NEIL RANDON reflects on this year’s iconic F1 British Grand Prix at Silverstone and how simply being there as a fan will live long in the memory.
The last time I went to a Grand Prix as an actual paying spectator was in 1987 for the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
I was a mad-keen amateur photographer at the time, and I went for all three days – Friday to Sunday. For the race itself I took a step ladder and parked myself on the inside of Stowe corner. From my lofty vantage point I could see over the heads of those spectators in front of me and I got a decent view of the track from the exit of Chapel, all the way along the Hanger Straight to Stowe, down towards Club and then on through Abbey and beyond.
More than 34 years on, that race is still the most exciting I have been to prior to this year’s British Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet led Williams-Honda teammate Nigel Mansell by a couple of seconds at halfway. Pit stops seemed unlikely, but on lap 35 Mansell’s team took the decision to dive into the pits to change tyres. With fresh rubber, Mansell had 28 laps to make up 29 seconds on Piquet.
The TV coverage of his charge to the front will survive longer than I will, as Mansell broke lap record after lap record, eight in all, chasing down Piquet and by lap 62 he caught the Brazilian. It was thrilling stuff, with Mansell cheered on by a fervent British crowd, they were scenes never before witnessed by a crowd at the British Grand Prix.
A lap later as the pair barrelled down the Hanger Straight, Mansell jinked left to attempt a pass on Piquet to his outside, before immediately diving to his right to take the inside line as they approached Stowe.
The crowd went apoplectic as Mansell grabbed the lead and went on to a sensational victory in his home race.
I happened to take a series of photos using my old Nikon SLR, without a motor drive, as Mansell made his pass and managed to secure a couple of reasonably sharp shots.
What I didn’t realise at the time, until ten years later in fact, was that I happened to be one of the few people present who managed to get a photograph of this dramatic moment, professional or otherwise.
When I started working at what was then Motoring News, I mentioned my photos during the build up to our preview of that year’s British Grand Prix to the editor Mark Skewis. To cut a long story short, the photo above was used a number of times over the years by Haymarket publications, from MN and Autosport, to F1 racing magazine.
After that monumental race, from 1988 until 2001 I travelled to races at home and abroad as a member of the press. Being in the paddock and seeing the drivers and teams up close, as well as interviewing these motorsport superstars and their team principles, was a privilege but by the same token it was easy to become a little blasé about it all. I’ve witnessed first-hand and experienced many things fans would sell their mothers at the blink of an eye for, but to really savour the atmosphere of a Grand Prix, the truth is you really need to be on the other side of the fence with the fans. That’s where the atmosphere and the passion lies.
During the past 20 years of unrelated freelance work and a gradual decline in interest in F1 meant I was not willing to make the effort to go anymore. I still watched many of the races on TV (but certainly not all of them) but I had no desire to spend money on a GP ticket.
THE 2021 SILVERSTONE EXPERIENCE
But 20 years after my last Grand Prix I suddenly got the urge to revisit Silverstone. COVID abruptly stopped any hope of going last year and so for the first time in 34 years I blew the cobwebs off my wallet and actually bought tickets for this year’s race.
Of course, the track figuration is wildly different to the sweeping simplicity of Silverstone during the 80s, and one of my favourite corners from 2001, Bridge, has now gone.
But in its place is a great F1 circuit, one with many layers to it. I bought a general admission ticket for Friday, with an add-on for inner track access, which proved to be a very good choice.
For Sunday I forked out for a grandstand seat at Woodcote, in the knowledge I would get to see the cars hurtling down the Wellington Straight towards Brooklands, before the slower section at Luffield and then as they accelerate through Woodcote on to the old start/finish straight towards Copse. Again, with hindsight, I chose well.
The ticket-buying process was relatively straightforward, as was the downloading and then printing off of the e-tickets and car park passes. I also saved them on my phone. The one thing I had to get to grips with was downloading the NHS app so I could access my NHS COVID pass, a necessity to gain access to the track to prove you had either had both of your COVID jabs or had taken a test with a negative result for the virus.
Once all had been dealt with it was off to the track as the sun broke under beautiful blue skies on both Friday and Sunday, and an unchallenging 90-minute drive up the M25 and M40. Parking was surprisingly straightforward with no queues on either day.
The weather was glorious – too hot to be truthful – but I for one wasn’t complaining. The process to gain entry was seamless with little fuss scanning tickets.
Once inside the venue it was all about finding my bearings with a handy map given out by members of the Silverstone team on entry.
The track makes up a huge area of real estate. On Friday I walked the equivalent of seven miles during a day that began at 7.30am and ended 12 hours later. What was very apparent was how the track caters for spectators. The all-important toilet facilities were numerous and clean for the most part, and there were also plentiful fresh water stations, vital on a very hot day, for fans to refill their water bottles.
There were themed sections at the track that catered for everyone. It felt like being at a festival.
There were a vast array of food outlets, from the standard full English to a variety of street food stalls, including vegan options, as well as bars, Champagne and Prosecco stands.
The free activities in the Entertainment Village included a giant wheel, carousel and helter skelter, the Family Zone catered for parents with young children, with giant building blocks, a soft play and sensory area and electric go-karts.
For the older kids – and those adults who wanted to join in – the Sports Zone featured inflatable head tennis games, pool tables, table tennis, air hockey and table football, as well as a giant Scalextric track.
The Fan Zone was very much F1-based, with eSports, a pitstop challenge, a driver reaction challenge, plus the launch of the new 2022-regulated F1 car. There was a classic F1 car display, a multitude of F1 team and driver official merchandise, static F1 car stands and giant screens everywhere that included features on the current crop of F1 drivers, and other historic motorsport events through the ages.
And, finally there was the Main Stage, with music sessions were held during the day and particularly in the evening when the racing had finished. That and Silverstone Radio in between events kept everyone occupied.
There was much to like about this place. But it was the F1s on the track I’d come to see.
And they didn’t disappoint…
The British Grand Prix this year was included as part of the latest phase of the UK Government’s Event Research Programme (ERP) following the pandemic, and from a Formula One perspective it was also a test bed for the new Grand Prix format being rolled out by Formula One managing director Ross Brawn and his team.
THAT FIRST FRIDAY QUALIFYING SESSION
Friday now featured one hour of practice in the early afternoon, followed by the one-hour qualifying session normally held on Saturday. But this qualifying session was not for the grid line-up on Sunday, but for the new Sprint qualifying race held on Saturday afternoon. The winner of the Sprint would start on pole, with the positions behind the winner making up the order on the grid for Sunday afternoon’s main event.
What it did was give Friday’s sessions more significance, and the qualifying session in particular, held in the early evening – that in itself added to the atmosphere – made for an incredibly exciting 60 minutes of action.
The early afternoon session had been totally dominated by Red Bull and World Championship leader Max Verstappen. No surprise there, as the Red Bull has been the car to beat this season, but what was a surprise was how comparatively slow in a straight line the car was compared to the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time world champion fizzed through the timing traps at 205.4mph down the Hanger Straight, compared to 199.4mph for Verstappen.
The Red Bull, however, made up that time significantly through the Beckets complex and was appreciably more nimble through the slower sections of the track.
But throughout qualifying Hamilton always had the edge – for the first time since he had snatched pole in Spain in May – and much to everyone’s surprise he grabbed pole by 0.075sec from Verstappen, who failed to respond during his last timed lap. Hamilton would have gone even quicker on his final run but for oversteer coming out of Club corner.
As Verstappen flashed across the line to fall just short, the partisan crowd in the various grandstands simultaneously roared their approval, as they did even more so for George Russell moments later. The fellow Brit had squeezed every last ounce of speed out of his Williams Mercedes to make the top-10 shootout and ended the session an excellent eighth fastest.
It had been a great watch – and it all happened on a sultry Friday evening. I went home buzzing with excitement after a motorsport event more than I had for some years.
So why were Red Bull caught out? In reality, they weren’t. The cooler ambient temperature during qualifying at 6pm gave Mercedes the opportunity to cash in on their overall top speed, whereas Red Bull had set their car up for the Sprint, due to be run in the heat of the day the following afternoon.
And their anticipation worked. I watched on TV at home. Hamilton got a tardy start on Saturday, allowing Verstappen to grab the lead. The world champion kept close to the leader down the Wellington Straight and out of Luffield took a wider line which allowed him extra speed to attempt an overtaking manoeuvre taking the outside line into Copse.
But Verstappen held the trump cards, forcing the issue by squeezing Hamilton enough for him to back out of the move and maintain the lead. From that moment on, the 23-year-old Dutchman was down the road and out of sight.
Further back the highlight of the 17-lap race had been the climb up the field of Fernando Alonso, using all of his legendary track craft, who climbed up from 11th on the grid to an extraordinary fifth place in the space of less than a third of a lap.
He would drop to seventh by the end, having to eventually give up two places to the superior power of the McLaren’s of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo, but it was a brilliant drive from the 39-year-old nonetheless.
There was little Hamilton could do about Verstappen’s pace after that opening lap and he was forced to settle for second, finishing 1.4 seconds behind the championship leader. Bitterly disappointed, he was up against it. If the same thing happened again on Sunday afternoon, being 33 points behind in the title race, aspirations of an unprecedented eighth world crown would virtually be over.
THE RACE AND THAT CRASH
Sunday was the hottest day of the weekend off the track – and even more so on it.
I sat in what was a relatively empty Woodcote B grandstand during the support races, choosing a seat that was still in the shade and on the end of a row, rather than the one I had booked for the race that was still in the intense glare of the sun. My thoughts were that when the occupier of the seat eventually arrived I’d happily move to my actual seat which would, hopefully, later in the day be in the shade.
But as the day progressed this seat – and the one next to it – never got taken. I had somehow managed to chose the only two unclaimed seats in that entire grandstand, and so I used them throughout the whole day.
Race day began with a mesmerising Masters GT Challenge race that featured hugely entertaining wheel-to-wheel racing between the long-time leader Julian Thomas in his Shelby Daytona Cobra and Andrew Jordan in the AC Cobra Daytona Coupe.
This thrilling battle ended on the final lap when Jordan made a last-gasp effort to dive inside Thomas at Stowe, but snaking under braking he made contact and took both out of contention for the victory, handing the race to the Shelby Cobra of James Cottingham, who took lead for the first time and the flag moments later.
The F2 race was won a shade comfortably by Guanyu Zhou for UNI-Virtuosi, ahead of Britain’s Dan Ticktum in his Carlin and championship leader Oscar Piastri for Prema Racing.
The drivers for the Grand Prix came out on the back of prepared transporters for the driver parade, so everyone could get to see their heroes in the flesh momentarily. The Red Arrows did their thing as the F1 cars took to the track prior to lining up on the grid for the 65th British Grand Prix.
Accompanied by the excellent David Addison in the commentary box the lights went out and the race was on to a crescendo on noise from the grandstands.
The opening lap of the 2021 British Grand Prix will go down as one of the most dramatic and controversial in the sport’s 71-year history and being there made it all more breathtaking. It was one of those moments that will be discussed endlessly for years without any concrete agreement or conclusion. It has and will polarise opinion.
The opening half a lap was intensified by the hugely aggressive driving from the two championship rivals. Verstappen held the lead approaching the first corner, but Hamilton had a better start and tried to go up the inner, but the 23-year-old held firm to retain the lead.
The Mercedes was almost alongside entering The Loop, and exiting Aintree as they came into view Hamilton took a wider line on the approach to the Wellington Straight. Verstappen was forced to defend as the pair raced wheel-to-wheel at 180mph, with just the width of a cigarette paper between them. They may have even touched wheels.
Hamilton got his nose in front approaching Brooklands, but Verstappen had the inside line and held on to the lead. But as the pair turned into the old start/finish line straight, the Dutchman was vulnerable to attack – and the crowd knew it as they cheered on Hamilton, who took the wider and faster exit and closed up with the leader as they hurtled down to Copse.
And reminiscent of how Mansell tackled Piquet 34 years earlier, Hamilton tried the same move at the end of the straight, sending Verstappen a dummy by jinking left and then darting to the right. Verstappen tried to close the door, but thought better of it, just giving Hamilton enough room to make his move.
All this at 180 mph, where decisions are made in milliseconds. Put simply, Hamilton, who had historically backed out of any potential collision with his renowned super-aggressive rival, laid down a marker for the first time in their championship battle.
Having failed the day before, making a successful pass here was vital. Hamilton would have been keenly aware that if Verstappen remained in front as the field entered the Beckets complex, where the Red Bull was vastly superior to the Mercedes, he would likely conjure a sufficient enough gap down the Hanger Straight to repel any challenge from the Mercedes, despite its straight-line speed superiority.
By sticking his car upsides Verstappen inside at Copse, Hamilton was also making a statement – a bold one that could have come unstuck. He was handing over the decision-making to Max. I’m here. Your move.
From the Woodcote grandstand we swiftly looked up at the giant screens to see what was going to happen next.
In a flash and a blur Verstappen was suddenly hurtling towards the tyre barrier, which he hit with alarming force. The sound of the cars was drowned out by the roar of the crowd as they became aware Verstappen was out of the race.
From the on-board footage Verstappen slightly hesitates and then decides to take the racing line, presumably expecting Hamilton to back out of the move as he had done previously. Hamilton drifted slightly away from the apex of the corner, and on his part, momentarily half backed out of manoeuvre as the door closed fast – but they still made contact – Hamilton’s front left wheel with Verstappen’s outside rear – it was only the briefest of touches, but it was enough to send the young Dutchman over the gravel and into the tyre wall at alarming speed.
As Hamilton gathered up his car, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took the lead, with Hamilton still in second place. The race was red-flagged – a fortunate outcome for the world champion, as the slight damage from the contact could be repaired. An understandably winded Verstappen was, thankfully, able to get out of his car unaided, before being taken to hospital for routine checks.
Everyone had time to catch their breath. 40 minutes later the race restarted and Leclerc seemed to have the race under control as he extended his lead to 2.3 seconds from Hamilton, who was given a 10-second penalty for his part in the Verstappen incident.
This he took when he went into the pits on lap 27 to change tyres and once out of the pits and having passed Norris and his teammate Valtteri Bottas to regain second place, he had just 12 laps to try and make up eight seconds on Leclerc.
It didn’t look a realistic prospect.
One again we were reminded of Mansell and Piquet, as Hamilton then set about trying to catch Leclerc with time running out. But with each lap Hamilton began to close the gap, producing personal best times on each circuit.
And once it became apparent he was more than a second a lap quicker than the leader, the crowd were on their feet on every lap as Hamilton swept passed.
The gap closed dramatically and with three laps to go, Hamilton caught Lerclerc. Exiting Luffield and approaching Copse, Hamilton lined up the Ferrari for an overtaking move. Down the inside he went again, but this time Leclerc went wide and Hamilton was through and into the lead for the first time in the race.
A scroll through social media can sometimes lead one to believe Lewis Hamilton is not the most popular of British sportsman – despised even. But social media is a very strange place, the home of the minority who generally speak loudest – but they don’t reflect how the general public actually feel – about anything.
They weren’t at Silverstone, that is for certain. One only had to witness the unforgettable scenes as 140,000 spectators rose as one to cheer on their hero to the chequered flag and a remarkable, if controversial, victory – his eighth British Grand Prix win and the 99th Grand Prix career victory. It was his moment.
But, by the same token, Max Verstappen, who had some justification for feeling aggrieved at the outcome of the Copse incident, will have his own moments of glory to saviour in the future. He is a truly great driver, an amazing talent, who should win many championships in the coming decade. He will have huge support in front of his home crowd at Zandvoort this year (if the race goes ahead) – the orange army will be a force of nature on that day.
Whatever happens in the future, this title battle between an all-time great multiple world champion and the young pretender to his crown will captivate F1 fans until the end of the season.
As he slowed after the chequered flag, Hamilton was given a Union flag at the end of the Wellington Straight, which he held aloft from the cockpit as he drove slowly in front of the grandstands, including ours, to a standing ovation. It was emotional, stirring stuff – I have never experienced anything quite like it at a motorsport event before.
The 2021 British Grand Prix was a race I will never forget.
After that, it was time to relax with a bite to eat close to the main stage with a couple of cold beers, before sauntering back to the car for the drive home. No queues getting out, by the way. Perfect.
What a day it had been.
© NEIL RANDON 2021
Photos by Neil Randon