The home of the British Grand Prix takes a kicking from just about everybody. It’s flat, featureless, a nightmare to get in and out of, run-down, always raining… Silverstone’s not Monza, is it? It hasn’t got the history. Blah blah blah.
And yet… Silverstone is still one of the greatest Grand Prix tracks in the world and has arguably got even better over the last few years.
Are we British too close to Silverstone? Do we only see the little niggles and forget the overall view, taking too much for granted?
Silverstone is my local circuit – always has been – and I love it. It was the first place at which I used to sit in the grandstands with my programme, faithfully filling in all the name changes. The first at which I learned to walk around from corner to corner during race-days, to get a different view. The first at which I learned to carry my own bodyweight in waterproof clothing. The first at which I raced. The first at which I watched a Grand Prix.
In fact, it was the first at which anyone watched a World Championship Grand Prix. Silverstone has history in spades. From that first faltering step in 1950, the World Championship has expanded to traverse the globe, yet a stop in Silverstone remains part of the annual trek.
Silverstone has always been a challenge for driver and car. It’s no Monaco, with certain retirement dogging every tiny miscalculation but it’s fast, demanding of bravery and commitment in equal measure.
Despite the presence of Monza on the calendar, for almost two decades Silverstone held the record for the outright fastest single lap, courtesy of Keke Rosberg’s legendary stub-the-fag-out-let’s-do-it last-gasp qualifying effort in 1985.
The Finn’s 160mph-average flyer was proper Boy’s Own stuff. It was the final moments of qualifying, rain had just begun to fall and Rosberg’s Williams was dancing on the very edge of disaster, as he screwed both courage and the boost on his Williams Honda up to the maximum in pursuit of the perfect lap.
Black smoke burst from the exhausts with every gear-change as he flashed across the line on his final effort. Down the Hangar Straight he tore, utterly committed through Stowe, the Williams straining to keep up with its driver’s urgent demands, the super-soft, single-lap qualifting tyres barely equal to the combination of a Honda near-1000 horsepower qualifying grenade of a motor and the 1982 World Champion on a mission.
Throw in the light drizzle plus (it was discovered later) a slow puncture and it was perhaps no surprise that the rear of the Wiliams was kicking up the grass as Keke wrestled it through Abbey towards the end of the lap, relishing the tail-happy nature of its set-up.
All eyes were fixed on the mesmeric sight, straining to catch the Williams as it flashed towards the line and I remember clearly the astonishment that greeted the pole-position lap-time – and the barely-credible 160.9mph average speed.
Rosberg was, by then, a firm favourite with the British crowd. Sure, he was Finnish but so was Ari Vatanen and he was ‘one of ours’ too, thanks to a combination of his relaxed command of English, dry sense of humour, time spent rallying in British teams, cars and championships and sheer, unadulterated flat-out pace.
So it was with Rosberg. Cool, laconic, possessed of wicked one-liners, a Williams driver and – above all – so damned fast and committed. The British fans loved him. Loved him even more, perhaps, for awarding Silverstone the tag of ‘World’s fastest Grand Prix Cicruit’.
But Silverstone is about more than speed. Copse, Stowe, Woodcote and, latterly, the Becketts Esses all provided a huge challenge for the driver. So much of finding a good lap on a track is about making the corners flow and there can be few places in Grand Prix racing where that is as true as it is at Silverstone, where brakes have an easier time of it than at any other circuit.
At Silverstone, keeping the speed onboard is crucial and drivers respond to the challenge, adoring the way the track seems to keep urging them on to greater and greater efforts.
Sure, it rains. Quite often. That’s part of the equation. Times without number, apologising to a driver for the miserable conditions, I’ve been met with a shrug and a ‘you expect that at Silverstone’ line but the capricious weather doesn’t make us see Spa as less of a challenge, the Nordschleife as a let-down, does it? So why do we think Silverstone is somehow a disappointment when it rains?
Part of it, of course, is our national predeliction with the weather. After all, when you’re exposed to whatever the Atlantic can throw at you, the weather has a major effort on life. Part of it is the wearing effect of two or three days in wet clothing and a wet tent. Part of it is our natural British reticence to accept praise.
We should be proud of Silverstone. Not just because of The Wing and the new layout but because, for 60 years, it has been and remains one of the world’s greatest race tracks.
So, let’s take a look at Silverstone through foreign eyes, as we do at other circuits. Let’s celebrate Silverstone for what it is – an absolutely essential element of any World Championship campaign and a track that so often produces great racing.