Sunday, July 11, 2010

The British Grand Prix - Forty six years on!

I went to my first British Grand Prix exactly forty-six years ago today in 1964. As a seventeen-year-old obsessed by Formula one it was difficult to contain my excitement that I was actually going to see the stars close at hand. It was a golden age – there were five once or future World Champions in the field – Jack Brabham, Graham Hill, Phil Hill, John Surtees and the man who, for me, was and is the greatest of them all – Jim Clark. Clark won the race comfortably and there was an all British podium when he was joined by Graham Hill and Surtees.

To say that I saw the drivers close at hand is not a romantic memory. The photograph of John Surtees in the cockpit of his Ferrari I actually took in the paddock that day. True I had managed to wangle a pit pass from somewhere – but in those days that was not too difficult. We sat on a grassy bank for the race eating a picnic – and we had a panoramic view of the Brands club circuit where all the action was. And if we wanted a closer look we were able to get within a few feet of the trackside – there were hardly any fences. Jim Clark had won the 1963 Drivers Championship by miles – the first of many for Colin Chapman and his pioneering Lotus team. And he and the other top drivers gave you value for money as well – one of the races was for saloon cars and Clark won it in a Lotus Cortina – every boys dream as an aspirational car!

I don’t subscribe to the commonly held view that “Formula one is not what it was” back in the days of Clark and Hill and Surtees. True it was a much more accessible and affordable sport back in the 1960s and every race mattered more - there were only ten races back in 1964 compared with nearly twice that this year. And it was undisputedly a sport then whereas today it is also a billion dollar business. None of the cars on the grid on that sunny day 46 years ago had any advertising on them – or was there perhaps a discrete Esso roundel somewhere on Clark’s Lotus?

The 1964 British Grand Prix was largely accident free but that was the exception not the rule in those days – and accidents often had lethal consequences for drivers and sometimes spectators as well. Of the 24 drivers on the grid that day a third were later to lose their lives in racing accidents – McLaren, Anderson, Bandini, Bonnier, Siffert, Taylor, Revson and, of course, Jim Clark. The improvements in safety over the years have meant that one can, these days, watch a race without fearing for the lives of the competitors. That was certainly not so in the 1960s. This fact alone makes it difficult to compare the drivers of different eras – you have always needed to be brave to drive an F1 car - as well as skilful. But back in the earlier days of F1 you needed a quite extraordinary courage and a great deal of luck if, like John Surtees or Jack Brabham you were to be able to survive and look back from a decent old age. But Surtees for one would sadly have to argue that there is no ground for complacency – his eighteen year old son was killed in a freak Formula Two accident at Brands Hatch just a year ago.

I have been lucky enough to go to many Grands Prix over the years following that initial event back in 1964 – and it rarely disappoints. Sometimes one is lucky enough to get close enough to smell the oil, the grease, the fuel and the sweat. And to see the tension on the faces because despite its modern complexity, technology and hype it is, in essence, still all about the drivers. If you could have a (part-celestial) dinner party with Fangio, Ascari, Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Prost, Senna, Schumacher and Button at the table you’d find that they have almost everything in common despite their hugely different competitive eras. You might need to keep Ayrton and Alain at the two ends of the table though!

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