Silverstone Is A Great Place To Get Lost In A Grand Prix Daydream
Photography by Will Broadhead
This past weekend in the UK was an important one on the classic car calendar. For one, Sunday was the national “Drive it Day,” an event set up to raise awareness of the scale and importance of the classic vehicle movement throughout this rainswept little kingdom. Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, we were treated to temperatures more akin to a Mediterranean landscape throughout the weekend rather than the monsoon weather we’ve had as of late. My destination of choice for Drive it Day was the first round of the Formula Vintage Championship, at the historically important Silverstone circuit, in its seventieth year of operation in 2018. The championship is organized by the Vintage Sports Car Club, or the VSCC, and provides races for no end of pre-war stalwarts, and therein lies a potential banana skin…
You see I have a love-hate relationship with vehicles of this type. I’m a fan of cars big and small, powerful and not so powerful, but I’m a firm believer that context is important and whilst seeing nonagenarian Austins and Rileys battling for traction at a hill climb is fabulous entertainment, on a track the size and width of Silverstone, the input and mastery involved in racing these machines can conceivably be somewhat lost in translation. Don’t get me wrong, this racing has a place and it’s vitally important that people still compete in these ancient machines, preserving the running of historically important cars that may just help to educate or inspire a new generation of petrolheads, but at the UK’s only Grand Prix circuit, I prefer to see something a little swifter, a bit rawer, and certainly more raucous. Thankfully Formula Vintage is about more than just Bentley Aero Bruisers; they’ve got some faster machines tucked away as well…
Later on in the weekend and I find myself in the holding paddock for the next race, stood in front of a machine of no small significance. Lotus 25 R4 sits in front of me, at the head of a queue of some 32 vintage grand prix machines. Car R4 was the fourth of seven Lotus 25 chassis that were built, the famous British racing green car with the yellow stripe took 14 wins under Jim Clark and the 1963 world championship, and when I spotted it in the pit garage amongst the other Formula cars, I was a little bit excited to say the least. Colin Chapman’s 25 was a revolutionary design and somewhat of a watershed moment for Grand Prix racing and automobile development in general, as it featured the first fully stressed monocoque chassis to appear in Formula 1.
It wasn’t the only beautiful car in the paddock though, as there were several other examples of early Lotus efforts mixed in amongst single-seaters from the ’50’s and ’60s. There are cars with engines both in front of and behind the driver, outlining the period of flux this era of machines was in at the time, as technology changed and the antiquated front-engine designs went out of fashion. Somewhere in mid-pack sits a gorgeous Ferrari Dino BR01, its resplendent red bodywork housing a 2.5-liter six-pot motor. It looked glorious under the bright sunshine of the Silverstone sky and sounded just as well too. Along with said Ferrari there was a phalanx of Cooper machines on the grid, the marque being the first to achieve success with an engine mounted behind the driver in Formula 1 when Jack Brabham won the championship in ‘59. Other constructors present in the very healthy entry included Heron F1, Brabham, of course, and BRM too.
As my eyes dart and flit between the different cars in the holding pen, notable for their wonderful difference in design, suddenly the Coventry Climax V8 of the Lotus 25 barks into life. The racket created by the event penetrates my chest and the excitement only builds as other machines are fired up, a mixture of engine tones and exhaust notes filling the air in a strange cadence with one another. The smell too saturated the atmosphere and wafted up through my nostrils in a blend of spent acrid fuel, the sensual assault throwing me into an unquestioning love affair with each and every one lined up to race. Goggles were pulled down over eyes as gloved hands gripped wheels and just for a second, I allowed myself to drift into a different time, imagining just what it might have been like observing such a scene with people like Moss, Hawthorn, Clark, Hill (both Phil and Graham), Ireland, and Brabham at the wheels. It felt a little bit like the opening to Grand Prix, if you recall that brilliant title sequence by Saul Bass.
I was brought out of my trance by a whistle as the cars left the holding area for the sighting lap and grid. Minutes later I was watching the same cars dance through the corners of Luffield, skating poetically around the famous old curves, the same way they had across the circuit all weekend. Watching these cars drift through Copse, still one of the greatest corners in the world in my opinion, was a particular highlight. Pitching into this ultra-high-speed right hander, suspension compressing and tails breaking away on the very knife-edge of traction—breathtaking stuff, whichever year it takes place in.
Of course, many classes throughout the weekend were just as exciting. The 1950s sports cars gave just as good a showing, with the larger capacity Allards, Jaguars, and Aston Martins struggling for purchase as they powered through the bends. Indeed, lack of traction was common for the fastest machines in all classes and, whilst the speed of the pre-war cars may not be as impressive as the younger competitors, the skill involved in maintaining such velocities on impossibly skinny tires with huge steering wheels was certainly eye-opening, the black lines that populated the vast expanse of Silverstone’s tarmac narrated the theme of this weekend’s most entertaining moments. Each race had its stars and reasons to enjoy it, as did the wholly open paddock allowing access to all areas, but for me the brightest luminaries of the weekend were undoubtedly those fabulous old Grand Prix machines. The noise, shapes, colors, and smells of these classic racing cars will live with me for a very long time to come.