The start of summer always reminds me that it’s time for the Formula 1 circus to arrive at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix.
Of course, with the Great British weather being as it is, a summer’s day at Silverstone is just as likely to be pouring with rain as it is to be blazingly hot! Indeed, I experienced both ends of the spectrum when I won the British Grand Prix for McLaren back in 1975, when the rain got so bad that the race had to be abandoned – fortunately, with me in the lead.
For me, motor racing in the UK has always been about Silverstone. I raced in Formula 1 at both Silverstone and Brands Hatch [the British GP used to alternate between the two venues during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s], but I always preferred Silverstone as it was a much faster track than Brands.
I always loved long, fast corners – and, back in the 1970s, Silverstone had plenty of those: Copse, Stowe, Club and, most famously of all, Woodcote. Back in the early ’70s, we used to race through Woodcote without the chicane kerbs. It was so, so fast – one of the fastest grand prix corners in the world at that time.
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My McLaren M23 was a great car around Silverstone – we ran it with a longer wheelbase there, so it had more weight over the front, making it more stable through Woodcote. That corner was approached flat in fifth gear, at about 170mph. You didn’t brake for the corner, you just used to back off – nothing more, just a slight easing of the throttle – and then turn in. Very fast. It was the biggest challenge of the whole lap.
I remember, just after the apex, there was a little bump, so the car would jump a little, and you’d get oversteer on the exit, and you’d balance the car by working the steering wheel. It was such a fantastic corner. And there are so many classic pictures from Woodcote of all the great champions going fast through there – the spirit of grand prix racing was in that special corner.
Silverstone has always been fast. Even now, it’s still fast – for a modern grand prix track. Back then, it was one of the very fastest tracks, only behind Monza. Go back to the 1950s, to the era of Fangio and Moss, and Silverstone was still playing a significant role in the destiny of the world championship.
There’s so much heritage and tradition on display there: Silverstone was the very first race on the Formula 1 world championship back in 1950, it was where the recently departed Froilan Gonzalez won the first grand prix for Ferrari, in 1951. It was where my heroes like Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart all battled.
Personally, I grew up at Silverstone and have lots of strong emotions about the place: I raced Formula Ford there, the first time I drove a Formula 1 car was at Silverstone, too. Racing in the British Grand Prix was always a feeling of tremendous pressure; whether I was racing for Lotus or McLaren, it was the team’s home race, so there was an expectation to do well.
So, for me, the 1975 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a race I won for McLaren, a victory that was my last in Formula 1, and an event that was held in some of the most challenging conditions imaginable, holds extremely special memories for me.
I’d started seventh, but had been making steady progress towards the front through the race. It was a windy day – which it usually always is at Silverstone! – and I knew the conditions could easily change. I remember racing down the Hangar Straight and looking out to my left and seeing dark clouds approaching.
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I was making the calculations in my head: it was mid-July, it was a typically hot day and this would be a summer shower. But I knew the conditions could change very rapidly, and I just felt the clouds were going to break into a very strong thunder storm.
I was watching the rain getting closer each time I drove down the straight, thinking, ‘It’s getting closer, it’s getting closer: it’s going to reach the track.’ Then I saw some drizzle on my visor as the clouds kept getting darker and darker. I just knew it was going to pour down, so I dived straight into the pits to change tyres before anyone else.
It was my decision: I was pretty experienced with reading the weather in England because I’d grown up racing there, but it was also like the weather in Brazil – big black clouds full of rain that will simply dump the water on you. Watch the footage: it’s exactly the same as the typical local showers you get in Brazil.
When the black clouds are that heavy, the quantity of water they’ll drop is huge. And in that sort of weather, it’s impossible to drive on slicks – you can’t even crawl back to the pits – so I knew I’d have to make a decisive call. And that’s how I ended up leading the race, because all those who chose to stay out had huge trouble with aquaplaning.
When I rejoined the tracks on a set of wet-weather tyres, there was an enormous amount of standing water. Drivers were still struggling on slicks, aquaplaning all over the place on the huge puddles of standing water around the circuit. I think at least eight or nine drivers lost it on the entry to Club Corner alone: it was like a car park in the run-off there.
After my pitstop, I was going down the straight flat-out, I wasn’t aquaplaning because I was running wets, when I suddenly saw Mario Andretti’s Parnelli through the spray. The closing speed was massive – he could only have been doing about 40mph and I was flat in top gear; I had absolutely no time to back off the throttle or change the steering angle. I missed him by inches, but it happened so fast. I was so lucky.
I didn’t actually tell Mario about the incident until many years later, when we were both racing in Indycar in the States, when I said, “You remember that car at Silverstone that just missed you? That was me!”
The reason why it was so tricky was because only half the circuit was wet – I think the startline end was dry, but the fast corners at the end of the back straight were very wet, which is why so many drivers were arriving unaware of the conditions. I don’t know how many people crashed [Ed: incredibly, the official classification listed 16 retirements due to accident, 13 of them coming in the final five laps when the rains lashed down heavily. Unbelievably, finishing positions two to five were all classified as accident retirees too!].
Silverstone ’75 was my last grand prix win and a fantastic day for McLaren. We just got everything right – the right strategy, a perfect pitstop and a response for everything the weather could throw at us. It was a great win and a very special experience for me to win the British Grand Prix.
For any racing driver, winning in Great Britain is special. There’s just something about motorsport in the UK that is unique: I don’t quite know why that is, but I have a theory: the country has long had a grand club racing tradition. People have grown up either watching or competing in club racing up and down the country – it doesn’t matter whether it’s hot, cold, wet or dry, people are always out in all weathers, and on every weekend.
Over time, that creates a truly solid foundation for motorsport to grow and blossom. I think that the tradition of racing is probably stronger in the UK than in any other country in the world. And, with the British Grand Prix as the country’s pinnacle event, it’s one of the greatest races of the year. I’ll be at Silverstone this year, and I’m hugely looking forward to getting back to the circuit to relive some of the most vivid memories of my grand prix career.
Watch the highlights of Emerson’s victory in the extraordinary 1975 British Grand Prix below: