JULY 10, 1995

What you may not know about Silverstone

IN comparison to the great old tracks of Europe, Silverstone is a comparative youngster, beginning its career as a race track in 1948.

IN comparison to the great old tracks of Europe, Silverstone is a comparative youngster, beginning its career as a race track in 1948. Silverstone was one of hundreds of airfields across the south of England which were built in the war years to house the thousands of British and American bombers which regularly bombed the industrial heartland's of Germany. In fact, Silverstone Aerodrome, which was built early in 1943, was never actually a bomber station but served as the base for the 17th Operational Training Unit of the Royal Air Force, and was used to prepare air crews for service in Wellington bombers. After just two years, the war ended and Silverstone, like many other airfields, was closed down and quickly fell into disrepair.

Legend has it that Silverstone would have faded away had it not been for a racing enthusiast named Maurice Geoghegan, who lived in Silverstone village. In the summer of 1946, he was looking for somewhere to test a Frazer-Nash and thought the runways of the old base might be a good place. He mentioned this to a group of his racing friends and in September, 1947, a group of 11 Frazer-Nashes and an old Bugatti arrived at Silverstone to hold an illicit race on the three interlinked runways and the perimeter roads of the base. This would became known as the Mutton Grand Prix because Geoghegan had the misfortune to hit a sheep, killing the poor animal and tearing the front axle off his car.

The word of this strange event filtered through the racing community, and a month later members of the 500 Club - which used home-built chassis with motorcycle engines - arrived for a race of their own. Unfortunately, they bumped into the man who was responsible for looking after the old airfield and were sent packing after a loud dispute. This altercation brought the airfield to the attention of the Royal Automobile Club which, as luck would have it, was looking for a location to hold a British Grand Prix. The club asked a few questions at the Air Ministry and discovered that Silverstone could be leased for a year.

Makeshift pits were built and bales of hay used to mark out a 3.7 mile track; and in October, 1948, 100,000 people arrived to watch the first Grand Prix to be held in Britain since 1927. They were treated to Gigi Villoresi in a Maserati beating AlbertoÊAscari.

Two years later Silverstone hosted the very first World Championship Grand Prix, and King George VI watched the Italian win again. In the mid-1950s, the RAC gave up the lease and handed the track over to the British Racing Drivers Club (BRDC) which bought the track from the Air Ministry outright in 1961. Silverstone has been in a state of constant development since those first races, although the basic design of the circuit continues to follow the perimeter road of the old airfield.

That progress continues with plans for new access roads in the future, to put an end to the endless traffic jams in the country lanes around the circuit, for which Silverstone is famous. It was this congestion which prompted teams to begin to fly in their VIPS by helicopter, and every year Silverstone becomes Britain's busiest airfield for a day.