Silverstone: ‘The Home of British Motorsport’; scene of the very first Formula One Grand Prix, 63 years ago; current host of the British Grand Prix, MotoGP and the Silverstone 6-hour endurance race. And yet, for various reasons, I had never been to the world famous venue.
It was with wide-eyed excitement that I embarked on my first pilgrimage to the former airfield, thoughts of the former glories, tragedies and controversies that have occurred there over the years playing in my mind. Just four weeks previously, Silverstone hosted a grandstand finish for the MotoGP circus and in April the venue aided a display that changed my opinion on endurance racing for the better.
Upon arrival however, I felt…underwhelmed. Although the British Touring Car Championship utilises only half of the entire venue I felt that this surely wasn’t a place capable of hosting the dizzying world of Grand Prix racing; while not ‘shabby’ to the extent of Donington or perhaps Thruxton, I expected more – Bernie Ecclestone has expressed a similar opinion on numerous occasions.
From the National Paddock, the grand ‘Wing’ complex looms ominously in the distance, looking resplendent in the morning sun; the considerable expense is evident, but the rest of Silverstone lacked…something.
Silverstone’s vast paddock is an indication of the somewhat faceless, corporate side of motor racing it most famously caters for – wide, open, void of personality – as a result the charm that BTCC fans come to expect is missing. Silverstone has its own character, different to circuits visited already this year, but it appears to be lost in a middle ground, not up to standards set by modern Formula One facilities but distanced from the tight-knit-community feel and humble nature of national level racing such as the BTCC. I didn’t know how to feel about the place I should revere.
Perhaps the criticism stems from Silverstone’s promise to deliver so much – expectations have been built too high. Or perhaps I had merely emerged from the wrong side of my bed that morning. Nonetheless, this was Silverstone and there was racing to be done.
The atmosphere was unusually tense amongst the bustling paddock as the season edges towards its conclusion; a fan could be forgiven for feeling unwelcome when so much is at stake for drivers and teams. Championship leader Andrew Jordan was in jovial mood however, he was laughing with team members and marshals and I was curious as to how he was coping with the mounting pressure of a potential maiden title. It was in this moment of fleeting thought that I was run over…
…even in Silverstone’s large paddock it’s difficult to escape the dangers of motor racing: to transport VIPs or trail stacks of tyres teams require nippy golf carts. One of these motorised menaces was piloted by 1980’s comedian Bobby Davro – yes, really – and it was he who had to take evasive action as I meandered into his path. Cue hushed whispers of “did that guy just get hit by Bobby Davro?”. It’s remarkable what you can see when you open your eyes, even more so when you’re not looking in the right direction.
My brush with a Davro-induced death over, I abandoned the paddock to set up temporary camp at one of Silverstone’s many famed corners and it was there, on the outside of Luffeild, that I began to warm to Silverstone.
The paddock may lack a certain je ne sais quoi but on a sunlit embankment overlooking the iconic Brooklands/Luffield/Woodcote section, in the shadow of the exquisite BRDC Clubhouse while Jason Plato romped to a 79th career victory, Silverstone came alive. The conditions helped, almost perfect weather in fact, but so too did the quality of racing.
Plato’s race one victory gave a glimmer of hope to his dwindling title chances as team-mate Sam Tordoff followed him home. More impressive however, was the performance of Matt Neal: not only did the triple-champion clinch third place at the finish from ninth at the start, he did so with a broken finger on his right hand. Unbelievably, this is the third consecutive year in which Neal has had such an injury!
Championship leader Andrew Jordan drove a smart race to finish sixth, netting valuable points on a day when his Honda was outpaced by others, whilst a lacklustre performance from Gordon Shedden saw the Scot lose ground in the points race as he came home 11th.
As Plato sprayed the Champagne my attention was drawn to the imposing Brooklands grandstand, where a division in class is evident: as I sat awkwardly on a concrete step, swatting away wasps and sipping from a dented water bottle, the privileged few inhabitants of Brooklands basked in sunshine from balconies overlooking the circuit. Access is granted only if you arrive equipped with pinstriped blazer, pristine chinos and slick shoes, an extortionately expensive pass or a friend in high places.
I wondered though, were they getting the real experience? The grubby side of motor racing that purists live for; the smell of burnt rubber rather than delicately presented smoked salmon. My lukewarm hog-roast roll may not have been the caviar and Dodo eggs the elite onlookers were having but I’ve not forgotten my roots or reason for being here: to get as close to the action as possible, not sit in the clouds talking business and being cautious not to spill wine on my pinstriped blazer. Give me muddy embankments and a gravel coated bacon roll any day. Perhaps it’s jealousy or perhaps it’s genuine, we won’t know until somebody grants me VIP access…
…no such luck before the second touring car race of the day and so I found myself compelled to once again occupy a segment of raised concrete on the outside of Luffield. The second race produced one of the more intense battles seen this year with Jason Plato eventually claiming his second win of the day – and a record-extending 80th in total – narrowly beating a hard-charging Andrew Jordan…
…although it yielded no victories, at this pivotal point in the season Andrew Jordan’s three race performances were the best I’ve seen from a touring car racer yet. He consolidated a healthy position in race one, demonstrated a fine balance between aggression and caution in race two and would, under extreme pressure, keep his nerve and never once falter in race three. It was a performance worthy of a champion in waiting.
With Colin Turkington, Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden finishing fifth, sixth and seventh respectively in race two, Jordan extended his advantage at the top of the table, but while Plato, Jordan and an ecstatic Aron Smith got busy with the fizzy on the podium I’d spotted a rather special guest among the paddock’s colourful entourage: Emerson Fittipaldi.
The two-time Formula One World Champion was in attendance to support his Grandson Pietro in one of the BTCC’s many support race packages and, still unsure of my feelings towards Silverstone, I sought out the opinion of the champion. Having inserted myself firmly in the scrum surrounding Emmo and in a voice a little shaky and louder than perhaps intended I asked what he thought of the venue; “I love it”, was his simple reply.
Fittipaldi’s experience and memories of Silverstone may differ somewhat from my own, but if the place is good enough for the Brazilian legend, it’s certainly good enough for me. It is after all the home of British motorsport, scene of many great races, victories and losses. And if all that fails to mean anything, it’s also the place where I met Bobby Davro.
The day’s final race saw Gordon Shedden claw back some respectability – and points – by winning ahead of Aron Smith and Matt Neal. Andrew Jordan’s fifth place finish means he takes a 34 point lead to the final three races at Brands Hatch, where a prestigious championship title surely awaits him. Still in contention however, are Matt Neal, Gordon Shedden, Colin Turkington and Jason Plato, all of whom are separated by just 15 points. Whatever the outcome, race-day is sure to be thrilling, just as it has been all year, Silverstone included.
The next round of British Touring Car action comes from Brands Hatch on the 13th of October – the title decider!