The Home of the British Grand Prix
The Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit is located in Towcester, Northamptonshire and is one of the fastest and most thrilling circuits In the Formula 1 Calendar today. This former RAF airfield was first used for a motor race in 1947 and hosted the inaugural Formula 1 World Championship round on May 13, 1950.
The track has undergone many changes but has retained its essential character: fast, flowing and a proper challenge. Lewis Hamilton compared a flat-out lap around Silverstone to flying a fighter jet and after driving on the dry circuit for the first time, I understand why he described it like that.
The track is 5.891km in length and there are 18 proper corners and two official straights in each lap. The names of the corners and straights are almost as famous as the track itself and those names drip off the tongues of Silverstone regulars. I remember talking to one of the marshals about good photography spots and his description of the route to a very good one consisted entirely of corner names.
Turn 1, Abbey. The first turn is typical of this track: Flat-out. Named after the ancient Luffield Abbey.
Turn 2, Farm. A ‘lazy’ left-hander and this is where the F1 cars exiting the pits feed back onto the track.
Turn 3, Village. A right-hander. A new corner introduced during Silverstone’s 2010 redevelopment and is named after Silverstone village.
Turn 4, The Loop. The slowest corner on the circuit and is named after its shape. ‘The Loop’ really is a loop.
Turn 5, Aintree. A left-hander leading onto the Wellington straight and one of my favorite sections of the track. It used to host the Grand National horse race. Obviously.
Wellington Straight. This was previously known as the National straight. Pretty confusing as many still refer to it by its old name. The straight is formed from one of the old runways from which WW2 Wellington bombers took off to paste the Third Reich.
Turn 6, Brooklands. A tricky, slow left-hander which leads onto……
Turn 7, Luffield. A long, never-ending right-hander named after Luffield Chapel.
Turn 8, Woodcote. A very important sweeping right-hander. Mess up the previous corner, Luffield, and watch as even piddly MX-5s sweep past on the outside.
Turn 9, Copse. A fearsome corner. The fastest proper corner on the F1 calendar. The F1 boys take this mighty corner at 180mph, a full 80mph faster than the fastest track car can manage. Named after Chapel Copse and Cheese Copse.
Turn 10-14, Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel. Who has not seen this section on TV? One of the fastest and most iconic corner complexes in all motorsport. Even casual F1 fans recognize the sweeping curves of this famous complex. The F1 boys approach this section at a mighty 186mph.
Hangar Straight. F1 cars top 200 mph at the end of the Hangar straight, far, far faster than my highest speed. Named after the two large RAF hangars.
Turn 15, Stowe. Fast right-hander at the end of the Hangar straight, named after the nearby Stowe school.
Turn 16, Vale. The only undulating section in this largely flat race track linking Stowe to the last corner complex, Club.
Turn 17/18, Club. One of the best places to watch a race and has been reprofiled into a double-apex corner leading onto the start-finish straight.
This particular track day was organized and run by Javelin Trackdays, a well-established UK track day company with a reputation for well organized, well-run events. They also offer good value-for-money track days and dates at all of the UK’s major circuits.
They cannot be blamed for the numerous red-flags we experienced on the day, blame instead the sometimes over-enthusiastic Michael Schumacher wannabes who, in the words of Martin Brundle, place ‘ambition before adhesion’.
Early one Sunday a few weeks ago, I left my house in West London and headed North up the M1 to Northamptonshire. it had to be an early start because driver registrations started at 7:30 and the mandatory driver briefing started immediately afterward. No briefing, no briefing wrist band, no track action.
Blame instead the sometimes over-enthusiastic Michael Schumacher wannabes
At 9 am, shortly after the driver briefing, the track went ‘green’ and it was time for the ‘sighting’ laps. I decided not to immediately venture out on track because the track was wet (we are in Britain) and the forecast was for a dry day. I spent the next hour photographing the cars on the track and in the pits. Car and motorsport photography is one of my favorite pastimes and there was a wide variety of cars. There were full-on racing cars, track-prepared cars such as mine, track day specials like the ever-green Caterham 7 and a new BMW 8 series convertible!
The sight of a luxurious, two-ton, BMW 8 series convertible tipping through Woodcote, roof down, in the wet, is one of the most incongruous things I’ve ever seen on a race track. And I told its driver so, kudos to him.
By 10 am, the track had dried out a bit and so I headed to the back of the pit garages where my car was parked. I did not have a garage as they had all been reserved by the time I booked the track day. I strapped myself into the Recaro Pole Position seats, donned my Arai Noriyuki Haga replica helmet, pulled on my Sparco gloves, fired up the BMW ‘M’ S54 straight-six engine, set the GoPros and headed down the Silverstone pit lane.
I showed the Javelin Trackday official at the end of the pit lane the required wristbands and was waved onto the Silverstone track to start my first track day of 2020.
It felt good to be back on track, this track driving thing is horrendously addictive and horrendously expensive. If you are a genuine petrol head and you genuinely love motorsport, and you have not driven on a track, please do not do so if you do not want to be instantly hooked.
The track was still quite wet at this point and so I took it easy as semi-slick tires and a wet track do not mix.
A few others though did not take it easy and caused the first of many red flags shortly afterward.
I could not have played my ‘spot the black’ game. There was just one: me
As soon as the red flags and lights are on, you have to come into the pits and so we all duly all trundled into the pit lane.
I used this enforced break to wander up and down the pit lane poking my Canon 70-200 mm long lens into the various pit garages. I’m always amazed by the number and variety of cars you see on any track day, and it is not uncommon to see a 10 grand track-prepared hatchback next to a 200 grand supercar or a priceless vintage racer. There was not the same diversity amongst the drivers though, I could not have played my ‘spot the black’ game. There was just one: me.
Why more black and Asian people are not involved in this exhilarating pastime remains a mystery to me. The price of entry is admittedly high
I’m making it my mission to get more of us involved.
By late morning, a dry ‘racing line’ had appeared and it was time to start pushing and understanding this BMW M3. I’d driven it on track three times before, at the Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit, you can read about that trip here, at Donington, and late last year at this very same track. All those track days were weather-affected and the car was very new to me, so I stayed far, far away from the limit.
There is no point in pushing in an unfamiliar car, with semi-slick tires on an unfamiliar circuit. In the wet. There were no points on offer and Toto Wolff was not watching from the pits.
On to the fast laps. Repeat the now-familiar routine: strap in, don helmet and gloves and make your way down the pit lane to the pit exit to start a warm-up lap. Check the left-hand mirror for cars on a fast lap as you join the track between Copse and Maggotts (we were not using the current F1 pit lane).
This is quite important because of the difference in performance between the fastest cars and the slowest. One minute the track behind is clear, the next, you could have one of the full-blown racing cars under your left mirror. Letting faster cars through, without disturbing your own rhythm and pace too much is a skill in itself. A skill I’m quickly learning.
Out of Luffield at the end of my ‘out lap’, I gunned it into Woodcote to start the first of my ‘fast’ laps, the Geoff Steel-prepared BMW Motorsport straight-six S54 engine screaming at full chat through the Eisenmann race exhaust as I blasted past ‘our’ pit lane and under the ‘Silverstone’ gantry.
At 6,500 RPM I shifted up into fifth before braking and dropping one gear for the Copse corner, the DSC light started flashing as I went through Copse, retarding power, then it was into the swoops of Maggots and Becketts.
Chapel, one of my favorite corners of the track was next and you have to go through it as fast as you dare, without running too far wide on the exit because the flat-out Hangar straight was next, where I hit 144mph and even had to grab sixth gear.
I braked late and hard at the end of the Hangar straight and I found that no matter how late I braked, I could easily have braked later and less hard and carried more speed into and through Stowe. Once again, the DSC light started flashing and the system dramatically cut power which meant I lost speed exiting Stowe.
Then it was on to the short blast to the sharp Vale left-hander which required more heavy braking. Annoyingly, this was a favorite ‘dive-bombing’ spot for one or two overly-enthusiastic drivers. One of the most important rules laid out by Javelin Trackdays was about overtaking on the straights and on the left side only, and only under acceleration. Overtaking in the braking zones was absolutely forbidden. One MX-5 driver not only tried to out-brake me here, but he also managed to out-brake himself, locked up and then ran wide.
One MX-5 driver managed to outbrake himself while I was letting him through
Dive-bombers avoided, it was into the Club corner, a tight double-apex right-hander. This M3 is mighty through the slow speed stuff and as long as I got my lines and gearchanges correct, most cars fell back through the slow, twisty sections. The fast blast down the pit straight was next and I always let the faster guys go by on the straights well before the Abbey braking zone.
The Abbey corner is a dauntingly-quick right-hander, I normally ‘comfort brake’ and drop down into fourth for it. The DSC again blinked angrily at me and cut power just to punish me as I went through as fast as I dared. The Farm curve which followed was dispatched in the blink of an eye before braking heavily for the sharp right-hander that led into the ‘The Loop’. The Loop requires patience, the correct line, and very good technique. You enter it slowly but you want to gradually build up speed as you exit because the very fast (that ‘F’ word again) Wellington straight is next.
I had my foot flat to the floor between the short-shift gearchanges, wringing the neck of the S54 ‘M’ engine and hearing it scream all the way to the 7,600 rpm redline, before braking hard for the annoying Luffield complex. I say annoying because you are winding on maximum steering angle first one way, then the next, while also being very precise and patient with the throttle. This section also seems to go on forever before mercifully, the track unfurls itself into Woodcote, which is a long, slidey, grip vs power balancing act.
Especially in the wet.
And before I knew it, I was screaming under the Silverstone gantry to complete another lap and start a new one.
Just. Like. That.
Wow! Oh Wow! Wow again! What a lap! What a track! And what a car!
This was the pattern I repeated throughout the rest of this track day: Out lap, 3-4 fast laps, in lap, park the car for 20 minutes to let everything cool down and let the car rest. I also took photographs during some of these ‘pit stops’.
Talking about pit stops, I did not have Andrew Shovlin telling me on the radio to ‘box now’, heck, I did not even have a radio. I could stop as many times as I wanted and for as long as I wanted. I could afford to lose minutes in the pits. I did not have a pit crew that could change all my tires in 3 seconds flat.
We were at the historic Silverstone Grand Prix track, but the grandstands were empty and the few fans watching the ‘race’ were long-suffering girlfriends, friends, and die-hard track enthusiasts.
We did not have Ted Kravitz reporting from the pit lane nor did we have Martin Brundle commenting on the day’s proceedings.
In short, it is a world away from Formula 1 and a Grand Prix event, but you know what? I doubt the F1 drivers have as much fun as we do on a track day and that is all that matters to this particular petrol head.
‘Till the next time.