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THE history of the Silverstone racing circuit dates back only 50 years, but today it is far and away the most important racing circuit in Britain - and a major cog in Britain's motor racing industry.

The village of Silverstone was a quiet place until midway through the Second World War when the British Air Ministry decided to build an air base on the land between Silverstone village and Stowe School - one of Britain's foremost private schools. Similar airfields were being built all over England but Silverstone did enjoy a very glamorous career as an airfield. It was used as a training station for crews who were to fly Wellington bomber aircraft. As soon as the war was over it was closed down.

Racing enthusiasts, looking for a venue to have some fun after the war, used the runways and perimeter roads for an illegal race in 1946 - during which, so legend has it, one of the cars hit and killed a sheep. A second illegal meeting was prevented by Air Ministry officials and reports of a confrontation at the gates of the old airfield appeared in the newspapers. Thus Silverstone was brought to the attention of the Royal Automobile Club, which was looking for a venue to hold the British Grand Prix. The RAC approached the Air Ministry and, in the summer of 1949, a lease was arranged and the RAC quickly laid out a track and built makeshift pits. The British GP of 1949 was, however, a huge success with thousands of Britons turning up to see Gigi Villoresi win in a Maserati.

A year later Silverstone was granted the first round of the new FIA World Championship and King George VI was there to watch Giuseppe Farina win the Grand Prix of Europe in his Alfa Romeo.

As the years went by Silverstone gradually began to improve itself. The RAC gave up the lease and it was taken over by the British Racing Drivers Club. In 1961 the BRDC decided to buy the land so that real improvements could be made. Other British circuits hosted the British GP - notably Aintree and Brands Hatch - but by the mid-1980s Silverstone had developed so much that the others had been left behind. Today there is very little left to suggest that Silverstone was ever an airfield. The runways still exist and hidden away in bushes at the center of the track is the old RAF control tower. Today Silverstone is a working circuit with constant testing, racing schools, exhibitions and events. The BRDC continues to invest heavily in improving the track and has a very good record for reacting to changes demanded by motor racing authorities. The changes have altered the nature of the circuit considerably - it used to be the fastest F1 track of them all - but despite the changes it flourishes.

Access to Silverstone remains difficult for the track is still served by country lanes. There have long been plans for a fast new road to be built around Silverstone village but to date little has happened. In recent years Silverstone has instituted an all-ticket system with a crowd limit of 90,000 in an effort to reduce congestion. For most people Silverstone still means traffic jams in country lanes, although for VIPs it means helicopter rides in and out of the track. So busy is the helicopter traffic, incidentally, that for one day a year Silverstone is the busiest airport in Britain...

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