Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Home Race Memories

It has been nearly a quarter of a century since I was taken to my first Grand Prix, the European Grand Prix of 1985 at Brands Hatch, as a late seventh birthday present. For many years, I went to every Grand Prix in Britain and even now, more than fifteen years on from my last such trip, it feels a little odd that the British Grand Prix can be happening without my being there, camped out in a field near Becketts.

The first race I went to was notable for being the occasion of Nigel Mansell's first Grand Prix win, and of being the day on which Alain Prost wrapped up the first of his four driver's titles with a low key run to fourth place behind both Williams and Ayrton Senna's Lotus. These milestones, though, meant relatively little to me at the time, and are not what sticks in my mind. At 25 years distance, what I remember most clearly, aside from a frozen night before the race spent failing to sleep in the boot of the family Escort, was being blown away by the sight of 1000BHP turbo F1 cars streaming down Pilgrim's Drop towards Hawthorn Bend, trails of sparks flying from their titanium undertrays like fireworks (why can't we bring them back?). At the age of 7, it was the sheer speed of F1 cars which imprinted itself on my mind, made me insistent on watching the race from the entry to Hawthorn, to what I suspect was probably the irritation of my father who would rather have been somewhere better suited to trying out the new telephoto for his Olympus OM10. I was already a Formula 1 fan when I went to that race in early October, but I think now it was that weekend which sealed the deal, which turned a passing childhood fancy into a life-long love affair with the sport.

The British Grand Prix memories which remain strongest in my mind, though, came later. 1987 - the first time I saw Formula 1 at Silverstone. Not the modern circuit (good as it is), but the fearsomely fast old circuit. Sitting in the stand at Stowe, which in those days was an even more frighteningly quick corner than it is now, watching a titanic struggle play out between home favourite Mansell and his nemesis and team mate Nelson Piquet. There was no way that, at such a fast circuit, anyone was going to win in anything other than a Williams Honda, but the question was which one. Piquet led early on, and Mansell fell back by half distance, his tyres having taken too much punishment on a heavy fuel load. So he was forced into an unplanned tyre stop, emerging around half a minute behind Piquet with 28 laps to run. It seemed a lost cause, but then he began lapping very quickly. He broke the lap record 11 times in his pursuit of Piquet, and four laps from the end, right in front of where I was watching, he ducked out from Piquet's slipstream, with much better grip on his newer tyres, and grabbed the lead, to score a famous victory. I was not a Mansell fan as a child. Even at nine years of age, I was far too much the contrarian to support a British driver, but that afternoon, I was too caught up in the moment to care.

A year later I was once again in the grandstand at Stowe, and lucky to have a corrugated iron roof over my head for my first sight of Formula 1 in the rain. That day would, as it happened, see one of Mansell's finest drives, while being the first Grand Prix I had ever gone to that he did not win. As with more or less every wet race in the second half of the 1980s, it was won by my childhood idol, Ayrton Senna, though Mansell's drive to second in the underpowered Williams Judd, which had been hastily converted from active to passive suspension only the previous evening was the standout performance. If race-day was all about Senna's wet weather genius and Mansell at his very best, Saturday provided some comic relief. Andrea De Cesaris' altercation with a marshal as he abandoned his stricken Rial by the pitlane exit at Copse on Saturday morning stays with me even now, perhaps because I remember seeing the photos my father took of him apparently trying to thump the marshal (that telephoto lens again...)

This race was followed by two hot summer races won by Alain Prost, the first in a Mclaren and the second in a Ferrari. His team mate Mansell had grabbed the pole that day, but he never quite had an answer to Prost, and at the end of the afternoon, he announced his retirement. They were not the most memorable of races, but on the other hand, they were the first races of the 3.5 litre atmo engine era, and for the first time, after the slightly underwhelming whistle of the 1.5 litre turbos, F1 cars sounded like racing cars again. The Lamborghini V12s that powered the Lolas and Lotuses of that era, in particular, made a fantastic racket.

Two more Mansell victories followed in 1991 and 1992, the latter of these, especially, marred by the migration of a minority of the kind of idiots who have made following the England football team such a depressing experience. A drunken clown wrapped in a Union Jack ran out onto the circuit to 'celebrate' as Mansell crossed the line for a win which, given the superiority of the 1992 Williams FW14, could hardly be said to rank among his best. I don't remember much of the race.

There's a neat symmetry of sorts about the fact that the last Grand Prix in Britain I went to was, like the first, a European Grand Prix rather than a British Grand Prix. Tom Wheatcroft had dreamed of bringing Grand Prix racing back to Donington for the first time since the 2nd World War, and on Easter Sunday, 1993, he got his way. The combination of that Easter date, awful weather and the disappearance State-side of home favourite Mansell resulted in a rather sparse crowd but those who did make the trip were treated to a race that has gone down in motorsports folklore. The race where, thanks to the wet conditions, Ayrton Senna took a Mclaren Ford that was far from truly competitive and made everyone else look like amateurs up against a professional. The yellow helmet, sailing serenely to victory through the rain. Shades of what Lewis Hamilton did, another yellow helmet in a Mclaren in the rain, at Silverstone fifteen years later.

I'll be up in a field in Balado this weekend, rather than down Silverstone way. The fact you can never get near the pit or paddock, the way that the grandstands and spectator banks have gradually crept further and further back from the circuit in the name of safety and the silly ticket prices have all rather put me off going back. Nonetheless, a part of me will miss it. If you're going, enjoy yourselves.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Did you watch from the outside of Hawthorn or the inside? Both offered a good view, but when I watched even F3000 cars from the outside of Hawthorn, I found it spine-chilling. You were VERY close to cars travelling at 180mph, with only a armco barrier and a relatively shallow bank to protect you.

By the way, Mansell actually had Ferrari team-mate Prost well beaten at the 1990 British Grand Prix. He was leading comfortably when his gearbox began to malfunction, and then eventually failed altogether.

And note that after Mansell had qualified on pole at the French Grand Prix the previous week, Prost had insisted that he should have Mansell's car for the next race, and the Ferrari management acceded to his request.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

Gordon, you're right, my memory must be failing me. Although over the season as a whole, I'd say Prost was simply faster than Mansell.

I was on the outside on the approach to Hawthorn for the '85 race. The banking seemed quite high to me, but then I was 7 years old, and blissfully ignorant as to the possibility of a car flying off into the spectator areas.

11:58 PM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Yeah, Prost was certainly faster over the year, although only the cars were weighed back then, and the lighter drivers consequently had a definite advantage. When someone calculated the effect of Mansell's extra weight, they concluded that Mansell was actually faster!

3:33 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home