Straddling the Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire borders, a few miles from Brackley and Towcester, the Silverstone circuit is synonymous with British Motorsport.
Long being associated as the ‘home of the British Grand Prix’, the circuit first hosted the event in 1948 and has been held there each year consecutively since 1987.
The infrastructure we see today, lies on the original site of RAF Silverstone, which was opened in 1943. The Airfield’s three original runways in the classic World War II triangle format, still lie within the outline of the current track.
Originally used to launch Wellington bombers during the war effort, the circuit first had its exposure to Motorsport in 1947 when an impromptu race was organised that September. Living in the nearby village of Silverstone, Maurice Geoghegan was aware that the airfield was out of use at the time, and suggested to a group of friends they held a race over a two mile circuit.
Geoghegan himself ran over a stray sheep that had wandered on to the airfield during the race, his car being written off in the process; sadly the sheep didn’t fair much better and was killed. In the aftermath, the informal event was affectionately known as the Mutton Grand Prix.
In the following year, the RAC (Royal Automobile Club, Great Britain) took a lease on the airfield where they would layout a more formal racing circuit. The first two races they held there were on a rudimentary circuit, made up of two of the runways and tight hairpin bends, the layout of which was set out by hay bales.
1949 saw a switch to the perimeter track for the International Trophy meeting, the same arrangement would be used for the 1950 and 1951 Grands Prix. In 1952 however, there was a significant change to the original layout with the start line being moved between Woodcote and Copse corners; this would remain largely intact for the following 35 years.
The track would undergo a major redesign in between the 1990 and 1991 races in a bid to transform it from ultra high speed to a more technical, and hopefully safer one. The new layout appeared to be a hit. It’s first outing in 1991 would see one of the most memorable races at the circuit for several years, with the added bonus of Brit Nigel Mansell winning the race.
On his victory lap, Mansell stopped to pick up a stranded Ayrton Senna, who’s McLaren had run out of fuel on the final lap, and give him a lift back to the pits on the side-pod of his car.
Further modifications to the circuit were required, as with most circuits, following the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger at Imola in 1994, in order to reduce speed and increase driver safety.
Silverstone’s importance in the Formula One World Championship is without doubt, in most peoples eyes. However, it certainly has not been a smooth ride for the circuit over the last decade or so.
Sir Jackie Stewart, President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) and owners of the circuit since 1971, announced in September 2004 that the British Grand Prix would not be included in the provisional 2005 race calendar, and if it were, the likelihood was that it would not be held at Silverstone.
This would be the beginning of a very public battle between the BRDC and Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One rights holder.
In a turnaround however, it was announced on 9th December that agreement had been reached that the circuit would host one of the flagship races on the calendar until 2009, after which the race would switch to Donnington.
Ecclestone categorically stated that he would only negotiate the future of F1 at Silverstone post-2009, if the BRDC gave up its role as promoter of the event; stating that he wanted “to deal with the promoter rather than the BRDC. It is too difficult with the BRDC because you get no guarantees with them. We’ve said that unless they can get the circuit to the level expected from so-called third-world countries we are not prepared to do a deal. A new pit and paddock complex is the minimum redevelopment required”.
Following this, one can understand the indignity of fans and enthusiasts alike. When you consider that eight of the twelve competing teams are based here in the UK (the majority of which are in close proximity to the circuit itself); notwithstanding the 40,000 odd additional jobs the sport brings to Britain, along with an influx of around £50 million to the economy on Grand Prix weekend alone.
His (Ecclestone’s) actions were described as dictatorial, inflexible and sometimes arrogant. Damon Hill later likened the relationship between Ecclestone and the BRDC as that of Aladdin’s Cave: “The genie says give me the lamp and Aladdin says get me out of the cave and I’ll give you the lamp. You’re in this constant cycle whereby in order to get our plans implemented we need to have a Grand Prix contract, and in order to get the Grand Prix contract we have to have our planning.”
Redevelopment of the circuit was approved and on 1st August 2007 it was announced that new grandstands, pit facilities and a development centre would be built. This, however would be the start of yet another bout between the BRDC and the Formula One ‘supremo’.
On 4th July 2008 it was announced that Donnington would host the British Grand Prix from 2010. The Leicestershire venue was struggling at this time to secure the required funding, and there began a see-saw of decisions in favour of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire circuits being the ‘venue of choice’ for the British Grand Prix going forward.
Max Mosley, then FIA President, announced during an interview with the BBC that it was “highly likely” that the British Grand Prix would return to Silverstone in 2010, this was confirmed by a BBC News report in October 2009 that Donnington had failed to secure the required £135 million required to stage a Grand Prix and that Donington’s bid ‘looks over’.
To add to the controversy surrounding the two circuits’ battle to secure a long-term contract to host the British Grand Prix, the BBC went on to report that Ecclestone had offered the race to Silverstone, but that the terms of the offer were purportedly the same as those Silverstone had originally rejected.
Ecclestone’s previous ‘Donnington or nothing’ stance was influenced, not only by the British Government’s unwillingness to intervene, or the Leicestershire venue’s inability to raise the required funding, but was actually attributed to a restructuring of the BRDC, allowing an easier way of negotiating with them over future commercial rights.
Once again, it seems the ‘supremo’ got his way, however unorthodox his actions appeared. It is worth remembering though, that the infrastructure of Silverstone has been significantly improved; that can only be a good thing for the ‘home of Formula One’, the Sport and more importantly the fans. Even if Donnington appeared to be the victim of the whole debacle.
It remains to be seen what will happen when Silverstone’s current agreement expires in 2026, or indeed in the meantime for that matter; but one thing is for certain: the venue will continue to have an influence on the Formula One World Championship for the foreseeable future, at least.