Racing legends forged on the people's circuit

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FROM ITS unpromising beginnings as an abandoned wartime bomber airfield, the Silverstone circuit nears its fiftieth anniversary secure in its standing as the headquarters of British motor racing and the repository of the memories of many historic deeds by the greatest post-war grand prix drivers.

Once rivalled by Brands Hatch, Goodwood and Aintree, the Northamptonshire circuit established its pre-eminence 10 years ago when its owners signed a long-term deal with Bernie Ecclestone, granting it exclusive rights to hold the British Grand Prix, one of the major events of the sporting summer.

From this annual three-day meeting, which attracts crowds in the region of 200,000 paying ticket prices that would embarrass Glyndebourne, springs the prosperity of a circuit which is also in constant use for other types of international and domestic racing, as well as midweek test sessions by professional teams.

Located on an unremarkable plateau, surrounded by good farming land, the circuit was initially laid out around the broad perimeter runways by members of the British Racing Drivers' Club, who were looking for somewhere to replace Brooklands, the pre-war speed bowl, as the centre of their activities. Brooklands, tucked away in the Surrey commuter belt, had been commandeered for wartime use as a aircraft testing centre, and was permanently hors de combat as far as racing was concerned.

Its slogan had been "The right crowd - and no crowding", but Silverstone, set in the centre of England, an hour's drive from the West Midlands heart of the British motor industry, offered a more democratic ambience right from the start.

By the late 1980s, when the fans of Nigel Mansell thronged the circuit and invaded the track itself to celebrate his victories, the atmosphere was not far from that of an FA Cup Final.

Unlike the twisting Kentish switchback of Brands Hatch, Silverstone was a circuit built for high speed, with long straights and sweeping curves designed to test the nerve of the very best and bravest.

In recent years almost all of its corners have been tightened or otherwise modified in a bid to reduce speeds and promote safety, but last year some of the changes were undone in a successful effort to restore some of the original character of the track.

Its history as a setting for big events goes back to 1950, when it hosted the first round of the opening season of the Formula One world championship. Giuseppe Farina won the race in one of the all-conquering Alfa Romeos, and went on to take the title. Froilan Gonzalez, Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari were among other winners in the early years; the first Briton to win his home grand prix at Silverstone was the dashing young Peter Collins, who brought his Ferrari to victory in 1958, a few weeks before his death at the Nurburgring.

Curiously, Stirling Moss never won the British Grand Prix there - but Jim Clark did, three times, and Jackie Stewart twice, and James Hunt. More recent years have seen victories by virtually all the great contemporary names: Prost, Senna, Mansell, Schumacher, Damon Hill.

The eyes of historically minded Formula One fans moisten at the memory of Clark beating Graham Hill in a tense finish in 1965; of Ronnie Peterson, the brilliant Swede, taking the old Woodcote Corner flat out in his Lotus in the early Seventies; of Keke Rosberg becoming the first man to lap the circuit at an average of 160mph; and of Mansell forcing his way past Nelson Piquet, his team mate and bitter rival, at Stowe Corner one memorable afternoon in the late Eighties.

The track's safety record has been generally excellent. Even the lurid accident at the end of the first lap of the 1973 grand prix, involving more than half the cars in the field, resulted in only a single minor injury. Regularly resurfaced with high-grip bitumen, the track has been surrounded by the latest in safety features and marshalling aids.

For the paying customers, the Silverstone experience has changed beyond recognition.

Thirty years ago, half a crown bought any spectator a paddock pass, providing an unrestricted opportunity to rub shoulders with the champions. Nowadays the drivers and their teams are shut away behind high-security wire fences.

But no modernisation can affect the circuit's two most notable features: its very British ability to provide a heatwave and a hailstorm within the course of a single hour, and the occasional appearance, in the midst of a race, of a startled hare.