RAF Silverstone was commissioned in 1943 as an airbase for pilots and bombers during The Second World War. After the war was over is served as a base for a different breed of fighter pilot. In 1950 a dozen magnificent men in their flying Formula One machines competed amid primitive straw bales for what would be the inaugural race of the Formula One World Championship.
These gallant sportsmen, modest in victory and gracious in defeat, would lay the foundations of a legendary British racing history – man and machine giving it their all; mere mortals, often paying the ultimate price.
Drivers would come and go – many before their time; such was the thrill of the sport, defying death was how true champions were born: Fangio, Moss, Prost, Senna and Schumacher; some of the greats that fought tooth and nail around every inch of this motorsport Mecca and cementing themselves firmly in the annals of history.
On June 20th 2009 I embarked on what would probably (then) be the final hosting of the British Grand Prix at the epic Silverstone track. Travelling to Northampton at a dizzying 4:30am I squeezed in the back of a Vauxhall Vectra and half-split of new faces and old. A can or two of unaffiliated Red Bulls later, I started to come around and relax among the good company I found myself in.
We pulled into the Silverstone car park at around 6am. In front of us was a Mercedes with four boxes of Cleanex tissues perched on its back shelf. “They’re probably Nelson Piquet Jr fans” I groaned; we collectively laughed out loud.
We had successfully beaten the traffic and decided to have a bit of breakfast . A refreshing cup of tea later and we formulated a plan of action; our first port of call would be the McLaren stand were BBC’s Martin Brundle was making an appearance. We arrived early and managed to position ourselves at the front.
Martin arrived at 9am and several tenths sharp; he spoke with authority and clarity, addressing the absurd squabbling and posturing between teams and the sports governing body. The present political stand-off being about as good for Grand Prix racing as Marmite on a sherry trifle.
After Martin had finished we headed over to a Ferrari shop; Matt had his picture taken with the Ferrari girls – their red tops were bringing out the breast in them (at least Ferrari was getting noticed for something this year.) I went in search of the Renault stall and bought a Fernando Alonso cap – I would be the minority among the sea of ‘Buttonmania’.
The effect of the credit crunch was quite apparent this year. Normally each team would display one of their cars but only McLaren was doing so. There was an evident quantitative easing of the usual bookshops and stalls that would normally sell memorabilia.
It was good to see so many black supporters present; Just as Fernando Alonso gave the Spanish nation a reason to pack the grandstands at Barcelona, Hamilton has helped widen the demographic on a worldwide scale – it’s only taken the sport 50 years to get it’s first black hero!
With the practice session about to start we headed in search of a good spot. We wandered around for half an hour before finding a small seated area at the entry of the Abbey chicane. Sitting at Abbey was a great opportunity to marvel at the awesome stopping forces.
The engine notes singing from the mechanical diaphragms were rich and bombastic; when slipping down gears each car sang with its own distinct bravado. It was apparent that the Ferrari of Felipe Massa was a bit of a handful, the sparks were shooting from beneath the car as it slowed down. In contrast, The Red Bull of Sebastian Vettell looked more stable under braking.
There was a short break before qualifying and an opportunity to seek a better viewing spot. We positioned ourselves track-side at the entrance to the 180 mile Beckett’s complex; one of the most daunting and challenging sections of any racing track. We stood behind a gathering of petrol-heads with folding chairs, clipboards, radio headphones and pack-a-macs.
Qualifying got under way and the first batch of gladiators blazed past. The speed of the cars threading the needle of Beckett’s was breathtaking; daring to defy all the immutable laws of physics. Unlike the braking zone at Abbey, the flat-out engines roared with ear piercing rampancy. With the cars drowning out the sound of the commentary, and the screens being too far away to read, we didn’t have clue what was going on. Ironically, one of the boys was phoning his girlfriend in Wales to find out what was occurring at the track. One action packed hour later and the big show was over – but there were other acts to follow.
The GP2 race is held on a Saturday so we decided to hang around for it. The thought of that many cars jostling for position filled me with excitement and anticipation. We moved a little further up the track to get a better angle for the start. Most of the spectators had dispersed by now – probably to buy a Jenson Button t-shirt. The reward for us was a much better view.
The start of the race resembled a modern Ben Hur epic: Two cars collided in the ensuing chaos sending each other into a synchronized pirouette; other cars swerving to avoid being collected in the dance. The air was filled with the sweet aroma of engine fumes and the engine noise was gruff – more like a Jimi Hendrix solo than an opera. Such was the aerodynamic force of these cars that my arm was being blown to one side as I held my camera in the air.
We gradually moved further up the track; each spot providing a unique view of the cars speed and agility. While stood by the first corner a car lost control; hurtling toward us at high speed. I held my breath as the driver exercised lighting-fast skill and corrected the slide – it felt dangerous and exhilarating. I watched on, engrossed while witnessing these gladiators dueling in close combat; giving their all for the approval of the crowds. The combatants crossed the finish line to rapturous applause from the adoring crowd. I didn’t know any of the GP2 drivers, but that didn’t matter, they had put on an epic display.
Now that the main event was over we could sit in the grandstands and enjoy the support races. We sat at the last corner and watched future stars ans seasoned veterans. The cars were much slower but the dueling was just as fierce; no quarter was given between any of the drivers.
As the victor crossed the finish line for the final race of the day an elderly couple sat with a picnic basket popped-open a bottle of champagne, poured two glasses, and raised a toast. A fitting way to end a great day of racing.