Silverstone Stories

If you lie on your back in the paddock at Silverstone and close your eyes, you can get some idea of how Martin Sheen felt when they were filming the opening moments of Francis Ford Coppola's wonderful movie Apocalypse Now. All you can hear is the constant thump-thumping of helicopters coming in overhead. The flying machines at Silverstone come in all shapes and sizes, but the most distinctive are the evil-sounding Bell Huey Cobras. These flying fortresses do not bring M60-toting GIs but rather squads of eager VIPs armed with silly hats and colorful passes, their mission for the day is to fight their way through the jungles of tents and crowds towards the paddock club, where lunch will be served, followed by a spot of noisy racing to watch.

At any given time on Sunday morning you can scan the sky and count up to 30 helicopters, dodging in and out of the clouds - coming in and going out. Having once had the good fortune to fly in and out of the track by helicopter, I can tell you that the best feeling of all is to look down on the traffic jams in the lanes for miles around the track and think: "Thank God, I'm not down there."

Having also been stuck in the lanes, I know the evil thoughts one has about the rich bastards in their helicopters and how one can easily have the unsettling sensation of wanting to launch a missile upwards and blow them out of the sky.

Being stuck in the traffic at Silverstone is an occupational hazard for anyone who goes to the British GP. There really is not terrestrial way to avoid it - unless you get on a motorbike (and risk being soaked by a passing rainstorm). This year at 0630 on Sunday traffic was tailed back four miles on the A43 and on the back road at Stowe was seized solid three miles out. Later in the morning, we heard, the traffic jam reached legendary proportions, as it does every year. Silverstone traffic is the worst in the world and it never gets any better. There are many rumoured short cuts and secret routes but over the years I have tried them all and none ever really work. The mythical bypass around Silverstone village, which is supposed to cut through the northern car parks of the track and create fast ways in and out for thousands remain a planner's dream, locked in a filing cabinet at Northampton county council. Stirling Moss used to say that going motor racing was like chasing the end of the rainbow and I feel the same about the Silverstone bypass. You just never find it. Every year the botching goes on.

Silverstone, of course, has a tradition of botching together whatever is necessary. Right back to the days when Silverstone Aerodrome was first discovered by racing enthusiasts. It was one of the many hundreds of airfields built across the south of England in the war years. These were used to house the thousands of British and American bombers which regularly flew across to the industrial heartlands of Germany and blitzed them. Silverstone, which was built early in 1943, was never actually a bomber station but served as the base of the 17th Operational Training Unit of the Royal Air Force. It was used to prepare air crews for service in Wellington bombers. The base's active career was just two years and, like so many other airfields, it was closed down when the war ended and left to rot.

Legend has it that a racing enthusiast called Maurice Geoghegan, who lived in Silverstone village, was looking for somewhere to test his Frazer-Nash in the summer of 1946 and thought the runways of the old base might be a good place. He tried it out and found an exciting route around which he lapped merrily. Not longer afterwards he mentioned his exploits to a group of his pals and in September 1947 a group of 12 cars - mainly Frazer-Nashes - arrived to hold an illegal race on the runways and the perimeter roads.

Now you may not believe this, but that first event has passed into history under the name of the Mutton Grand Prix, so-called because Geoghegan had the misfortune to collide with a sheep on one of the perimeter roads. The lamb got the chop and the Frazer-Nash lost its undercarriage but Geoghegan emerged more or less intact.

History does not relate whether the sheep was buried or eaten, but the illegal meeting ended quietly and the drivers snuck away before they were found by anyone in authority. The word, however, did leak out and a month later another group of racers turned up to race. Unfortunately they bumped into the man who was responsible for looking after the old airfield and, after a brief altercation, were told to go away and not come back. The news of this brush with authority brought Silverstone to the attention of the Royal Automobile Club which was looking for a circuit on which to hold a British Grand Prix. The club rang up the Air Ministry and arranged to lease the aerodrome and hold races.

Silverstone was always a speed circuit and until recently was the fastest Grand Prix track of them all with lap average speeds of 150mph. Today, however, it is a shadow of its former self thanks to constant "development" of the circuit. Safety changes have made the track safer - but they have also made it a lot less challenging and interesting. Silverstone did, however, retain a rather eccentric paddock area in which the motorhomes were parked in wide-spaced rows on a lovely lush (but sometimes muddy) greensward. It gave the place the feel of a large garden party and indeed one year the Jordan team decorated the front of its motorhome area with a selection of garden gnomes borrowed no doubt from Eddie's garden. On Sunday evening after the race the teams took to having vast barbecues - sheep in the area took cover - to say thank you to the factory-based personnel who never went to the races. This being the home race for most of the teams, such things were important.

But for some strange reason, the beautiful people at FOCA decided that the Silverstone paddock should become like all the rest. The old green paddock was turned into a car park and the local tarmac companies turned the area behind the pits into FOCA grey. The only unique thing about Silverstone - except the traffic jams - has been destroyed.

Silverstone, however, should not be totally abused because it remains one of the great workhorse circuits of the world. Scarcely does a day go by when there is not some form of testing, racing school or promotional event at the track. Such is the congestion that gradually new sub-circuits have been developed. The Grand Prix track can be divided in half and test can take place - simultaneously on what they call the National Circuit and the South Circuit. They have recently completed another facility inside the main track which is called the Training Circuit, where Silverstone's driver training programs are now carried out. In many ways, therefore, Silverstone is a model to other tracks around the world of how to maximize the potential of a racing circuit. The local population may not always like the noise but the constant stream of people to the local businesses and bed and breakfasts keep the local economy turning over nicely. Work to improve the facilities never stops, but this will never be a great purpose-built racing track, with everything thought out and where it should be.

I guess if they ever built a huge new international circuit from scratch in England we would complain that it did not have any character and I guess that no matter how hard we try to hate Silverstone, it is still the place which British enthusiasts think of as home, where we all grew up watching crazy horses like Gerry Marshall, Tony Lanfranchi, Whizzo Williams and James Weaver doing silly things in cars.

Weaver - who races today in American IMSA sportcars - was so spectacular that for a long time in the early 1980s he actually had a part of the circuit named after him. At the exit of Woodcote Corner there was a rumble strip on the outside of the track which finally petered out to become grass. When Weaver was in town, however, the poor grass was constantly being torn out by whirling tires and so a small brown triangle of dirt was formed which became known as Weaver's Trench.

James may not have made it to Formula 1 nor did he win any major championships but he is the only man ever to have a chunk of the track named after him...

Weaver was always a popular driver with the crowds and never had the luck his talent deserved, and that description also fits Johnny Herbert and so it was no surprise when on Sunday afternoon when Johnny finally won his first Grand Prix that the mood in the paddock jubilant. Johnny is loved by the fans, the media and his rivals. You could tell that by the way he was lifted aloft by Coulthard and Alesi on the podium. That was genuine emotion. I hope it is the first of many victories for Johnny...

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