Silverstone: Now for the final lap

After 61 years, Silverstone may be hosting its last Grand Prix this weekend. David Tremayne looks back down the long and winding road of heroic duels and spectacular crashes that make this a circuit like no other in the world

"This is a fantastic place," world champion Lewis Hamilton says of Silverstone. "It has such a great heritage and character and a unique layout. It has so many high-speed curves and corners, that you just don't see at other tracks. Here you are flat out all over the place, while in the final complex there is a lot of room to lose it and end up in the gravel, so even there you have to be really careful. It is one of the most demanding tracks on the F1 calendar, and the new venues that we go to just don't have anything close to that feeling of history, of being somewhere special. I love this place!"

Hamilton's fellow drivers echo the sentiment to a man, in the same way that they love Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka. Damon Hill, another past British Grand Prix winner, remembers watching Keke Rosberg become the first man to lap an F1 track at 160mph here back in 1985.

"I was standing on the exit to Abbey curve when he came through in that Williams Honda, complete with a slowly deflating rear tyre, and when he passed me it was simply awe-inspiring..."

In the beginning, Silverstone was an abandoned airfield. But continual changes by its owner, the British Racing Drivers' Club, created a world-class venue that currently boasts four separate tracks, industrial units and the capacity to stage entertainment events that generate a significant annual income. What was once bleak and bland is now a place that lives within the hearts of the 100,000-plus enthusiasts who have gathered this weekend to make what is scheduled to be the last British Grand Prix to be staged here something very special.

When the FIA decided to launch its Formula One World Championship, it chose the emergent Silverstone to stage the first event. The series was thus inaugurated on Saturday 13 May 1950, with King George VI and Queen Elizabeth present, and resulted in victory for Dr Giuseppe Farina over his Alfa Romeo team-mate Luigi Fagioli and local hero Reg Parnell who had been drafted in specially to please the crowd.

Jackie Stewart still remembers the 1969 British Grand Prix as being one of the best races of his illustrious career, "certainly the most enjoyable".

Surrendering pole position to friend and rival Jochen Rindt after crashing his Matra in practice, and taking over team-mate Jean-Pierre Beltoise's sister car, Stewart ran wheel-to-wheel with Rindt's Lotus for more than half the race.

"The fun we had!" Stewart smiled. "People just wouldn't do it that way today. Jochen would be on my tail in Becketts and I knew he would slipstream by me before Stowe, but the last thing I would think of was moving over to the right to block him. That would just have slowed us both down.

"We each signalled to the other where they could pass, and I'd probably close in on him on the run from Club to Abbey, and he knew I would slipstream by at 150 mph through Woodcote."

Such was their respect for one another that they fought for the lead yet still ran at lap-record-breaking pace. "There were definitely 30 changes of lead," Stewart said, "but not all of them were over the start/finish line. We had trust and confidence in each other."

Their fabulous duel only ended when Stewart signalled to the ever-unlucky Austrian late in the race that one of the Lotus' rear wing endplates had bent back and was fouling a rear tyre. Rindt stopped to have it torn off, then later dropped to fourth after running short of fuel prompted a second pit stop. Stewart won, and went on to take that year's title.

Four years later, the race was principally memorable for the catastrophic accident triggered at the end of the opening lap when rookie Jody Scheckter spun his McLaren exiting Woodcote, crashed into the pit wall, and then bounced back into the path of the field, setting in train a spectacular multiple shunt which eliminated eight cars and caused a then-rare race stoppage. After the restart, American Peter Revson (who had backed himself at 14-1 to win) sped to victory for McLaren with team-mate Denny Hulme chasing Ronnie Peterson's Lotus home in his wake, but it was fourth place for another rookie, James Hunt, that signalled that a new British star had arrived on the scene.

By the time Hunt won the 1977 event, a chicane had been added at Woodcote to prevent a repeat of Scheckter's misdemeanour.

Two years later saw the first victory for Frank Williams's team. Once the butt of jokes along the pit lane, Williams came of age that day. Team leader Alan Jones ran away with the event until his car overheated, whereupon team-mate Clay Regazzoni swept through to win. As Williams sat almost mesmerised by the magnitude of a success he had hitherto only dreamed of, the moustachioed Swiss quietly shook his hand and said of a success that put him back on top of the world: "Thanks, Frank."

Williams would celebrate many other British successes. In 1987, Nigel Mansell staged a staggering comeback after a pit stop to have a vibrating wheel replaced. Going into Stowe in his 1,200bhp Williams-Honda on the 63rd of the 65 laps, having thrown fuel economy caution to the wind, he sold team-mate Nelson Piquet a fabulous dummy. Feinting to the left at nearly 200mph, he dived down the inside on the right the moment Piquet moved left to counter his challenge, and swept through to a triumph that had the spectators in raptures.

"I remember watching the crowd here when Nigel won after beating Piquet," Lewis Hamilton said yesterday. "It was great just to see so much emotion at a grand prix. That's why there is something very special about the fans at home."

Mansell won again for Williams in 1991, memorably giving stranded rival Ayrton Senna a ride home on his sidepod after the Brazilian's McLaren had run out of fuel at Club corner.

In 1992 it was Mansell again, and this time he ran over a spectator's foot after a crowd invasion. Subsequently, such expressions of well-meant emotion and genuine affection were banned.

Having won the GP2 race in devastating style in 2007 to give voice to the first signs of "Hamiltonmania", Lewis Hamilton won the grand prix in appalling conditions last year to underline his right to be considered alongside the greats of his sport.

"It wasn't a perfect weekend," Hamilton admitted. "There were puddles everywhere and it rained non-stop. It was very tough not to go off, but a big boost came every time I went through Abbey. Everyone was spinning there, but the crowd would get up and cheer me. I could see their flags waving. That was the most fulfiling race in my whole life."

At Silverstone last week Hill, himself the victor here in 1994 in the race that his famed father Graham could never win, paid tribute to Hamilton's drive. "You were under a lot of pressure at the time. There was a lot going on in your life. That drive was right up there with the best drives in history... I know what you went through when you won because I remember when I won here. It was absolutely terrific."

So will this really be the last grand prix at the hallowed airfield venue? Earlier this weekend, BRDC chairman Robert Brooks stressed Silverstone's determination to be ready to stand in should Donington Park not be ready to stage the race in 2010, the first year of a 17-year contract. And now that the Fota breakaway series appears to be a reality, there is a chance that the track will be called upon to hold a round in the Grand Prix World Series, or whatever title is ultimately chosen.

"We are here today as an F1 venue," Brooks said. "We have a very strong relationship with the FIA and we would like that to carry on.

"But the situation is that we don't have a grand prix next year and we are a business that does not have that slot filled. Under those circumstances, we have to consider it."

So this might be the last FIA Formula One World Championship grand prix at the venue, 60 years after it hosted the very first, but it might not be the last grand prix race here.

Farewell Silverstone: A tribute in numbers

1948 Silverstone first hosted the British Grand Prix 61 years ago, with Maserati's Italian driver Luigi Viloresi winning.

1958 It was a decade before a British driver won at Silverstone – Peter Collins winning in a Ferrari.

5,141 Length in metres of the track, including 17 turns and the infamous "Hanger Strait" and the Brooklands turn.

45 Tomorrow's race will be the 45th grand prix held at Silverstone ahead of a move to Donington Park next year.

14 Victories for British drivers at Hertfordshire circuit – Jim Clark being the most successful with five wins.

8 Years between Lewis Hamilton's victory last year and the previous Brit victor – David Coulthard in 2000.

5 Drivers who have won consecutive Silverstone races – David Coulthard the most recent, in 1999 & 2000.

78.739 Fastest lap in seconds set at Silverstone, by Ferrari's Michael Schumacher, en route to his 2004 victory.

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