When the inaugural Formula One season began, back in 1950, the opening race was held in Britain and it was held at the former RAF base of Silverstone in Northamptonshire, which has continued to host the British Grand Prix and will do so for the next few years, following various upgrades to facilities at the circuit and the signing of a long term deal with Bernie Ecclestone. In those sixty three years since then the British GP has always been part of the F1 calendar, but it has not always been held at Silverstone; between 1955 and 1962 the race was held five times at Aintree in Merseyside and from 1964 to 1986 it alternated between Silverstone and Brands Hatch in Kent.
Aintree is a name more usually associated with horse racing than with motor sport and the motor racing circuit has some sections with familiar sounding names for followers of the Sport of Kings, even those who only follow it once a year for the Grand National: Valentine’s Way, Canal Curve and Beechers Bend. The reason for this is simple – like Goodwood in West Sussex, which it was built to echo, the motor racing circuit is within the horse racing circuit, sharing the same grandstands and the same basic outline, although with an additional three sided loop within the basic circuit to bring the length up to 3 miles (4.828 km).
The circuit was built in 1954 and hosted its first British Grand Prix the following year, which was won by Stirling Moss, then driving for Mercedes. This was the first time that the British GP had been won by a British driver, although there was some controversy with some contending that Moss’ fellow Silver Arrow, Juan Manuel Fangio, had allowed him to win rather than overtake him near the end of the race. Fangio always denied this stating simply that Moss was ‘just better than me that day.’ What was certain was that Mercedes were the better team that day as its four drivers completed a sweep of the top four places. The next race held at Aintree, two years later, is also notable. Moss won the race again, jointly with Tony Brooks, the last time that two drivers would share a race victory. However, this time Moss was no longer driving for Mercedes, and this victory was in a Vanwall, making it the first time that the British GP had been won by British drivers in a British car.
The 1959 race was won by Australian Jack Brabham, with Moss second and the twenty one year old Bruce McLaren in third, having earlier in the race become the youngest driver to set the fastest lap in a GP, an honour which remained his until the 2003 Canadian Grand Prix, when Fernando Alonso broke his record by one day. Ferrari did not take part that year, being unable to leave Italy because of strikes, but the next time Aintree hosted the race, Ferrari won, with Wolfgang von Trips taking his second and last race victory before his death in the terrible crash at Monza two races later.
The final race at Aintree in 1962 was again won by a British driver, Jim Clark, taking his second race victory. If Stirling Moss defines British racing in the 1950s, then Jim Clark defines it in the 1960s, so it is quite appropriate that the first and last winners at Aintree represent a passing of the torch from one generation to another of British drivers.
The other circuit to have hosted the British Grand Prix, Brands Hatch, is a very different circuit to both Aintree and Silverstone, which as they were built on a racecourse and an airfield respectively, are both quite level tracks, with smooth, flowing high speed corners. Brands Hatch on the other hand was built on farmland and has a series of tight corners, dips, hills and challenging cambers for drivers to master – Gerhard Berger once described it as ‘the best circuit in the world’ and it was always a popular venue.
The first British GP to be held at Brands Hatch was in 1964 and was won by Jim Clark, who won five out of the six British Grands Prix between 1962 and 1967, although this was his only race victory at Brands Hatch. The rest of the podium that year was also made up of British drivers, with Graham Hill taking second place and John Surtees taking third. The final race to be held at Brands Hatch in 1986 was also won by a British driver, Nigel Mansell, so again the first and last races at the circuit represented a handing on of the torch, from Jim Clark to the man who defined British racing in the 1980s. However in between those two races, not a single British driver won at Brands Hatch, as all the British victories at the home GP, for Jackie Stewart, James Hunt and John Watson, took place at Silverstone rather than the Kent circuit.
The second race held at Brands Hatch saw Jack Brabham and his teammate Denny Hulme take the first ever 1-2 for the Australian’s racing team, one of four consecutive first places which helped Black Jack become the first driver to win the championship driving his own car for his own team.
The 1968 race saw Jo Siffert become the first ever Swiss race winner after a race long battle with Chris Amon for Ferrari. Tragically Siffert died three years later in the non-championship World Championship Victory Race on the same circuit that had seen his greatest triumph. The next race, in 1970, was won by Jochen Rindt who was killed later that season at Monza, although having already scored enough points for him to win the Drivers’ Championship, the first (and hopefully only) time that there has been a posthumous champion in Formula One.
The next winner of the Brands Hatch race, Emerson Fittipaldi in 1972 went on the win the Drivers’ Chmpionship that year, as did 1980 winner Alan Jones and 1984 winner Niki Lauda, but the 1976 race played a very different part in the fortunes of that year’s World Champion.
The race that year was red flagged almost immediately after a first corner incident that damaged several cars and left the track strewn with debris. James Hunt’s McLaren M23 was one of those damaged and he made his way back to the pits taking a short cut across an access road, rather than completing a whole circuit to get back there. The stewards ruled that drivers could only take part in the re-started race if they were driving the same car, rather than using a replacement, and if they had completed a full lap of the circuit. The McLaren mechanics managed to repair Hunt’s car in time, but because he had not completed a full lap, he was not going to be allow to re-start the race. This initial decision was reversed in the face of opposition from the crowd, who chanted Hunt’s name until he was reinstated, and he went on to win the race, overtaking Niki Lauda after 45 laps when Lauda’s Ferrari 312T2 suffered gearbox problems. After the race Ferrari made an official complaint, ignoring the fact that Clay Regazzoni had re-started the race for Ferrari in a reserve car, against the rulings of the stewards. The complaint was rejected by the stewards after deliberating for several hours, so Ferrari took it to the RAC who again ruled in Hunt’s favour. Finally they took it to the FIA and eventually the decision was made to disqualify Hunt and remove the points he had won in the race, giving the race win to Ferrari’s Niki Lauda, promoting him from second place. Hunt found out about this decision just before that season’s Canadian GP and his anger at the decision helped motivate him to win there and at the next race at Watkins Glen, before sealing the World Championship with a third place at Fuji in the rain.
Ten years later, the final British GP to be held at Brands Hatch was also halted after a first corner crash which blocked the track and damaged several cars. Jacques Laffite suffered a career ending injury, breaking both his legs, but when the race eventually re-started there were no restrictions on using spare cars this time, which was fortunate for Nigel Mansell, whose Williams FW11 had suffered a driveshaft failure in the aborted first start. Driving the spare car, which had actually been set up for his teammate Nelson Piquet, Mansell went on to win the race, with Piquet completing a Williams 1-2. Unfortunately for Mansell, his hopes of following in the footsteps of other Brands Hatch winners and going on to win the Drivers’ Championship that year were ruined when a tyre blow out in the final race of the season at Adelaide prevented him from gaining the third place necessary to guarantee the title.
Although the British Grand Prix will always be mostly associated with Silverstone, the other two venues that have shared this event have both played important roles in the history of F1 and of British motor sport in particular, from Moss to Clark and from Clark to Mansell.