Silverstone is the home of British racing. With a history dating back to 1948, there’s no doubt that the circuit has earned its reputation as one of the best tracks in the world. Always one of the quickest circuits, Silverstone has grown from its original airfield roots into one of the most recognizable in world motorsport.
It began life in the 1940s as a military airfield, home to a unit teaching Wellington pilots how to bomb during the dark hours. After the war ended, the base was left empty until the early 1950s, when a small group of local enthusiasts decided to hold an unofficial race around the runway. One of the drivers hit a sheep, causing the event to be known as the Mutton Grand Prix.
By the following year there was official interest in establishing a circuit from the runaways. With Donington Park having been used as a storage area by the military, Brooklands having been owned by Vickers Armstrong, with its inevitable focus on airplanes and Crystal Palace in a condition of disrepair, the royal Automobile Club began searching out for new venues. With Silverstone’s expanse of runways, perimeter roads and paddocks seeming ideal, the Royal Automobile club began searching for new venues to host the race. With its vast expanses of runways and perimeter road, Silverstone seemed ideal for hosting the race.
In what would prove to be one of the best decisions in motor racing management history, the RAC hired James ‘Jimmy’ Brown in order to organize the first Grand Slam, giving him just under two months to make the race a reality. Not only was he able to pull off a minor miracle by organizing the race, Brown remained firmly at his post for nearly forty years, guiding Silverstone’s transformation from austerity to world class facility.
So it was that in the early 1950s, the first Grand Prix was held on a circuit that was much longer than the one used today. The track was made up of oil drums and straw bales, and spectators were kept at bay by nothing more substantial than a rope barrier. Drivers had to contend with the possibility of colliding with each other at high speeds, so they were given canvas screens to protect them from the consequences.
The event, nevertheless, was deemed a success, and set Silverstone firmly onto the motorsport map. From 1949, the circuit switched to the perimeter road only, although with a chicane at club corner initially. The pit facilities remained between Abbey and Woodcotes.
Significantly, Silver Stone was the venue of the very first Formula One World Championship race, in May 1950. Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance – to this day the only British event at where a reigning monarch has been present – to watch Dr Giacomo Farina win for Alfi Romeo.
The early years also see a shorter ‘Club’ Circuit introduced for a number of National Events for the first time. In 1949, the Vintage Sports Car Club used the new circuit in Copse, Maggots, Beckett’s and Chapel Down to a hairpin and then along the runway back to the start/finish line. The start/finishing line was just after the Stowes hairpin, the course running in a clockwise direction around the track.
From 1952, the BRDC took over the running of Silverstone Circuit from the RAC. A number of corners saw minor changes and other facilities were generally upgraded. The pits and paddocks moved to their present location between Woodcote Farm and Copse Corner. The start/finish line was also relocated to this new position.
The classic Silverstone layouts were now firmly established, complete wit a new Club Course which runs through Copse and Maggots before turning back on itself right before Becketts and running along a runway back to Woodcote, few significant circuit layout changes would happen for the next quarter century. Although gradual improvements to pit and spectators facilities continued.
In 1961 the BRDCA acquired the lease to the agrarian land both within and around circuit, increasing the opportunities of future development. After two crashes in the then ‘open-face’ pit facilities, a separate pit lane – separate from the main track – was built in 1964, vastly improving safety for competitors and mechanics alike.
The BRDC – bolstered by the successfully revenues generated from the track – formed SilverStone Circuits Limited in 1966, to look after the circuit’s commercial activities. Five years afterward, the Club purchased the whole 720-acre estate from Ministry of Defense.
The 1973 British Grand prix stands out as a significant moment in Silverstone’s history, as it was the first race where a driver lost control of his car and crashed into the pit wall. At the end of first lap, a young Jody Scheckter spun off track at Woodcote, losing control of his McLaren and crashing into the pit wall. Behind him, a chain reaction took place, taking out most of the field, and was, at the moment, the biggest crash in Formula 1 history. Amazingly, only Andrea de Adamich was injured, suffering serious injuries, that eventually ended his driving career.
The collision also exposed a fact that debris can end up in the grand stands and it was clear that modifications were needed. The GP took place at Brands Hatch in 1974 but by the time the next season arrived in 1975, an extra chicane greeted the raciers at Woodcote, along with brand new pit garages and a chicane. The national circuit continued bypassing the chicane, as well as the motorcycle track.
One thing that has ever stood Silverstone apart from other circuits is its speed without any slow corners to speak of, and long straightaways taken at full throttle, with average speeds continuing to rise. Even the addition of a chicane at Woodcove did nothing to abate the high velocity charge. By the time the turbo era arrived in Formula 1, cars were passing through Woodcove faster than they had done before, and the circuit was renamed after the new chicane.
Things came to a standstill in 1985, when KeKe Rosberg set a 160 mph average lap speed in qualifying. Three other cars posted laps of over 159 mph. By the time the Formula One stars arrived for 1987, dramatic changes had been made at Woodcote. The old S-bend chicanes were removed and replaced by a sharp left-right bend. In addition, more then £1 million was spent rebuilding the 1975 pits into 40 much bigger garages, topped by a brand new press center.
The changes also allowed for the introduction of a longer National Course, which utilized a new left hand turn off the Club straight (later named Brooklands), and left hander onto the chicanes, forming what became known the Luffield complex. The Club Circuit remained unchanged.
Further significant redevelopment happened during the winter of 1990, intended to take the circuit through to the year 2000. The run off at Cops was increased by tightening the entrance and re-routing around the corner, while the old Becketts corner was bypassed with a sweeping – and high speed – series of corners forming a brand new Maggotts-Coles-Becketts-Chappell Curve sequence, which drew unanimous praise.
Hangar Straight was untouched, save for the addition a traffic bridge, but the track was slowed and tightened into fourth gear, before the track diverged off into the new Vale facility and a left-right flip back onto Club. The drivers were, as a consequence slower through an unchanged Abbey before swooping under the Bridge and right through a new fast corner, up to the right-hander at Priory, and back onto the Brookland/Luffield complex, before Woodcote, without the need for the chicanes, completed the lap.
Further track revisions came after the deaths of AYRTON SENNA and ROLAND RATZENBERGER at Imola and a TESTING CRASH FOR PEDRO LAMY at Silverstone saw a REVIVAL OF THE FOCUS ON CIRCUIT SAFETY. COPSE was further re-aligned to INCREASE RUN-OFF, WHILE a NEW AND SLOWER STOWE WAS CONSTRUCTED. The ENTRY TO CLUB was tightened and a new CHICANE INSERTED AT ABBEY. PRIORY CORNER WAS DIVERTED, TURNING IN EARLIER THAN PREVIOUSLY AND LEADING TO A HAIRPIN-LIKE CORNER AT BROOKLANDS.
A new South Course has been created, running from Abbey to Chapel Curve, which can be run concurrently with the National or Club courses, but without any pit facilities.
In 1996, a better solution was found to Stowe Corner; by creating a gradual kink towards its end and moving the track towards its infield, more room was created for run off and a faster Stowe was once again restored. A new addition at this part was the self contained Stowe circuit. Using some of the original run ways near to the Vale complex the new triangular course offered great and safe facilities for the racing school.
Also new was the international course. This turned right at Maggots, through an exciting chicane at Ireland and into the south course, before turning back around on itself at Abbey through another 180 degree hairpin. This became one of the most used circuits, with many national championship preferring it to the longer grand prix circuit.
Further significant investments were made a year later when a new Priory Brooklands Luffield complex was unveiled much more satisfying to drive its design featured input from drivers themselves. A small modification was made to the International circuit when the Ireland chicane bypassed although motorcycle racers continued to utilize it.
Infrastructure improvements around the circuit improved access. With a four-lane entry route completed in 2002 as ancillary project to joining the M1 and M4 motorways nearby.
After the next significant change in 2003, the World Superbike racingspeed through Woodcote proved to be a concern and a new tight loop at Luffield was inserted, which undoubtedly slow down speeds, but was never widely popular.
Uncertainty over whether the Formula One race would return to Donington Park led to Silverstone bosses to begin looking elsewhere for its headline event, and with it a revised circuit. When Donnington Park’s F1 bid failed in financial acrimony, a new F1 deal with Silverstone was signed and the planned track works modified.
Bernie Ecclestone wanted a new wing-like pit and paddocks complex built between Copse and Abbeys, with the circuit swooped infields to a new Arena complex before rejoining the old circuit on the former Club straight, now renamed in honor for the Wellington bombers which once flew along it.
The new course debuted at the 2010 race, although work to complete a new pit complex was completed ahead of the 2011 Grand Prix. The change has led to the circuit being used as an alternative starting and finishing location for Formula One races. Most other series use the original pits and starting/finishing locations.
The new International circuit using the south-western half of the Grand Prix track could now be used independently, thanks to the Wing pits. However, the National circuit has gained more prominence once again, especially since the venue for the annual round of the British Touring car championship.