The 1940s were a time of conflict and division around the world. It saw countries take on countries, and it saw the rise of nations and ideologies and the fall of nations and ideologies. It was a war fought with new technologies, and in the aftermath of the conflict, facilities built for war were suddenly and abruptly abandoned. And that’s where we start our story.
Located between the Northamptonshire villages of Silverstone and Whittlebury, RAF Silverstone was a bomber station between 1943 to 1946. The base was home to a training unit, training pilots to fly and operate the Vickers Wellington Bomber Planes built in the nearby County of Surrey between 1936 to 1945. These particular planes were used during night raids during the war.
By 1945, the war was over, and by 1946 the base had been abandoned, as many former RAF bases were after the war. The larger ones would be turned into Civil Airports, which is how London Heathrow got its start, while the smaller ones were usually abandoned, and the land sold for housing or business developments. As Motorsport events began to spring up, the idea of a British Grand Prix became a part of motorsport organiser’s plans for this post-war future of racing.
In the Mid to Late ’40s, there was no permanent racing track used in the British Isles. Building a new one at this time was out of the question. The first post-war motorsport events were held in Gransden Lodge (itself a former RAF base, based in Cambridgeshire) and The Isle of Man (with parts of the Island’s motorways closed to allow for the event, a practice which continues to this day). The Royal Automobile Club, led by Wilfred Andrews, looked for a viable site to hold races in Great Britain. Andrews and the RAC would shortlist two possible sites after considering several RAF bases. These two places were Snitterfield and RAF Silverstone.
In 1948, the RAC would arrange a Lease of the former RAF Base (the Civil Aviation Authority still owning it at the time, despite not using it). The RAC would then hire James Brown, a man who would stay employed at Silverstone for 40 years until his death, to design the circuit for the first British Grand Prix to be held since 1927. He had two months to plan it.
The First Grand Prix Races
On Thursday the 30th of September 1948, the first post-war British Grand Prix began, with the race being held on Saturday the 2nd October 1948. Officially, however, the race wasn’t designated a Grand Prix. The official title was the Royal Automobile Club International Grand Prix, with the ‘British Grand Prix’ title going to next year’s race. However, it was a World Championship race and was held under the F1 regulations. To really exemplify how rushed the planning process was, to quote fellow Historian Peter Swinger:
The new circuit was marked out with oil drums and straw bales and consisted of the perimeter road and the runaways running into the centre of the airfield from two directions. Spectators were contained behind rope barriers, and the officials were housed in tents.
The inaugural race was won by Luigi Villoresi, driving the Maserati 4CLT, alongside Two Time F1 World Champion Alberto Ascari. 1949 was a bigger event, having over 100 laps, on the now redesigned 3-mile track. 1949 was also a big year with the inaugural International Trophy being awarded, creating effectively creating a second Grand Prix race for the track. 1950 was the first year in which the modern Formula One World Championship Grand Prix was held at the track, with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth present as spectators for this particular race. This is the only time, so far, that the British Royals would ever attend a Grand Prix.
By 1951, The British Grand Prix saw Ferrari cars gain their first-ever Formula One victory and the Grand Prix’s running over the British Racing Driver’s Club. Under the BRDC, the days of straw bales and oil drums would be numbered, as more permanent racing facilities would be built for the track.
1955-1986: The Era of Two Tracks
Something that may surprise modern F1 Fans is that Silverstone was not the only track that held the British Grand Prix. Between 1954 and 1986, Silverstone would alternate hosting the British Grand Prix with, of all places, Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. Clearly, the organisers got confused about what the term ‘Horsepower’ meant (yes, I know there was a race track, I’m funny), and in 1964, the track that Silverstone would alternate with for Formula One races would be Brands Hatch, in Kent. Silverstone would hold races in odd-numbered years, with even-numbered years being host to races at Brands Hatch.
The era of two circuits would end in 1986. In their infinite wisdom, the FIA decided that any long-term contract to host a Grand Prix must mean that the race is held on one track. With that, Brands Hatch (considered a poorer facility) would allow Silverstone to host all British Grand Prix races.
1987 saw Silverstone undergo its first modernisation since 1949, with the creation of a new Chicane on the Farm Straight. And from then on, Silverstone would see some dramatic events, such as Nigel Mansell being surrounded by a crowd of fans breaking rank and entering the track to congratulate Mansell as the race winner. There would be wins for many F1 Greats at this track, such as Aryton Senna’s 1988 victory in the rain; Alain Prost would win in 1989 after Senna retired from the race.
1990 was the last year the high-speed circuit would be used for Formula One before it was reconfigured for the 1991 British Grand Prix to be slower. The 1990-1992 races would be host to what I call ‘The Mansell Trilogy’. Retirement in the race led to Mansell threatening to retire from Formula One in frustration. Fortunately, he would not and would win both the 1991 and 1992 races.
Throughout the mid-1990s, the circuit would continue to undergo modernisation and safety alterations. In particular, during 1994, when a chicane was installed at the flat-out Abbey corner, a mere 6 weeks before the Grand Prix was due to take place. Minor alterations to the track coming during the second half of the 1990s, but the 1991 layout of Silverstone would largely stay in place. And during this time, some great things would occur, such as Johnny Herbert’s victory in 1995 and Michael Schumacher’s major crash, that would write him off for much of the 1999 season.
Silverstone in the 21st Century
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone, over the last 21 years, has seen its share of intrigue and speculation. During the 2003 race, a priest would trespass on the track and make a wally out of himself before being dragged to safety and duly arrested for being a numpty. More pressingly, however, were disputes between the BRDC, and Bernie Ecclestone, over funding. The funding needed to make improvements and modernisations to the track was a source of contention between Bernie Ecclestone and the organisers of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
This would lead to the British Grand Prix being absent from the 2005 provisional calendar for the next F1 Championship season, as the BRDC refused to pay the race fee. With the risk of no race taking place in Britain for that year and with no viable alternatives, a new contract was agreed. Silverstone would therefore host the British Grand Prix until 2009.
After 2009, there was a risk of the British Grand Prix moving again to Donnington Park, host of the 1993 European Grand Prix. They were given a 10-year contract to host the race, starting in 2010. As we know, this did not happen, but why? The Financial Crisis that plagued Britain for much of the 2010s meant that Donnington Park would not be ready to host the Grand Prix for 2010 due to a lack of funding for the necessary modernisations. Ultimately, Silverstone was given a plump 17-year contract, meaning that F1 would stay in Silverstone until 2027.
This change came just as Silverstone underwent a new modernisation, with a new Arena layout and a moved start/finish line for 2011. As of 2021, this layout is still used for the British Grand Prix, and with races set to continue there until 2024 (as per the newest contract change in 2019), Silverstone is the home of British Motor Racing. It is still one of the fastest tracks in F1 today and is a spectacle for fans and racers. Not bad for the former airfield.