Monsoon like rain totally obliterated the signs to the Silverstone circuit as we drove along the A43 last Thursday afternoon. It would have been a washed-out day before the start of the British Grand Prix in normal circumstances. Silverstone looked desolate, empty and very wet. For the first time since the World Championship started in 1949 there was no British round of the World Championship. Similar monsoon conditions two years ago caused the cancellation of race day, but the British Grand Prix was on that original schedule and practice and qualifying went ahead. Only Britain and Holland had staged a World Championship event every year since 1949 and both had to be cancelled this year in the current pandemic crisis.
In many ways Silverstone, which hosted the first ever Formula One World Championship race in 1949, spearheaded the two wheels safety revolution in the seventies. The road-based circuits that had been the very foundation of those early World Championship pioneering days were just too dangerous for motorcycles that were getting so much faster and more sophisticated. The most famous circuit of them all the 60.721 kms TT mountain circuit on the Isle of Man had staged that first World Championship race in 1949 but in 1976 it ended an era and hosted its last World Championship event. Top riders including multi TT winner and World Champion Giacomo Agostini boycotted the Isle of Man because they thought it was just too dangerous while National Federations like Spain banned their riders from competing.
On August 14th, 1977 Silverstone took over the World Championship status and hosted the British Grand Prix for the first time. It was a major chapter in the history of the sport which just had to happen. A purpose-built safer circuit replacing the legendary road circuit. Others were soon to follow suite. Rijeka in Yugoslavia, Brno in Czechoslovakia, the Nürburgring and the Sachsenring in Germany realised were the future lay. They built new circuits to ensure their futures as World Championship venues while never forgetting the exploits of the riders and teams that had established the very foundations of modern day MotoGP racing with their skill, bravery and in some cases their lives.
It was so close to being the prefect start for Silverstone with a British winner in the 500-cc race. Steve Parrish led the way with a handful of laps remaining urged on by the pit board ‘Gas it Wanker’ held out by his great friend and World Champion Barry Sheene but then a few spots of that dreaded Silverstone rain arrived. Parrish lost the front end of his Suzuki and crashed at Copse corner. Another British Suzuki rider John Williams took the lead then crashed and American Pat Hennen deservedly won the historic race. It was Hennen’s second grand prix win but ironically his career came to an end when injuries forced him to retire after crashing at the now non-Championship TT in the Isle of Man a year later.
Two years later Silverstone staged a 500-cc race that is still talked about today. The BBC televised the race live with the legendary Murray Walker on the microphone and Kenny Roberts and Barry Sheene produced a battle that had the whole country mesmerised. Twenty-eight laps of pure undiluted magic. Constant overtaking, two fingered salutes and a Roberts victory by 0.03 s as Sheene tried to ride round the outside of him on the grass at the 200 kph Woodcote corner at the chequered flag.
That was that as far as a British rider winning the premier class race at his home grand prix. There have been some brave attempts by the likes of Ron Haslam and more recently Cal Crutchlow at Silverstone and Niall Mackenzie and Carl Fogarty when the British Grand Prix switched to Donington Park between 1987 and 2009 but no winners for the patriotic British crowd to celebrate.
We cannot wait for Silverstone, along with Assen, to return next year and hopefully it will have stopped raining by then.