DECEMBER 6, 2001

The British Grand Prix

Any serious Formula 1 fan will tell you that the first race to F1 rules was held in September 1946 on the streets of Turin in Italy and that the Valentino Grand Prix was won by veteran Achille Varzi of the factory Alfa Romeo team.

Start, British GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

ANY serious Formula 1 fan will tell you that the first race to F1 rules was held in September 1946 on the streets of Turin in Italy and that the Valentino Grand Prix was won by veteran Achille Varzi of the factory Alfa Romeo team - although spectators felt that if there had been no team orders victory would have gone to his Alfa Romeo team-mate Jean-Pierre Wimille, who tailed Varzi across the line by a fraction of a second. The rules evolved and grew and for 1950 a World Championship was announced. The first round of the new Formula 1 World Championship occurred at Silverstone on May 13 1950 with King George VI of England present to watch the racing.

Silverstone has lived off that event for more than 50 years.

In the immediate post-war era the Silverstone Aerodrome was used for pirate races and as a result when the Royal Automobile Club was looking for a venue for the 1948 British Grand Prix the airfield was considered. It was chosen because Donington Park was a military dump and Brooklands had been taken over by the aircraft industry and part of the banking had been demolished. Silverstone was the cheapest option available and so the RAC negotiated a lease from the Air Ministry. In 1951 that deal was handed over to the British Racing Drivers' Club and after competition for the British GP came from Aintree and Brands Hatch, the BRDC purchased the entire Silverstone facility in 1971 and, free from official constraints, pushed ahead with development. But there was only so much that could be done with the money available and while other countries developed purpose-built race tracks paid for by the governments, Britain struggled on "making-do" with the old airfield. The local authorities and the British government did very little to help. The access roads have always been a problem.

For some years now it has been clear that the British GP was living on borrowed time. There are other circuits in Formula 1 which are not up to the standard of Silverstone but they are special cases. Monaco is where Formula 1 gets its income; Interlagos is important because it is the only race in South America and Suzuka is the same for Asia although it is quite likely that the Japanese GP will move to Mount Fuji in a few years unless some serious work is done at Suzuka.

Britain has always seem to think that it has a divine right to a race - but it is not the case. Britain may be the home of the world's motor racing industry but the Grand Prix is in danger. There are similar problems with the two Italian circuits which also seem to think that because Ferrari is a powerful force in F1 they play by different rules to other circuits.

It is when one considers what has been done in Australia, Spain, Malaysia and at Indianapolis that one realizes that the British have to shape up or ship out. The circuit authorities have tried to make a difference but traffic remains a problem and the civil authorities will not help. They are happy to enjoy the benefits of the motor racing industry but not to give anything back in terms of investment.

To date the investment in Silverstone has been all private money but when you are up against governments and institutions, Silverstone cannot hope to compete.

The fact that the FIA is refusing to confirm or deny the story that the British GP will not happen in 2002 looks like it could be an attempt by the motor racing authorities to give the government a couple of weeks in which to get serious or face cancellation of the race. The big question is who has the influence and the connections to make the British government sit up and listen. The answer is Max Mosley who (among other political links) shares a top advisor with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Messages can pass between the two men without much trouble. Bernie Ecclestone has the same kind of influence but he and Blair have not got on very well since the cash-for-influence scandal a few years ago and Blair is unlikely to risk a repeat of that. The British Racing Drivers' Club has Sir Jackie Stewart banging on the door of The Establishment but to date this has not made much of a difference (at least when one is looking in from the outside).

The issue of whether or not there will be a British Grand Prix now seems to be some sort of a political game, similar to the one played out between the FIA and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in August 1994 when the FIA announced that the Italian GP at Monza was cancelled because the Monza authorities could not cut down trees to make more run-off area. The race was only saved by the personal intervention of Berlusconi who got things moving. The trees were cut down, the race was reinstated and Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone were both awarded Italy's Order of Merit - the highest award that can be made to a non-Italian citizen.