Indomitable spirit of the muddy marvellers

It takes more than a little bit of weather to dampen the enthusiasm of the true F1 faithful

They came by bike, on foot and perched in buses to watch the car racing at Silverstone yesterday. But not by car. The horrendous weather had forced the closure of the public parks, in order to protect them for today's race proper, but this is the country which invented the Dunkirk spirit, a sort of fortitude in adversity with sod-'em-all cheerfulness.

They came slogging up footpaths, sloshing through the brown puddles and under black, bruised clouds, brollies folded and at the slope like rifles.

Numbers were seriously down but enough had made it, wearing their racing caps, Barbours and mud-spattered wellies, to turn it into an occasion worth being at, mud or no mud. To add to the World War Two atmosphere there were single-engined vintage planes doing aerobatics.

Peter Morris, whose title of general manager of corporate communications for Silverstone indicates he was entitled to be a worried man, broke off from answering the non-stop ringing of his mobile to praise the fans. "Quite remarkable, isn't it?" he said. "This is testimony to the enthusiasm of F1 fans that so many have found the means to get here. F1 does have a fan base perhaps different to any other sport."

For all those who belong to the NAIA (Never Again in April) faction both Morris and Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 supremo, had good news. An interview with Ecclestone was broadcast to the crowds over Radio Silverstone, in which he promised "Next year this race won't be at Easter. This year there was not any choice." Ecclestone has been the popular target because of supposed differences with the Silverstone management but he emphasised: "I should not get the blame because it is nothing to do with me. I feel terribly sorry for the people but it shouldn't have happened, it's that simple."

Nor was the choice of date anything to do with Silverstone, Morris stressed. "We were presented with this date by the FIA. We expressed our concern to them and we have had permission to start marketing the 2001 race with our old July date. But we won't know for certain until te FIA World Council meeting in November."

Morris said the weather Silverstone has suffered would have caused problems at any other racing circuit. "The whole point about the car-park closure decision was to protect Sunday's race day. There is a sell-out 90,000 coming tomorrow that will require our car parks to be fully operational. We had already been aware of potential weather problems, so we constructed hard- core roadways utilising 300 tons of crushed concrete. Today we are putting in another 300 tons, which can only be done if the public car parks are not being used."

Morris said that hopes of laying on a fleet of buses yesterday were spiked because all available transport in the area had been requisitioned to shuttle passengers on the west coast railway between Northampton and Milton Keynes, where the line was closed for repairs.

It is estimated that on a weekend featuring a Bank Holiday and the involvement of the British Jaguar team and the new UK superhero, Jenson Button, the foul weather has cost Silverstone at least £3 million in lost revenue, as well as an inestimable amount of goodwill.

Among those who made it through mud thick and thin were Darren and Andrew from Nottingham. They had driven as close as possible to the track and parked their car in a field whose owner charged them £10.

The tradespeople were, without doubt, suffering heavily. The Coffee and Cookies stall was able to sell neither and from behind the Foster's liquor bar Chris Robertson reported: "Business is better than on Friday but it's still not as busy as we were hoping."

But the Dunkirik spirit overrode all. His jeans muddied up to the knees, Andrew Lucas perched on the Copse's saturated bank with his companion, Ann Clare. "I have been coming here a few years," he said. "Last year I got so drunk I didn't even get to the race, but this is the worst-ever for weather. Getting our car into the camping field was quite a nightmare. Tractors were dragging people in but I put my foot down, headed for the mud and got through."

That's the spirit. So, unfortunately, was the reaction from the girl in the information tent. "We're not allowed to talk to the press," she sniffed."