The County of Northamptonshire is dotted with old country estates and bomber bases. The aerodromes were built in World War II to house the squadrons of British and American bomber aircraft which pounded Nazi Germany into submission. And then the war ended and most of the bases were left to rot. But while most have now disappeared, Silverstone has flourished. It was only a training base and not as famous as others in the area but in the immediate post-war era it was discovered by racing enthusiasts, looking for somewhere to have fun. The early events at Silverstone were pirate affairs and legend has it that the first "race" at Silverstone ended prematurely when one of the competitors collided with a sheep.
The runways and the sweeping taxiways meant that the tracks were fast and soon gained popularity and when the Royal Automobile Club began looking for a venue for a British Grand Prix in 1948 Silverstone was suggested. Donington Park was a military dump and Brooklands had been taken over by the aircraft industry. Silverstone was the cheapest option and the RAC negotiated a lease. Jimmy Brown was appointed the Track Manager and told to organize a race. Makeshift pits were put up at the Farm and haybales marked out at 3.7-mile circuit, shaped like an hourglass. It was to be a very basic affair but plenty of Britons wanted a bit of fun after years of wartime struggle - and it was a huge success: Gigi Villoresi in a Maserati beating fellow Italian Alberto Ascari. The second event, in the Spring of 1949, saw a new circuit - similar to the track used for many years afterwards - and that summer there was a Formula 1 race, sponsored by the Daily Express and known as the International Trophy.
In 1950 Silverstone was chosen to host the very first round of the new Formula 1 World Championship. King George VI was there for the race and thousands of fans were treated to a battle between the visiting Alfa Romeo factory team - three Italian drivers being joined for the occasion by British driver Reg Parnell. Giuseppe Farina, who would become World Champion that year, was followed to the flag by Luigi Fagioli and Parnell.
In 1951 the RAC decided to hand over the lease of Silverstone to the British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) and, after that, development accelerated with the Grand Prix moving to July and the International Trophy becoming the big event of the Spring months. The pits were moved from the Farm to the straight between Woodcote Corner and Copse. This meant that there could also be a shorter circuit, running up the old runway from Becketts Corner to Woodcote.
Until the development of Aintree in 1955, Silverstone hosted the British Grand Prix each year and then it alternated the race with the Liverpool circuit. In the early 1960s however, Brands Hatch emerged as a new force and from 1963 onwards Silverstone and Brands Hatch shared the British Grand Prix. Both circuits continued to support a busy schedule of national races and almost all the Grand Prix drivers of the 1960s and 1970s cut their teeth racing around one or the other. Silverstone became a major testing facility as well.
In 1971 the BRDC negotiated the purchase of the entire 720-acre Silverstone estate and, free from constraints, pushed ahead with more development. New pits were constructed and after a huge accident at the start of the 1973 British Grand Prix, it was decided to build a chicane to slow the cars down through Woodcote Corner. The Woodcote Chicane was well-designed and provided a good overtaking spot and there were many exciting nose-to-tail finishes.
There have been many fine races at Silverstone beyond Grand Prix racing as the track also played host to the World Sportscar racing, the Tourist Trophy touring car race and all manner of smaller classes. The constant battering meant that in 1979 the entire track had to be resurfaced and as a result the track record went up to 140mph. By 1985 Keke Rosberg was able to lap the track in qualifying for the British GP at an average of 160.925mph.
The speeds were, however, becoming too great and in 1987 it was decided to create a corner before the Woodcote Chicane in order to slow the cars down. This was followed in 1992 by a complete reconfiguration of the track with a new infield section before Woodcote, a reprofiling of Becketts and a slower section known as Vale, between Stowe and Club Corners. The track has been altered slightly since then but retains most of the changes made in 1992.
The BRDC successfully developed a motor racing industrial park beside the track in the course of the 1980s and the track is always busy with testing, racing school activities or rented for major events. In an effort to increase possible uses a National Circuit was laid out, which includes the southern part of the circuit, which can be run independently from the Club Circuit. There were even discussions of an oval.
But while the BRDC has done a great deal to improve the track the local authorities have failed completely to improve road access to Silverstone and every year the lanes around the track are blocked as the thousands of fans try to get into the track. The congestion is such that over the years Silverstone has developed into an enormous airlift - as thousands of VIPs are flown in and out by helicopter. For a day the track becomes the busiest airport in Britain.
In 1999 attempts were made to buy the circuit but the BRDC fought off the challenge although the future of the Grand Prix at Silverstone was placed in doubt by the announcement that Brands Hatch had landed a deal to host the race in 2002. The circuit could not however be upgraded and so Octagon Motorsport, the owners of Brands Hatch leased Silverstone from the BRDC and announced plans for a major rebuilding of the track. The new bypass was completed and access was improved dramatically in 2002 but other major work has been delayed because of Octagon's financial problems. - if the necessary upgrading work can be completed in time.
The BRDC is in the process of modernizing itself and its ideas to meet the challenge.