A HACK LOOKS BACK

The British GP

When you consider how popular motor racing was to become in post-war Britain, it is surprising to reflect that in its 59 runnings as part of the FIA championship, our premier event, the British Grand Prix, has been held at only three venues. Since then, the only other circuits to have promoted the BGP have been Aintree and Brands Hatch. (Donington Park's one-off championship round, back in 1993, was actually a European GP.) Nevertheless, I don't think there will be many other racing hacks in Silverstone's fetid, overcrowded Media Centre this weekend who can claim, like me, to have attended GPs at all of those English tracks.

Back in 1950 - which was a bit before my time - the race at the Silverstone airfield was the opening round in the first FIA Drivers' World Championship, with the munificent sum of £500 as first prize. There was a bit more in starting money to persuade the factory Alfa Romeo team to come all the way from Milan, of course, and in spite of race leader Juan Manuel Fangio withdrawing with a broken oil pipe only eight laps from the finish, they duly finished 1-2-3. The new Ferrari team from Maranello, however, was not present. History therefore records that the team which claims the longest patrimony in the sport, one which profits mightily from its supposed dedication to the FIA's World Championship, couldn't actually be arsed to cross the Channel for the very first race.

Nevertheless, while Ferrari didn't bother to make the trip, the King of England and his family did take the trouble to go to Silverstone. For the first and only time, a motor race was graced by the presence of 25 year-old Princess Elizabeth, later to be our Queen, who subsequently got involved with a Greek sailor and acquired a taste for an inferior form of racing, the one-lap version involving horses and bookmakers. The Royals attended both qualifying and the race (on May 13, a Saturday) and I assume that their chauffeurs, in order to get in and out, had to negotiate the same infamous narrow lane which the rest of us have been cursing until the local authority grudgingly built some proper access roads four or five years ago.

As I have mentioned here before, I was first taken to motor races by my father, and I may even have explained why he and I took an early dislike to Silverstone, where I got extremely wet at a non-F1 event in 1963, as a result of which I resolved to spend my pocket money on going to races at superior venues, like Aintree and Oulton Park, from which my dad and I could be sure of getting home in respectable time. Even now I can recall my father's rage when faced with the bill for steam-cleaning the Hillman to get rid of the clinging mud that was (and still can be) a part of the Silverstone Experience.

I know a bit about race tracks and mud because much of my early exposure to top-level racing was as a marshal, a rewarding task which has to be done in all weathers. Rising quickly through the ranks, I actually flagged a couple of British GPs, at both Brands Hatch and Silverstone. It's a responsible job which requires a high level of concentration, and my preference for Brands Hatch may well have been based on the fact that its busy layout (unlike the fastness of Silverstone) allows a harassed flag marshal to double-check race positions by glancing across to one of the other corners in his field of vision. I certainly didn't favour Brands for its convenient location: when you're an articled clerk based in the YMCA in Manchester and the only wheels you can afford are on a 1956 VW Beetle, Kent seems about as far away in motoring terms as Prague. The only consolation then was that petrol cost 4/6d a gallon, and for you youngsters who don't understand shillings and pence, I will just point out that you'll be paying about 25 times as much for the same product this weekend.

One of the reasons in the past why so few British circuits were interested in putting on the Grand Prix may be related to the poor access which they offered to spectators. Our crowded little country was way behind the continentals in building expressways and it wasn't until 1956 that Britain had a proper motorway. Now part of the M6, it by-passed Preston (our home town) and the cheques that paid for it were signed by none other than my dad, who was County Treasurer of Lancashire. A fiercely proud Lancastrian, he always said that his county led the world.

I'm not sure my father would be so proud today. While British roads are allowed to crumble dangerously, the Continentals seem to be able to find the money for new ones at the drop of a hat, as I have been noting on the tiny Balearic island of Menorca (50 kms across, population 80,000) where I spend part of the year. And what, you may be asking, does that have to do with F1 racing? Well, no sooner had The Brunette and I found a flat in Menorca than the entire McLaren-Mercedes test team followed us, for aerodynamic testing on the nice smooth 1.1-km runway of the Aeroclub at Sant Lluis, early last year. Since then, the airfield has become a regular destination for F1 test teams, with Honda and Toyota among recent visitors. I believe there's even a video to be found on the Toyota website, or You Face, or something. So Menorca's well and truly on the F1 map.

For reasons which I can only assume involve our F1 guests and their big trucks, the Consell Insular (that's the local council) is currently building an enormous roundabout on the road outside the Aeroclub. It will probably cut a good 30 seconds from the 10-minute run up from the harbour in Mahon where the F1 rigs leave the Barcelona ferry. Yet Northamptonshire, whose road builders knew about the problems that faced Silverstone race-goers back when King George was on the throne, took 53 years before agreeing to sort out the roads round the circuit. Only then did we get rid of that pathetic two-lane goat-track which was the only way in and out for anyone who couldn't afford to fly in to the wretched place. If it was horses that raced at Silverstone, and Her Majesty was still coming regularly, you can be sure someone would have acted much more promptly when kit came to giving us those new roads.

Of course, Silverstone's Grand Prix, and our country's honourably unbroken run of F1 championship races, is currently under threat due to an impasse between the circuit and Bernie Ecclestone. Silverstone says it can't start investing in new infrastructure until a fresh contract has been signed, while Bernie says he won't agree anything until he sees world-class facilities (whatever that may mean) going up. It's good to know that the negotiations are continuing, though it is worrying to read that Damon Hill, now in charge at the BRDC (which owns Silverstone), puts the chances of success at no higher than 50 percent.

Bernie will point out that, in terms of fees, Silverstone has had an easy ride from him in recent years. This is certainly true, and Hill does not deny it. I would suggest, though, that the British GP deserves special consideration. Not all of us are happy that the commercial side of F1 is now controlled by a hard-nosed private equity partnership, run by Bernie but answerable to the banks which expect to make a profit from it. Nothing wrong with profit, of course, and I would be the first to agree that everyone involved in F1 has benefited in some way from Bernie's hard work.

But shouldn't there be recognition that the British GP is a special case? If Monaco is allowed to get away with paying nothing to Bernie & Co for its GP, why not offer the same treatment to another race, in England, which (unlike Monaco, incidentally) has kept the faith with the teams and fans back down the years since 1950? Sure, Monaco is a lovely place to entertain sponsors and their delightful wives, but Britain is either the home of, or one of the principal markets for, many of those sponsors' businesses. Contrast Silverstone with all those "new" venues in the desert where nobody seems to understand what F1 is about and the stands would be empty if the crowds hadn't been bussed in. You might conclude, as I have done, that Silverstone - mud notwithstanding - is the best circuit in the world to demonstrate to sponsors just how much our sport is loved by fans who are prepared to pay strong money to see the best competition and to cheer on drivers for whom they have genuine affection and about whom they are extremely knowledgeable

Since Bernie has profited handsomely from so many races which are paid for in full by their countries' taxpayers (most of whom are kept firmly in the dark about how much it's costing them), why not recognise a circuit which doesn't get a penny from the taxpayer but which, in fact, is required to hand over a proportion of its takings in VAT and business tax? Damon Hill says the cost of the work required at his circuit is going to be about £30 million, which is petty cash to governments in countries which need a Grand Prix to make themselves look respectable. For Silverstone, it's 10 years' profits - if they're lucky. Even then, simply getting started will depend on getting permission from some dolt in a local planning office. If that's not a special case, I don't know what is.

Please forgive me if I've rabbited on too long about our country's race. You should be grateful that we're talking about Silverstone, because I would have gone on twice as long if there had been any question of us going back to wonderful Brands Hatch.

I've mentioned Damon Hill, whose inconsistency as a driver made him difficult to evaluate. Like many British fans, I regarded him with awe on those occasions - like at Silverstone in 1994 - when he had the eyes on and performed at the level of the greatest champions. Not all his races were like that, alas, and I gave up on him altogether in the final two years, when he was in cruise-and-collect mode. Now, though, he has developed into an articulate and politically astute spokesman for his sport, and for the club which owns Silverstone.

Last week, Damon was wheeled out in advance of the British GP to answer the media's usual questions about Lewis Hamilton. He came up with some thoughtful observations on how a driver's mind works, not just when he's racing in front of a home crowd, and he put an interesting swerve on all those slightly embarrassing post-race interviews in which drivers effusively attribute all their success to their teams. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I did.

"The idea that the driver is simply part of a team is a mistaken belief," said Damon. "The driver is the individual [on whom] all the focus goes in an event. The team can only do so much by providing [him] with the equipment, and then the driver is on his own. So there comes a point where the team will back the driver 100 percent, or sometimes they don't, and that's when you are alone."

No bitterness towards Williams there, but anyone who was around at the time will remember that Damon didn't always enjoy the full confidence of his team, mainly because he didn't always seem to deserve it.

"Every driver thinks [he is] the best," he continued, "... but there is something about experience which builds [him] into a formidable driver, one that can take the knocks as [he goes] through, and makes [him] stronger.

"Every driver when he first comes in has confidence, talent, and all the rest of it; speed, that bit's easy. It's the scrutiny and the pressure, and whether or not you can take that part of it, [that is difficult], and I think you can't learn about that until you get there.

"There comes a point, though, where the team can only do so much for you, and this is the curious thing about Formula 1 as a sport. But I wouldn't worry. Racing drivers are people who overcome difficulties. They have to [overcome them] in order to just be in contention for a Formula 1 drive."

Then, to the joy of my fellow hacks, Damon -- unprompted -- drew a comparison between Lewis and Nigel Mansell, specifically the difficulties which both had with the media.

"I do think there is an issue where we [in Britain] can be overly-critical, and actually bring about the downfall of the very people we want to see succeed," he observed. "You [the press] can make Lewis like Nigel. He would get everyone wound up and pumped up, and suddenly he would get pumped up as well, and then off he went.

"There is an effect there. If he turned up, and everyone was going 'Nigel!' and he felt he had them on his side, then he delivered. If you don't get that, there is a part of you that goes, 'well, if you're not bothered, then I'm not bothered'."

Whatever else you say about Nigel Mansell, there were very few occasions when he got into a racing car and wasn't bothered. I suspect Lewis Hamilton is exactly the same, and I look forward to seeing him showing everyone else the way around Silverstone this weekend.

Oh, and wouldn't it be great if someone inside our excuse for a government decided that Silverstone itself was something that was worth bothering about?

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