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Silverstone: a king that won't abdicate

Silverstone: a king that won't abdicate 01

Maybe that’s a slightly clichéd way of looking at Great Britain and its love of tradition, as well as its slight isolation from the rest of the world – which is only underlined by the fact that it is an island.

But this popular image seems tailor-made to tell the story of what Great Britain means to the automotive world. Or rather, to the highly international world of Formula 1. 

On a summer’s morning 68 years ago, Formula 1 as we know it got underway at Silverstone, with the very first round that counted towards a world championship. 

Who knows how many people present on that day knew that they were witnessing not just the start of a grand prix, with those brutal front-engined cars that stank of petrol, but the start of a championship. Or rather, an uninterrupted series of championships that would power their way through the 20th century and then roar triumphantly into the next one, becoming the most popular global sporting spectacle on earth, aside from the World Cup and Olympic Games.

Today, nearly 70 years later, Silverstone welcomes its grand prix with the same the same frenetic independence as was the case back then. Because this is not only the 10th grand prix of the season but for the many British people who love Formula 1, their home race.

And while Silverstone may not quite showcase the same outright speed that was once the case, back when the corners were token gestures and the straights recalled the airfield at the track’s origins, the fans who crowd the venue continue to celebrate peak velocity. Of course, questions of safety and circuit upgrades, as well as the demands of television, have transformed Silverstone. There are some corners that are a shadow of their former selves, but others such as Stowe and Copse – which are still taken at more than 250kph – remain. So the legend stays alive and well.

Silverstone: a king that won't abdicate 02

The other thing that hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm with which the subjects of the United Kingdom visit their home of motorsport to see the cars on track throughout all three days. In fact earlier: from Wednesday the campsites around the circuit already begin to fill up with tents and campervans, as well as other more improvised accommodation. 

The hotdog and fish and chip vans also roll into the circuit, eagerly awaiting their biggest profits of the year. And so one of the biggest and all-encompassing parties in the whole of Britain begins to take place. This has always been the case, however far you go back.
In 1987 the British Grand Prix was won by Nigel Mansell. In fact he did not just win, he conquered. 

It was a race that he snatched from his biggest rival thanks to one of those drives that will go down in the annals of Formula 1 history. Of course the enemy in question was Nelson Piquet: at the time his Williams teammate, and the protagonist of a pole position set thanks to an almost unbelievable lap. 

But on Sunday Nigel turned into an invincible winning machine. He was delayed earlier in the race by a problem with a wheel that forced a pit stop, but then he was back on track in front of his beloved public, who had already resigned themselves to a win for his hated Brazilian teammate. It was not to be the case.

Nigel fought back like the lion that he is, reeling in his target by a couple of seconds per lap. He finally caught up with him, and after a beautiful double bluff, made an overtaking manoeuvre that still stands out today. His ballistic progress was almost impossible to explain, sealing an emotional victory by the skin of his teeth, as his car then ran out of petrol immediately after the finish line. After that, he was surrounded by a sea of delighted fans who had invaded the track. Those images of Nigel mobbed by his adoring public, who had flocked onto the circuit from the grandstands, remains one of the most enduring memories in all of Formula 1 and British motorsport. 

The pictures tell the story of passion and a delightfully partisan crowd. But also the story of family, celebrations, campsites, good times, and drinks until late into the night. Mansell himself encouraged this sort of atmosphere and following around him. He didn’t spend the night before the race getting some rest locked away in a quiet hotel but instead in a tent with his family at Silverstone, surrounded by his home fans as well as by his two children and his wife, who just a few months later would give birth to their third child.

Today with modern technology, and a Formula 1 well on the road to the third millennium, we are ready for a Silverstone that maybe won’t be too different from the ones we’ve seen in recent years. But it remains unflappably and imperturbably British. Just like the royal family.

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