02 May 2006

Racing at Silverstone

One of the first races I took part in - so, about 1994, I guess - was
the Silverstone 10K. Two laps of the grand prix circuit, which has to
be one of the smoothest running tracks in the world, which I completed
(I think!) in 42 minutes and 42 seconds. (I am having doubts about this
now, but I am sure that 42:42 was my best time for 10K and the only
question is whether I set it at Silverstone or elsewhere.)

There is a tremendous sense of occasion at this event, a feeling that
being allowed onto the hallowed asphalt is a very special privilege.
The low grey clouds and cool blustery wind do not dispel this feeling,
though they dilute it slightly. Hanger Straight is into the wind, and
the twists and turns that they have introduced since last I attended a
grand prix here mean that you're constantly experiencing differences in
wind direction. With the wind at my back, I sail down the slight
incline from Stowe towards Club. (Do either of those corners still
exist? The long grass on the infield at Stowe into which Jackie Stewart
disappeared on lap one in 1973 is no longer there. I shall forever rue
the day I sat next to Sir Jackie at lunch and, on account of an excess
of Irish hospitality the preceding evening/morning (this was the Society
of the Irish Motor Industry's conference), found myself unable to string
a couple of words together let alone to remind him of that episode,
which I had watched, with delight that I did not even try to conceal,
from the grandstand opposite. Peter Revson was the eventual winner, I
think, and James Hunt was fourth.)

I first went to Silverstone in 1971, with my father, to mark the end of
my O Levels. We took a two-man tent. I don't recall asthma attacks on
that occasion, but at the grand prix in 1973 and at the International
Trophy meeting (those being the days when there were three or four
opportunities to see grand prix cars, and stars, racing in England each
year) probably the same year - when we went en famille in a very
ill-considered VW Camper van - the asthma sticks in my mind much more
than the racing. If someone had told the teenage me that as I
approached my 50th birthday I would be running a couple of laps of the
circuit, I would have considered them the biggest liar that ever lived.

Times move on, though, and where we pitched our tent or parked the
camper van is now a business park. Silverstone is no longer
recognisably a World War II air base: it is all landscaped grass and
smooth tarmac. Woodcote, the greatest bend on any grand prix circuit,
has not just been emasculated: it has disappeared. So too (disappeared,
I mean) have the men (and occasional woman - a long time since a woman
raced in Formula One, probably Lella Lombardi was the last and she died
a couple of years ago from cancer. And who was that British Olympic
lady skier who had a brief Formula One career?) who raced there. I
remember (cue for a digression) in 1979, with my friend Jacques, whom I
had met (with Steve Fletcher) at Zandvoort the year before (the only
foreign grand prix I ever went to), plus his brother I think and a bunch
of his friends, elbowing our way to a good vantage point on the grass
bank at Woodcote, attracting the disapproval of everyone around us (so I
pretended for the day that the entire group of us was French!), and
Jacques asking me who I thought would win: I loyally nominated Clay
Regazzoni, to general Gallic amusement, and we were all equally
astonished when he came through to claim the first ever Grand Prix win
for a Williams car.

This evening was almost as historic. I passed the 5K mark just before
the clock tripped over to 20:00, which bodes well for the all-important
INTA 5K next week: and slowed a little on the second lap to finish in a
personal best, by some way, of 41:22. The sun broke through, too.

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