lane and paddocks complex, which is among the best such facilities in the world.
Virtually all of the current crop of drivers enjoys Silverstone for its opportunities to overtake, the excellent run-off areas and general access. The usual capacity crowd will pack the grandstands, car parks and on-site camping grounds around the venue, as it has been ‘sold out’ now for some months.
Starting adjacent to the ‘Wing’, the first right-hander is at Abbey, which is thankfully not the ‘bottleneck’ presented at most Hermann Tilke designed circuits. However, as the cars progress around the medium speed Farm Curve to the left, it is hard on the brakes for the hairpin right of Village Corner, which quickly becomes another hairpin left at The Loop.
Care needs to be taken for the fairly fast left-hander at Aintree, which leads onto the first proper straight (Wellington), before entering the much-liked Brooklands complex. The fans love this area, because it gives them a chance to see the cars and drivers working hard, as they negotiate the left-hander of Brooklands, which runs into the double back right-hander of Luffield, which opens for the full assault fast right of Woodcote Corner that leads onto the former (now known as National) pits straight. A lot of overtaking attempts are made all around this challenging complex.
At the end of the straight, the ninety-degree Copse Corner, which demands a couple of downshifts but still retains its very fast character also continues slightly uphill to one of the most fascinating triple-bend combinations of any circuit. The first is Maggott’s Corner, a speedy flick left-right, followed by the slightly more technical left-hander at Becketts, which becomes a tighter exiting right-left flick into Chapel Corner. Any unbalanced entry to the first will result in being overtaken and a poor exit speed from the last. It is exciting for everybody.
Chapel opens onto the wide and spectacularly fast Hangar Straight, where the fastest cars will top 200mph with ease, before slamming on the brakes for the fairly quick Stowe Corner (named after the private school and stately home located just across the fields from it), a right-hander that demands a judicious entry speed to line up for the downhill section into Vale, with its slow, left-right chicane into Club Corner. This is where most nosecones come in for bump and grind attention. Of course, Club signals the new (2010) entry into the International Pits Straight, prior to circulating for the next lap.
Having run a most successful grand prix weekend for the past few decades, Silverstone will continue in a similar fashion this year. The crowds do not like the politics. The drivers find them intolerable. Bernie now seems to have ceased his ‘hate’ campaign against the famous venue. The many improvements that have been introduced, to turn it into an even more suitable and professional racing circuit, may have made it colder and, in some ways, less welcoming than in years gone by but it remains the ‘Home of British Motorsport’ and that can only be good.