British Grand Prix 2014 zooms into sporting picture

The World Cup, Wimbledon and the Tour de France all take a back seat for fans at Silverstone this weekend. Kevin Garside joins the campers

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Were Daniel Defoe alive today he might include, alongside death and taxes, rain at Glastonbury and Silverstone as features upon which we can rely with absolute certainty. And so the hottest week of the year gives way today, the seers tell us, to showers over the rose of the shires.

Do your worst, weather gods. Silverstone can cope. As at dear old Glasto, there is an inbuilt resistance here to rubbish falling out of the sky. We are a nation of campers and welly-wearers at heart and no amount of ill will from above can disrupt the rhythms of the summer festival season. And for this community of petrolheads the British Grand Prix is every bit the staple that Worthy Farm has become for rock-and-rollers.

More than 300,000 are expected to cross the threshold this weekend, making the 800-acre site half the size of neighbouring unitary authority Milton Keynes. What World Cup? What Wimbledon? What Grand Départ?

The temporary tented towns lining the circuit perimeter have been filling since Wednesday, incorporating large swathes of the practice facilities at the adjacent golf clubs, Silverstone and Whittlebury Park.

A grand prix dismissed a decade ago by Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone as a country fair masquerading as a world-class event has harnessed the best of ancient motor-racing traditions while rolling out an expansive programme of supplementary entertainments at a significantly upgraded facility.

Campers have become glampers on sites surrounded by superior infrastructure and with a package of extra-curricular stuff that on Thursday night included a gig by Kaiser Chiefs, who had simply migrated from Somerset, where they sang to an entirely different demographic the week before.

There was none of that when the cars first tore around this augmented airfield in its post-war hay-bale days. The thread that connects epoch to epoch is the love of the car and the fascination with racing.

This year marks the 50th grand prix held at Silverstone, an anniversary to be marked by sundry parades of past winners in the machinery of the day, led by Sir Jackie Stewart in the Matra MS80 in which he raced to victory at the 1969 British Grand Prix.

Stewart prevailed that year in a thrilling thrash with Jochen Rindt. It was his fifth win in six races en route to the first of three world titles. A year later Rindt was dead, his life cut tragically short in a crash at Monza.

This was a period when driver fatalities were all too common and ultimately would lead to the early retirement of Stewart, who walked away in 1973 after the loss of his close friend François Cevert at the United States Grand Prix.

Stewart is joined in the weekend’s drive-past by fellow British world champions Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, both of whom enjoyed that peculiar bond with the public that racing drivers once had.

Only three men have been voted Sports Personality of the Year twice. One was the late Sir Henry Cooper, a relic of an era when boxing was at the heart of the British sporting canon. The others are Mansell and Hill.

Today’s flyers do not cross over quite so easily into the mainstream. Though Lewis Hamilton is, according to the advertising gurus at Saatchi, the world’s most marketable athlete, he failed to shift more SPOTY votes in his World Championship-winning year of 2008 than two-wheeled Olympian Chris Hoy.

Similarly, Jenson Button came second in the BBC vote to Ryan Giggs when he followed Hamilton to the title in 2009. Perhaps, this being a non-Olympic cycle and a year when a Briton has not taken the Wimbledon crown for the first time in 70-odd years, Hamilton might get the nod should he see off Nico Rosberg in what is developing into an engrossing intra-Mercedes arm-wrestle.

It is a mystery why Hamilton, an ethnic totem who smashed Formula One’s Caucasian circle, does not carry the same emotional charge as Mansell or Hill. Perhaps he has, in falling 29 points behind his team-mate, created the conditions for engaging the neutral in the underdog slot. Two non-finishes have made ever more acute the need to add to the four straight victories that gave him a marginal championship lead going to Monaco.

“Yes, the tables turned in Monaco and broke my momentum. He [Rosberg] has had it for a few races and now it’s time to do the same thing the other way round,” Hamilton said. “It’s early days in the season but there is never a point where you can be too relaxed and think there is a long way to go.

“And this is the best place to do it. It’s like a sailboat that needs a gust of wind to change direction. I hope that the British Grand Prix and the fans can do that for me.”

It might come to that. Though Hamilton set the fastest time of the day in the second practice session yesterday, the gremlins returned, an engine failure curtailing his participation after 14 laps. Rosberg, a fifth of a second adrift in second, completed more than twice that number and with the championship lead he enjoys he will take reliability over outright pace any day of the week.

“We haven’t identified what the issue was yet but it shouldn’t impact the rest of my weekend. It’s not ideal but we’ll recover,” Hamilton said, optimistically.