Features - News Feature
DECEMBER 15, 2000
Home, sweet home
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
Who can ever forget (or let Jody Scheckter forget) the car-smashing shunt that his youthful impetuosity provoked in the 1973 race at Silverstone? As Jackie Stewart pulled off one of the great passing moves on a shell-shocked Ronnie Peterson to lead across the line at the end of the first lap, Scheckter's exuberance got the better of him. Only days before he had been the hero of Paul Ricard and the moral victor of the French GP, leading despite intense pressure from Emerson Fittipaldi until the Brazilian inadvertently punted him off. Now he would become the villain of the piece.
As Scheckter threw his Yardley McLaren too fast into the daunting Woodcote corner, which mercifully was still devoid of chicanery, he lost it and thumped head-first into the pit wall. Eventual winner Peter Revson, Jody's other McLaren team-mate Denny Hulme, and rising star James Hunt were among the few who made it through before chaos ensued, as Scheckter rolled back and sent Shadows, BRMs and Surtees flying every which way. Meeting Andrea de Adamich, the only driver to sustain injury, years later, Scheckter quipped: 'The last time I saw you I had just broken your leg!' It was in fact an ankle that the Italian had broken when his Brabham hit the sleepers, and it wasn't quite as funny at the time as it seemed later. Scheckter had written off half the field, and John Surtees, for one, wasn't laughing.
A year later it was Niki Lauda's turn to scowl. The Austrian had the British GP at Brands Hatch in his pocket until he detected a slow puncture. With a lap to go he dived into the pits. But as he tried to rejoin he found his Ferrari's exit blocked by spectators, and an official's car positioned in readiness for the victor's parade lap. Initially the angry Austrian was classified ninth, before a Ferrari protest saw him given fifth place. The winner that day? Scheckter!
Another year on, and the race at Silverstone was turned into a nonsense as rain rendered the track a skating rink. The race was backdated a lap, which left Emerson Fittipaldi in first place ahead of four drivers who were all parked somewhere off the track!
There must have been something in the air that decade, for yet another controversial British GP followed a year later. By now McLaren-driving Hunt was the darling of the nation in his quest for the world crown. Yet in the run down Paddock Bend all hell broke loose after Clay Regazzoni tangled with Ferrari team-mate Niki Lauda. The race was red flagged.
Hunt made it back to the pits, where mechanics repaired his car. Then tense scenes followed as he faced possible exclusion because of that. The crowd grew restless, and the organizers relented and let him race. He duly beat Lauda, but in a year lathered with drama and controversy he was later thrown out because his mechanics had repaired the damage that the victorious Ferraris had wrought!
Fast forward to the Nineties, when Damon Hill had become the new hero against Michael Schumacher and Benetton. That was the year when Schumacher's antics in speedy ahead of polesitter Hill, and generally messing about on the parade lap, gave the FIA the ammunition some believed it had been seeking. Schumacher was black flagged in the Silverstone race, and when he initially refused to acknowledge it found himself banned for three races.
Four years later he got his revenge in the unusual dry/wet race at Silverstone. He was given a 10 second stop-and-go penalty after he lapped Alexander Wurz's Benetton under a yellow flag. Moments later the safety car was deployed because of poor conditions, but it was not until half an hour after the incident that Ferrari was informed of the penalty. The team responded by bringing Schumacher in on his last lap, so that he had actually crossed the finish line victoriously before making his stop, and the 10s was simply added to his race time. He thus beat Hakkinen by 12s. McLaren protested unsuccessfully that had he been obliged to make the stop during the race, he would have lost considerably more time coming into the pits and accelerating back into the race.
A year later still the German was carted out of the race early on, after his infamous crash at Stowe. Was he really trying to squeak past intransigent team-mate Eddie Irvine, and therefore on the wrong line for the corner? How much did a weeping brake caliper bleed nipple affect the Ferrari's ability to slow down sufficiently? Why did Schumacher, the best driver in the world, appear to do so little to slow his car down before the leg-breaking impact? And why had Ferrari not informed its drivers long before they reached the corner, as McLaren and Jordan had, that the race had been aborted?
It was all the stuff of solid headlines, and therefore have been deemed good for the sport. But what happened in 2000 (and what had been building up for some months) nearly brought the British Racing Drivers' Club to its knees and might even have resulted in temporary loss of the race.
From time immemorial the British GP has been a nightmare for spectators, be it at Brands Hatch or Silverstone. Everyone has horror stories to tell. But the idea of ticket holders being told not to bother turning up was laughable.
The unusual movement of the race's regular date to April, from its traditional July, did not help. Some say it was not meant to, and that it was a ploy to set the stage for what followed as sodden spectators cursed and struggled to get into the circuit, and then found it harder still to get out as foul weather had turned the car parks into quagmires. The only happy people were the local farmers. Their own industry fearfully depressed, they turned a few quid dragging the stranded out of the mud with their tractors. Other spectators trudged eight or 10 miles down the road to where police had advised then to abandon their cars.
Blame was apportioned everywhere, but mostly on the BRDC. There was a welter of threats that the circuit would not stage the race much longer.
Nicola Foulston, now departed from Brands Hatch Leisure, appears to have played a blinding game in securing the contract to stage the GP at Brands prior to selling out to leisure group Octagon. But sceptics never believed that the Kentish circuit, once such a natural amphitheater at which to watch F1 drivers at work, could afford the work needed, nor that it would ever get the necessary planning permission. And though the local authority gave Brands' plans the thumbs up, they were subsequently questioned at government level.
Likewise, it seemed unlikely that Tom Wheatcroft, having enjoyed his 1993 GP of Europe at his beloved Donington Park but lost heavily on the privilege, would really want to stump up the multi-million sum necessary to make the necessary changes.
However the situation was worked out, there was never going to be any other venue for the British GP other than Silverstone, simply because there was nowhere else that was truly suitable without vast expenditure that was unlikely to be forthcoming.
The situation as it stands now could not have come about without the blood-letting and soul-searching that followed the farce that was the 2000 British GP.
The stewardship of President Jackie Stewart, director Martin Brundle and McLaren chief Ron Dennis helped the BRDC to find in Octagon a suitable multi-national business partner. From chaos has been forged commonsense, and via the 15-year leasing deal the BRDC has gained an ally capable of making the necessary changes to bring Silverstone - a circuit that has always been in the vanguard of state-of-the-art self-development - even closer to the new benchmark. That is the Sepang circuit in Malaysia, into which millions of dollars of governmental funding have been poured.
'In the circumstances, we have no doubt that this is the best course of action not only for the BRDC and for Octagon, but for the paying spectator,' Stewart said.
Egos have been bruised every bit as much as anoraks and jeans were soaked back in April, but there is a streak of logic through the historic deal that bodes well for the long-term future. Nobody wants the British GP to be a worldwide laughing stock, any more than they want to stay at home and watch it on television. Now all it needs is ratification by the BRDC's members on December 18, for the future of Britain's most important motor race to be ensured well into the new millennium.
That, and car parks that can cope with Britain's notorious weather.