More than a wing and a prayer
MAY 18, 2011
The new Silverstone pits and infrastructure are far-removed from the old in every sense. No surprise, then, to have difficulty knowing exactly where you were when negotiating the internal roads en route to Tuesday's opening of The Wing, so-called because of the futuristic shape given to a roof spanning the building's 390-metre length.
There's no denying it's an impressive-looking edifice, very much in keeping with the structures erected at vast expense in countries where funding exceeds a sense of tradition and passion.
This is where Silverstone has the edge. When you leave behind the vast garages and exit the new pit lane, you are faced with a race track that is challenging, fast - and different. Better than that, it is lined by race fans - tens of thousands of them - who appreciate exactly what they are seeing. You don't get that in places where competitors seem to outnumber the paying spectators.
This has been a brave £27m venture by the British Racing Drivers' Club, owners of Silverstone. Two years ago, the venue appeared set to become a sad shrine to great Grands Prix in the past rather than moving seamlessly into F1's future. Bernie Ecclestone had done a deal with Donington Park and the British Grand Prix had finally departed its traditional home for good. Then the world's bankers stepped in.
Every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining. The recession brought a swift collapse of the Donington venture and forced Ecclestone and the BRDC to start talking once again. In truth, it was a largely one-sided conversation. Ecclestone wanted, among other things, to have Silverstone to raise the standard of its facilities. He had been banging on about this for years and it's correct to say he had a fair point. The problem had always been the robust manner in which he expressed it. I mean, one or two lofty characters within the BRDC did not take kindly to having their facility compared to a country fair on a wet Bank Holiday.
All that changed thanks to two things; the election of Damon Hill as BRDC president and the nomination of Neil England, an 'outsider' or non-BRDC person with whom Ecclestone could negotiate. Hill is such a modest man that he would never dream of taking credit for helping smooth troubled waters and pulling both sides together. But there is no doubt that he and England, along with astute BRDC board members such as ex-F1 driver Jackie Oliver, played a large part in reaching an exceptional 17-year deal with Ecclestone. Having been given such a long-term commitment, the BRDC could press the green light.
That's why, in the space of just 54 weeks, The Wing rose rapidly at what had been the far end of the circuit on the stretch from Club Corner to Abbey. It is a massive facility, which the BRDC put to good use when staging the official opening.
Mark Webber was able to drive his Red Bull RB7 from the pit lane and up a ramp before running along the upper floor, straight into the auditorium. To increase the effect, the passage of the car was followed by spot lights in the otherwise darkened room. The only problem with that was that poor Webber couldn't find the 'neutral' button on his steering wheel before being able to switch off the rasping Renault V8.
Predictably, the BRDC applied a three-line whip - not that it was needed - to their star members and wheeled out past greats such as Sir Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks to join British World Champions, John Surtees, Sir Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Hill and Jenson Button. That much was expected.
The biggest round of applause went to the surprise appearance of Valentino Rossi who, I'm reliably informed, does not make a habit of attending such occasions. If nothing else, this was the laying on of additional credibility because, of course, Silverstone in its latest guise is one of the few race tracks suitable for both two and four wheels at World Championship level.
Rossi also explained that he had been forced through injury to stay away from last year's Grand Prix on the revised track and he wanted to take the opportunity of have a reconnoitre before the race next month.
He was not alone in needing to find has way around. Button, having been brought to the interview room to speak to the media, then walked into a cupboard while trying to find his way out. A far cry, indeed, from the old Silverstone facility that never had an interview room - and much else besides - worthy of the name.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.