April 01 2010
There’s racing in Northamptonshire on Easter Sunday: steeplechasing at Towcester, one of the UK’s prettiest courses, which always draws a good crowd over Easter weekend. In three months’ time, though, the same gentle countryside will echo to the sound of a much bigger and louder event.
Silverstone racetrack, which is owned by the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC) and situated only a few miles down the road from Towcester, is the home of the British Grand Prix and has been synonymous with motorsport in the UK for the past 60 years. On Sunday July 11, the contest is expected to draw a full house of 120,000 people, underlining its colossal importance to the local economy.
Ironically, for a Grand Prix circuit where speeds of up to 230kph are common, the approaches to the track have suffered in the past from terrible traffic jams. When the race was staged over a rainy Easter in 2000, many spectators’ cars got stuck in the mud as they attempted to negotiate the inadequate access roads. Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s commercial rights holder, became so disenchanted with Silverstone’s homely facilities that he was prepared to axe it from the calendar altogether and replace it with an upgraded circuit at Donington Park in Leicestershire. But then the leaseholders who were going to take over the race ran into monetary problems, and on December 7 2009 Ecclestone and the BRDC signed a new 17-year agreement that should guarantee Silverstone’s survival.
Traditionalists were delighted. Silverstone may lack the high-gloss glamour of other established F1 locations such as Monaco and Barcelona, but it’s got history aplenty. The circuit was developed on the site of an old wartime airfield and in the early days spectators sat on bales of straw while some of the dashing but strictly amateur British drivers still seemed to belong to the stiff-upper-lip world of the old RAF pilots. Things began to change after the first race in the new Formula One World Championship in 1950, and the roster of famous names to have competed there since stretches back to the halcyon days of such home-grown heroes as Sir Stirling Moss, John Surtees and Graham Hill.
This summer’s race will offer the rare opportunity of seeing not just one but two British World Champions – Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button – racing together as members of the McLaren team. But an arguably even greater box-office attraction will be the return of seven-times World Champion Michael Schumacher, who officially retired in 2006. Indeed, the 41-year-old German, impeccably polite but ferociously competitive, fits the mould of one of those icily cool Luftwaffe pilots beloved by cinematic tradition. When he drove for Ferrari he was even nicknamed The Red Baron in a nod towards Germany’s first world war flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen.
For his comeback, “Schumi” has aligned himself with Mercedes, which has taken a 75 per cent stake in the Brawn GP team. Its founder, Ross Brawn, is himself a former technical director at Ferrari and an old friend of Schumi, and the Brawn effect helped Button claim his maiden world title. Many feel Button made a mistake in leaving them for McLaren, where he could easily be overshadowed by his ambitious new team-mate.
I tipped Button to win the 2009 World Drivers’ Championship and he just scraped home in the final Grand Prix. I also tipped Lewis Hamilton to regain the title in 2010. But I cannot resist a saver on the charismatic Red Baron at 4-1 with Coral.