American shows Formula One how to have fun at Silverstone

Sporting values, love of the game and a great finish replace the snobbery, mud and misery of grand prix set
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With a noise like a hundred grenades exploding in a corrugated iron shed, the long red roadster leapt into life and snaked down the pit road, its eight cylinders blaring and its headlights blazing against the approaching twilight as it rejoined the circuit. With an hour to go, the race was on. And as the dusty air softened the sun's last faint rays, spectators sat in shirtsleeves, still half-drunk from the heat of the day but gripped by the approaching climax.

This was Silverstone, on Saturday night. Silverstone, the hell-hole from which, only three weeks ago, thousands of vehicles were being towed in a welter of mud and recriminations. Silverstone, suddenly transformed into the setting for an event in which the sophistry and the snobbery of Formula One had no place.

The American Le Mans Series came to the Northamptonshire circuit on Saturday, bringing with it not just a compelling array of racing cars but a set of attitudes that reminded many people of why they fell in love with motor racing in the first place. Not, that is, to partake of corporate hospitality, or to catch glimpses of billionaires from the wrong side of a 15ft wire fence, but to watch a terrific race contested by people displaying sporting values uncorrupted by an excess of income.

Funny that it takes Americans to bring that home to us. Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, the grand prix gauleiters whose regime treats fans with barely disguised contempt, should have been there on Saturday, just before six o'clock in the evening, when Don Panoz, the West Virginia pharmaceuticals billionaire who invented the series and bankrolls one of its most competitive teams, made a gracious speech of welcome. Along the inside of Woodcote corner 35 cars were lined up in echelon, facing the grandstands, each one shrouded in its national flag. A few minutes later they were thundering down the pits straight, their spectacular rolling start bringing the first Silverstone 500-kilometres race to life.

No, there wasn't much of a crowd to hear Panoz's words. Herded together, they might have made a respectable attendance at Northampton Town, compared with the Nou Camp-size turn-out for the grand prix. No queues, then, on the tortuous access roads or at the refreshment stands. Plenty of space in the grandstands. And a positive encouragement to cross the footbridge into the paddock, where, for no extra charge, the drivers - even former grand prix performers like Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Karl Wendlinger - were pleased to be approached for autographs.

"Do I miss Formula One?" Jan Magnussen considered the question for all of two seconds. "Not at all. I'm better off without all the stress and the hassle. The standards are the same here, although there's not so much high technology. It's more friendly, more relaxed. I miss driving a Formula One car, but that's about it."

Magnussen, once described by Jackie Stewart as the best young talent since Ayrton Senna, moved to America last year after being dumped by the Scot's team midway through his second season in Formula One. Now, at 26, the Swede is partnering David Brabham, son of the great Sir Jack, in the No 1 Panoz, a hulking front-engined monster built in Braselton, Georgia, with more than a hint of southern-style hot-rod in its bloodlines.

Panoz created his team with the aim of winning the Le Mans 24-hour race, and that is where they will be found on the weekend of 17-18 June. Their presence will extend an American tradition which goes all the way back to 1925, when a Chrysler turned up to compete in the third edition of the legendary round-the-clock race.

That tradition generally pits United States muscle against European sophistication, and the giant red Panoz machines certainly fit the bill. Ranged against them at Silverstone on Saturday were sleeker rivals provided by European manufacturers - principally the white BMWs, last year's winners at Le Mans, and the sleek Audis. Disrupting the stereotypes were the two Cadillac Northstar cars, this season's debutants, beautiful low-slung black machines financed by General Motors, built in Indianapolis, and run by the French DAMS team.

A big sports car race at Silverstone is the traditional prelude to Le Mans, although perhaps the absence from this season's series of Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan and Porsche prompted the public to stay away. In any case, British fans tend to reserve their active participation for Le Mans itself, which they attend in large numbers. Those who turned up on Saturday were rewarded not just by the variety which also distinguishes sports car racing from Formula One - the cars look and sound different from each other, while some of the drivers have grey hair and thickening waistlines - but by a thrilling race.

From the moment that Mimmo Schiattarella's Lola held off the opening assault from Brabham's Panoz, the 98 laps were crammed with action. After a broken throttle cable put the Lola out, Brabham's Panoz and Allan McNish's Audi swapped the lead until, with half an hour to go, the BMW of J J Lehto and Jorg Muller emerged at the top of the leaderboard.

In the gathering dusk, the race's destiny was still in doubt. While a swift final refuelling stop allowed Muller to hold the lead through to the chequered flag, behind him Rinaldo Capello, McNish's co-driver, suffered a rear suspension failure on the penultimate lap. He limped into the pits but was sent straight out again, his left rear wheel wobbling wildly as he coaxed the car round to the finish. There was an unexpected reward for his persistence when Johnny O'Connell, an American driver in the second Panoz, stopped on the circuit on the very last lap, transmission failure handing third place to the Audi. Brabham and Magnusson finished second in the other Panoz, an early loss of power steering forcing them to wrestle the car to the finish. Fourth came the second Audi, driven by Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela, ahead of the Cadillac of Emmanuel Collard and Eric Bernard.

Demonstrating the sort of reliability that might pay off over 24 hours at Le Mans, where a car bearing the Cadillac name on its bonnet will appear for the first time since 1950, the Northstar clearly lacked the outright pace necessary to mount a challenge in the three-hour sprints which make up the majority of the 12-race ALMS series. "That car isn't as good as I'd expected it to be," a rival designer had confided during practice. "But they're a new team, and no one can expect to come in and be competitive straight away. They'll need a full year to understand what the priorities are, and how to cope with them."

So while it was colourful and entertaining, the race also had the underlying element of hard technological competition that motor racing needs. While the BMW drivers were on the podium spraying the victory champagne, there were frowns and lowered voices at the back of the Cadillac pit, where Bernard and Collard were comparing notes and conferring with their engineers. The pampered and remote stars of Formula One may attract a bigger audience, but on Saturday they could have learnt a useful lesson about how to bring a sense of fun back to an essentially serious sport.