"We want to make this a truly memorable event, to go out on a high," Robert Brooks, the chairman of the British Racing Drivers' Club, said at Silverstone this weekend. History, however, may come to remember this event as a watershed for the sport rather than just the last FIA Formula One World Championship grand prix to be held there.
Until qualifying yesterday, which saw Sebastian Vettel, Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber take the three top slots and local heroes Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton qualify in only sixth and 19th places respectively, the arguments off the Northamptonshire track far outweighed activities upon it.
Back in the winter of 1980 the teams' alliance, known as FOCA, went to war with the FISA, forerunner of what we know today as the FIA. Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley led a crusade to wrest power from mercurial governing body president, Jean-Marie Balestre, planning their own grandly titled World Federation of Motor Sport breakaway series.
"It was," Mosley once remembered, "rather like a story Colin Chapman once told me about an Austrian town that was besieged. They only had one cow but they repainted it daily to fool their enemy that they had more food than they really had. It was the same for us." Just as Ecclestone and Mosley prepared to throw in their audacious hand, Balestre capitulated. The FIA retained sporting and technical control of the sport, but the commercial side passed to Ecclestone.
What finally erupted this weekend at Silverstone made all that look like a spat in a kindergarten, and had been a long time coming. It had its roots, of course, in the interminable argument about cost cutting and budget caps. But when the eight Formula One Teams' Association (FOTA) members – Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes, Brawn, BMW Sauber, Toyota, Renault, Red Bull and Toro Rosso – declined to lift the conditions they had placed on their entries to the 2010 FIA Formula One World Championship, and announced their intention to stage their own breakaway series next year, it had little to do with money.
Instead it is all about the governance of the sport. For which, read the manner in which Mosley runs things. Quite simply, the teams have had enough of his hardline tactics and are set on going their own way unless he takes a step back and some measure of mutually acceptable sanity can be restored. Mosley dismissed the renegades as "loonies", which merely tended to endorse their claims about his management.
Williams (for the time being) and Force India have announced their intention to stand firm with the FIA. The newly accepted newcomers US F1, Campos Meta and Manor diplomatically said nothing. Prodrive, Lola and N Technology, all of them refused entries, rubbed their hands and made a beeline to FOTA representatives.
"We believe that we should encourage new teams," said McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh. "If we had, say, 15 teams, we would be quite happy and could accommodate that number as we grow the sport."
The moment the FOTA cat escaped the FIA bag, it ran around the paddock chased by all the dogs of war. Would the breakaway really happen? Would Mosley be obliged to stand down or would he tough it out, as he did so successfully after his sex scandal last year? Might Ecclestone affect the impossible, and bring all the warring parties back under the umbrella of peace?
Meanwhile the only capacity crowd of 2009 savoured the sight of their beloved cars and drivers in action. In vain we waited for Button's usual fast laps. But all weekend it was clear that Brawn were struggling and Red Bull had taken a step forward with another new aerodynamic package. Vettel had no real trouble annexing pole. Webber provided some much-needed humour when he slammed Kimi Raikkonen. "I don't know whether Kimi was drinking some vodka or dreaming, I don't know what he was doing," the Australian growled, "but he was totally asleep on the back straight. He should have been on the right at Stowe instead of on the left, and basically he just didn't care, so that ruined my best lap."
Vettel was beaming. "It's been a fantastic weekend, from the beginning to the end not a single problem," he said. "I had two very good laps in Q3. The second one was the best of the weekend. I was able to use the tyres perfectly well and brought the lap to the chequered flag. I was surprised how quick I was, and finally it was enough."
Barrichello was happy, too, especially as he was way ahead of Button. "My best lap of the weekend was in Q3, I need to check whether I breathed during it, but it was such a nice one," said the Brazilian. "The only negative is why the hell are they taking this race away from here? You can see the fans, big efforts have been made to get us all in here, the track is safe and we saw [Adrian] Sutil walk away from a big impact. The only thing you can't change is the British weather."
There was a ray of sunshine, however. Ecclestone revealed yesterday that there will be a British Grand Prix in 2010 and that Silverstone will host it if Donington Park cannot be readied in time, after fears that the race might follow the French GP off the calendar. "We've got an agreement with Donington and I'm hoping they can complete the agreement and do all the things they are supposed to do," he said. "And if they can't, for sure we will come back to Silverstone."
Perhaps all is not lost, after all.