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Great Britain:
an enduring Grand Prix

As well as this weekend’s Silverstone venue, the British Grand Prix has also been held at Aintree five times and at Brands Hatch 12 times. In total that makes one per year throughout every world championship that has been held to date. It’s an absolute record, rivalled only by the Italian Grand Prix. And with such a rich history, the great stories clearly abound. So it’s a matter of choosing them carefully.

One of them undoubtedly dates back to Saturday 14 July 1951. The front row of the grid at Silverstone perfectly reflected the intense battle taking place over the course of that season: pole position for José Froilan Gonzalez and his Ferrari, followed by the reigning champions Alfa Romeo, with Fangio faster than Farina. Behind them another Ferrari, driven by Alberto Ascari. The same story played itself out in the race: the first non-Italian car home was Reg Parnell’s BRM. As for the rest, it was an all-Italian dogfight. Fangio kept his Alfa in the lead for 30 of the 90 race laps. But for the other 59, it was Gonzalez in front, who ended up giving the Prancing Horse its very first F1 victory. Clearly, it was a historic occasion. Enzo Ferrari, in one his more quotable moments, reflected: “that day, I felt like I’d killed my mother.” The obvious joy was tempered by the defeat he’d inflicted upon Alfa Romeo: his original team as a driver as well as a sporting director.

So it was in Great Britain that Ferrari built the foundations of the team that exists today: it remains the only squad to have contested all the Formula 1 world championships ever held, with 224 grand prix victories and 30 titles won (including both drivers’ and constructors’ championships). After Gonzalez in 1951, Ferrari also won at Silverstone for the next two years (with Alberto Ascari) then in 1954 with Gonzalez again, in 1956 with Fangio and 1958 with Peter Collins. In 1961 it was Wolfgang von Trips who triumphed, this time at Aintree. Following that there was a victory drought only sated by Niki Lauda at Brands Hatch in 1976. And here is where it’s worth stopping for again, as that was an epic day that marked a pivotal moment in the evolution of the 1976 championship. 

That year, Ferrari was busy defending the title captured by Niki Lauda the previous season. And there was a firm backdrop of red once the 1976 season got going: Niki Lauda dominated everywhere. But McLaren wasn’t giving up. The ace up their sleeve was James Hunt, with an insatiable appetite for victory (among other things) in the seat that had been freshly vacated by two-time world champion Emerson Fittipaldi. By the time the championship reached Brands Hatch in mid-June, Lauda seemed untouchable. He claimed pole position, but Hunt was right up there, breathing straight down his neck. Then, a collision at the start between the frontrunners meant that the race was red-flagged. Hunt wasn’t allowed to take part in it though, as he had been judged guilty of entering the pit lane via an illegal route. All hell broke loose. The partisan British fans, packing out the grandstands, demanded to see their hero in action and fighting for the championship. As the grid formed up, minus the McLaren, a deafening roar of “we want Hunt!” issued from the crowd. Then it got dirty, with bottles, cans and rubbish being hurled onto the track by the furious fans. Faced with such an unruly mutiny, the race organisers had no choice but to let the McLaren driver back in – who then went on to win, in front of Lauda. That victory was taken away from Hunt and given to Lauda by a decision from the international governing body in September, but by then the fiery accident at the Nurburgring had occurred, which almost cost the Austrian his life and condemned him to a three-race absence. He returned to action in Monza, only losing the title to Hunt at that dramatic final round in Japan.

Another unforgettable day for a British driver on home territory was 12 July 1987. An internal battle was raging within Williams between two-time world champion Nelson Piquet and home hero Nigel Mansell, who had already won at Silverstone the previous year. What took place in the race surpassed any work of fiction. After setting one of the fastest pole positions in history (256.3kph) Piquet also got the better start and began to pull away. Mansell struggled to keep up, then pitted to deal with a problem affecting a wheel. He came out of the pits with a significant deficit to his team mate but a burning desire to make it up. The Englishman carved several seconds per lap out of his Brazilian rival, with the onboard computer warning Mansell that at the speed he was going his car would run out of fuel before the finish. But still Nigel didn’t lift. When he caught up with Piquet, he tucked in behind him, feinted a couple of moves, and then made it stick side by side through Stowe – at more than 240kph. Just a few hundred metres were all that Mansell needed to create an advantage of his own, and just as he was getting to the end of the 65th and final lap, the fuel finally ran out. Mansell’s Williams-Honda remained stranded in the middle of the track, where it was soon swamped by thousands of delirious fans in an impromptu track invasion.

These were remarkable scenes, but there were more played out over the years, albeit perhaps without quite the same level of ecstatic emotion. In 1995 the fight for victory was between Damon Hill’s Williams and the Benetton of Michael Schumacher – but both of them went off, leaving the way clear for the other Benetton of Johnny Herbert to claim a home win. In 1998, it was Schumacher who sealed an unprecedented victory during a pit stop on the final lap. There were a number of high-level discussions about the rules before his controversial first place was confirmed. As always at Silverstone, fortune favours the brave and the bold.

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