To say that the English summer this year has been erratic on the weather front is to understate things – and the weekend of the Silverstone Classic had it all. The Thursday before the event saw record temperatures hitting an almost unprecedented 38 Celsius, making loading and setting up for the weekend a very draining exercise for all concerned. Friday – the first of the two days on which I attended – saw a drop down to 22 Celsius but was at least dry, which is more than could be said for the Saturday. By Sunday – my second visit – it felt more like March than the end of July. None of this could have made life easy for the competitors taking part on the track, nor for the organisers of the many club zones and the numerous peripheral attractions. Nevertheless, by Sunday late afternoon all races were completed, and the organisers pronounced the event a resounding success (not that they would admit to anything else, of course).
Over the past 5 years, the Silverstone Classic has become probably my favourite UK classic event. The weekend offers superb display of historic motorsport combined with the opportunity to see the many thousands of classic cars brought to the circuit by enthusiasts. With unfettered access to the pit lane, garages and grandstands at no extra cost and without the crowd pressure that Goodwood suffers from, the Classic is somewhat more relaxed – it’s possible to wander freely in among the cars and their feverishly-working mechanics, and the pit areas are generally hives of activity as spectators carefully pick their way around pieces of car body, wheels, sometimes entire engines, which are scattered about.
There’s been racing of all kinds on this former airfield since 1947, with Formula 1 perhaps at the pinnacle. The circuit has regularly held the British Grand Prix since 1948, with 141,000 spectators there to witness Lewis Hamilton’s inexorable march to a fifth world title just three weeks ago. It’s also the venue for the British round of Moto GP and FIA World Endurance Championship, plus a number of lower-key motorsport events throughout the year.
Fastest lap at this year’s GP was set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes at 1min 27.369secs, an average speed of 242.735kmh/150.8285mph around the 5.891km/3.66miles track, making it one of the world’s fastest circuits. The Classic doesn’t see speeds – or indeed crowds – like these, but the racing is no less competitive for that. There were over 1,000 entries taking part in 21 races across 15 categories ranging from pre-war “Gentleman Racers” in the Bentley Centenary Trophy, through Historic Grand Prix and Formula 1 cars, Touring Cars, GT and Sports cars and a sixty car entry for the Mini Celebration Trophy – something for just about every fan of historic motor racing.
With two paddocks – National and International – full to overflowing with literally hundreds of fabulous old racing cars, it’s impossible for me to do full justice to an event on this scale in a little under a couple of thousand words. Still, I will endeavour to give you a flavour of the weekend and highlight just a few of the wonderful classic racers which caught my eye.
One of the features of historic motorsport is the sheer variety of cars that take part in each race, resulting in some wonderful David and Goliath contests. The RAC TT for Historic Cars (Pre-63 GT) had possibly the greatest contrasts as curvaceous E-Types, hairy-chested Healey 3000’s, nimble Lotus Elites and Porsche 356’s and many more banged wheels with a 1962 Ogle SX1000 – a tiny Mini-based fibreglass coupé – and one of the most distinctive Ferrari’s ever built, the amazing Ferrari 250GT “Breadvan”. Built in 1962 for the Italian nobleman Count Volpi (who is now 81) and his Scuderia Serenissima racing team after a falling out with Enzo Ferrari, the car has a history as convoluted as it’s styling, and after its brief racing career – including a run at Le Mans, where it retired after four hours – this quite astonishing car was used as a daily driver before getting back on the racetrack in the 1970’s. It’s fair to say that its styling is challenging, but what a charismatic car this is, and of course its unique nature makes it a major attraction on the historic racing circuit.
In the RAC Woodcote Trophy for pre-56 Sportscars and Stirling Moss Trophy for pre-61 Sportscars (long name, but only one race), fabulous machines including Jaguar C and D-Types, Maserati 250S’s, Healey 100’s and perhaps one of the most valuable cars racing at the weekend, a 1954 Aston Martin DB3S worth several million dollars jostled with each other around the track. No matter how often I attend meetings such as this or Goodwood or indeed Prescott, I’m always amazed – but delighted – at the no-holds-barred nature of the competitiveness of the drivers in such expensive and treasured classics, where the slightest misjudgement can land the owner with a rather substantial repair bill.
One of the surprises of the weekend for me among the AC Cobra’s, multiple E-types, Lotus Elans, MGB’s and Ford Mustangs in the field for International Trophy for Classic GT Cars (pre-66) was a sleek, stylish and contemporary-looking coupé which on closer inspection proved to be a Morgan, a red Plus 4SLR from 1965– one of two at the Classic. In this case, SLR stands not for Sport Leicht Rennsport, but Sprinzel LawrenceTune Racing, the surnames of John Sprinzel and Chris Lawrence, who combined to produce the car. Four were built in total, and all survive. Both I and my companions for the event were taken aback by just how cool this car was and couldn’t help thinking that Morgan should have produced this as a road car… perhaps they felt the world wasn’t ready for a modern-looking Morgan…
As part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bentley, one of the featured races was the Bentley Centenary Trophy for Pre-War Sports Cars, with some magnificent machines harking back to the days of the Gentleman racer, driving with elbows out as they tried to wrestle these beasts of cars around the track. I loved the glorious burgundy 1932 Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Zagato Spyder – to give it it’s full name – and it’s sibling 1934 8C Monza in blue and black, as well as a fabulous gaggle of Aston Martin LM-series cars, but perhaps my favourite was the delectable blue 1936 Delahaye 135 – just lovely! And that’s not to forget the cars and drivers behind the anniversary, the Bentleys themselves – or fast lorries, as Ettore Bugatti once allegedly referred to them as.
Moving a little nearer to the present but still very firmly in the past, the pre-66 Grand Prix event contained much to savour, not least the marvellous 1957 Maserati 250F’s – three of them! – as well as a variety of Coopers, Lotuses, Brabhams and more. Probably the most singular car in this class was the South African-built 1962 Assegai – the only F1 car ever built in SA. Built by Tony Kotze as a privateer, it was entered in the 1962 Rand GP at Kyalami but failed to qualify and never competed in another Grand Prix. It looks a lot like the legendary Ferrari 156, is powered by an Alfa Romeo engine, and its name reflects its pointy nose – Assegai is a type of Zulu spear.
One of the over-riding impressions that this generation of single-seaters leaves – and here I include the Formula 2 and Formula 3 cars – is how delicately slender many of them are. Obviously I realise that these cars were fundamentally more dangerous to race than the Formula One rockets of today, despite their lesser performance but impressive as today’s cars are, their predecessors are so much more beautiful to look at.
Having said that, the sight and sound of the Historic Formula One cars of the ‘70s and ‘80s – by far the quickest cars of the weekend – blasting down Wellington and Hangar Straight, engines howling, was truly spectacular, and we were even treated to some demonstration laps by Sir Jackie Stewart himself in the astonishing Matra MS80-02 with which he won the 1969 British GP – glorious!
The Historic Touring Car Challenge class (66-90) featured racing versions of many of the road cars we get so excited about when we see them at shows or on the road, taking us back to the heydays of both the British and European Touring Car Championships of the late 1970’s and onwards up through the ‘80’s. So much to take in here, but the cars that really struck home for me – besides the Rover SD1’s from my former employers – were the Ford Capri’s and BMW’s, most especially, the spectacular 1975 BMW 3.0CSL of Alex Elliott, in a fabulous BMW Motorsport colour scheme. In amongst these were a fistful of Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500’s, Alfa Romeo’s, Escorts, Metros, Mustangs and a thunderous 1974 Chevy Camaro – all properly awesome cars, bringing back memories of those tremendous battles around Europe back in the day. Sadly, the CSL suffered a number of problems during the race itself, pitting several times.
The Pre-66 Touring Cars were just as varied, with multiple 1300cc Mini Coopers, 4.7-litre Mustangs and Ford Falcon Sprints alike, competing with each other as well as Lotus Cortina’s, a gorgeous 1964 Alfa Giulia Ti and a lovely BMW 1800Ti.
There were a lot of Mini’s around, with one area of the International Paddock given over entirely to them, since there was a grid of no less than 60 to celebrate the little marvel’s 60th birthday! The one I liked most of all of them though, was Mark Burnett’s bright red 1964 Mini Countryman, with beautifully polished woodwork – this terrific little car really stood out among its more numerous and commonplace brethren.
One of my favourite sports racers from the late 1960’s and ‘70’s is the Lola T70 – not least because it looks so much like a Porsche 917, the greatest sports racer of all time – and as usual at Silverstone, there were several of these brutal yet elegant sportscars present, competing in the Yokohama Trophy FIA Masters Historic Sports Cars. Yet in terms of sheer power, perhaps the car of the day was the monstrous McLaren M8F Can-Am racer, all 8-litres and 740-bhp of big-block Chevrolet might – in 1972! This epic car ran in the aptly-named Thundersports race – it won the first race on Saturday in less than favourable conditions – and must have been a terrifying drive, but unfortunately retired from Sunday’s race with mechanical problems.
Of course, the historic racing is just one part of this massive festival, and in between visits to the race paddocks and checking out some of the racing, I wandered around the 120 club cars and not least the auction – more on these aspects of the Silverstone Classic coming soon!