Motor Racing / British Grand Prix: Race followers join absent hero in exile

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The Independent Online
WHEN Nigel Mansell left, he took the audience with him. That truth was made expensively apparent to British grand prix racing yesterday when Silverstone attracted just 70,000 spectators, a drop of at least 50,000 on last year. Hard-core nationalism must have found some other refuge.

The patriots were there all right, but in isolated groups, like soldiers waiting to surrender. Their Union Jacks, draped round shoulders or hoisted high on cane flag poles, fluttered sadly in the breeze. Nigel Mansell had gone to IndyCars. Damon Hill's chance had gone up in flames. Passion was trading at an all-time low as Alain Prost sped past the wilting British ensigns.

The contrast with 12 months ago could hardly have been more pronounced. Before the race yesterday, the course announcer implored the crowd not to repeat last year's 'horrifying' and 'appalling' track invasion, when the fist-waving Mansell was engulfed by tattooed Tommies oblivious to the danger of their actions. 'I'm sorry to have to say this,' the commentator said with an incongruous note of apology, 'but please resist the temptation to go on the track . . .'

But this time the warning was not required. Only the car parks were in danger of being overrun as people cut their losses with a dash for home. 'Muted' and 'subdued' were the two most popular adjectives for a day on which Johnny Herbert's fourth placing was the best the British drivers could muster.

Attending a grand prix can be a dubious pleasure at the best of times. You rise at dawn to beat the traffic round Silverstone. You pay pounds 52 to stand on a bank, and anything up to pounds 115 for a seat in the grandstand.

At 2pm, when the race finally starts, the cars pass you once every minute and a half, and at speeds of up to 190mph. You can narrow the field down to two or three contestants at most. The engine noise is a symphony from hell; the traffic on the way out is an enactment of Heathcote Williams's anti-car poem, 'Autogeddon'.

'I know for a fact that the Silverstone attendance will be considerably down on last year because I'm not driving,' Mansell said last week. His absence was a double curse for the management here. Tens of thousands of pounds had been spent on extra fencing and staff to keep the hotheads at bay. The purveyors of food and drink looked painfully over-stocked and under-employed.

The suspicion that Hill would not be permitted to beat his team-mate, Prost, will have prevented most of Mansell's fans transferring their loyalties to Graham Hill's son. Many of the Union Jacks were inscribed with Herbert's name, or Derek Warwick's, though Hill did receive a football terrace salute when he climbed dolefully from his smoke-encircled cockpit.

Not everyone bemoaned the loss of Mansell. One family from Birmingham, encamped under a flag poked into a fence, said they deplored his refusal to criticise last year's incursion by the mob. 'We're not that sad,' a 12-year- old boy said when asked whether he had been part of the invasion force. 'I went off him when he didn't condemn those people,' a woman said.

But still the arithmetic will make hard reading for Silverstone today. The attendance over the three days (for practice sessions and so on) this year only just managed to reach the total for the final day in 1992. There are those who insist that up to 150,000 punters were here to see Mansell's win. If so, the attendance yesterday was down by more than half.

More empty seats, there may have been, but with no post-race invasion or ugly displays of chauvinism, there were also fewer empty minds.