Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The State of Silverstone

I spent a rather good day at Silverstone last Friday – on the first day of practice for the 2016 British Grand Prix. It was one of those days when I got to experience racing from the spectator side of the fence – one of those days, indeed, that reminded me of those days when as a young man, I became a motor racing fan. It was the second such day in the space of a week, as I also attended the London E-Prix at Battersea Park, but apart from the fact that both involved single seater racing cars and the word “Prix”, there was not a lot in common between them.

Bearing in mind that we actually bought “Pit walk” tickets for Battersea, the cost, to the paying spectator, was slightly less to the Grand Prix Friday than it was for the E-Prix, although travel costs meant that the two days were very comparable in price.

I did the same ‘double’ last year and recorded my impressions here, but I have to say that Silverstone gave me a far better day out than Battersea Park, and without hefty persuasion from my son, I don’t think I’ll be going back to Formula E wherever it ends up next year. The trouble is that, whatever the organisers of the E-Prix do, they will struggle with trying to give the spectator a decent view of the track. And by its very nature, it is rather a one-trick pony: although the Park offers off-track entertainment, with only one race on the programme, it doesn’t really stand a chance against the offering that Silverstone serves up.

Arriving at Silverstone last Friday just as the first Free Practice session for the Formula 1 cars was starting, I sat in the grandstand opposite the pits and ticked off the cars in the entry list. My first (and probably only) complaint – the PA speakers were either not switched on at all, or were woefully quiet. Luckily I had remembered to bring my FM radio, so could keep up-to-date with what was going on thanks to the entertaining and informative commentary team of David Addison, Ian Titchmarsh and Bob Constanduros, assisted during support race action by Alan Hyde.

There were at least three big screens in sight on the pits straight, and the current standings were easily visible on the Rolex scoreboard gantry under which the cars drove as they exited the pit lane. Provided you knew that the second-named driver in the programme was the one driving the car with the yellow roll-hoop camera, and were familiar with the three-letter abbreviations of the drivers’ names, all was reasonably straightforward. I enjoyed watching Charles Leclerc at the wheel of the ‘first’ Haas, and knowing it was him rather than Gutiérrez.

For the GP2 Free Practice session, that came next, I moved round to the grandstand on the outside of Club Corner – and what a good view that provides! At £300 a seat for next year’s GP, I suspect it probably exceeds the Truswell family budget, but I would expect them to be sold out by Christmas!

One of the things I miss from my days of PA commentary at lower classes of racing is watching new, young drivers coming up ‘through the ranks’, and watching the young guns in GP2 and GP3 had me reminiscing anew at the same time as wondering which of the current crop would end up in F1 racing in future, which would find homes in prototypes and GT racing and which would sink without trace.

For the second F1 Free Practice session I wandered down to Stowe, and I found the availability of such a wide range of hot and cold food and drink simply astonishing. There was, quite literally, something for every taste, whether that was Indian, Thai, hog roast, burgers, fish and chips, beer, lager or simply coffee or tea. Of course, although it was busy on Friday, the crowd was probably less than half that which would be there on Sunday, so how they all coped as the weekend wore on, I cannot say. Based on Friday’s experience though, queuing times were entirely manageable.

And despite its reputation, Silverstone has some pretty good vantage points for the spectator. After the spectacle of Hangar Straight and Stowe Corner, I continued my walk: Becketts, Copse, Woodcote and Luffield, all pretty proper, by any measure, even if overtaking opportunities in a race situation would be limited at any of them.

Apparently even Bernie Ecclestone was complimentary about the place, calling it a worthy Grand Prix venue. Maybe at last the investment and dedication of the BRDC has been rewarded. I was also pleased to hear about the Silverstone Heritage Experience, which is due to open in October 2018. The idea, as Sally Reynolds, Chief Executive of Silverstone Heritage Ltd., told me on Friday evening, is to provide not only an additional attraction for those visiting Silverstone on racedays, but also to provide a reason for visiting in its own right. More than 450,000 visitors per year are anticipated to the interactive, inspirational and educational experience – to be housed in the World War Two hangar to the right of the main entrance.

In addition to providing a permanent exhibition, research facilities to the BRDC archive and tours around the circuit, a further objective of the project is to encourage more people into the engineering industry, recognising as it does the part that the UK-based motor sport industry has played in the development of the sport across the world. The project has received a £9.1 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is looking to raise a similar amount from businesses and individuals to ensure that the proposed timetable is met. With the patronage of HRH Prince Harry, and Ian Phillips in charge of fund-raising, the project has a good foundation from which to move forward.

I look forward to seeing it all come to pass. Silverstone deserves it!

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