As I write these words, in the aftermath of the Austrian Grand Prix – not a race that my old McLaren mates enjoyed very much for obvious reasons – I find myself focusing instead on Silverstone, as doubtless they do too.
For every British Formula 1 team, the British Grand Prix is special. That is not surprising. After all, the hundreds of Brits who work for British Formula 1 teams – whether they be engineers, mechanics, PR people, marketing people, cooks, cleaners or whatever – grew up in Britain, and, even if they religiously watched every Grand Prix on TV during their childhoods, the only Grand Prix that most of them had a chance of actually going to was the British. So it is very special to them.
For that reason, I was absolutely overjoyed when, in 2001, my final season in Formula 1, I finally won the British Grand Prix, for (Woking-based) McLaren-Mercedes. And as I crossed the line, right arm held aloft, my first thoughts were for the boys and girls in our garage, and in our paddock motorhome, and in our factory at Woking, who had all worked so hard with me for so long. And my second thoughts were for the British fans, who are more knowledgeable and more enthusiastic than any others. “This one’s for you, guys,” I remember thinking as I throttled back and began my victory parade lap, waving to the packed grandstands as I did so.
But that victory was made even sweeter because it came in my last season in Formula 1, 2001, and that year had started very badly. I had won the World Championship in 1998 and 1999, remember, and I had finished second in the World Championship in 2000. I had won 17 Grands Prix over those three seasons. But by the time we had arrived at Silverstone for the 2001 British Grand Prix, which was the 11th Grand Prix of that year, I had stood on the podium just once in 2001, in Canada, courtesy of having finished third there; as for the other Grands Prix that season so far, I had had five non-scoring Grands Prix and a couple of minor placings. Pretty despressing.
Moreover, in the winter prior to that season, which I had secretly decided might well be my last in Formula 1, I had privately vowed to win two Grands Prix that had always eluded me: the British and the United States. So as I drove through the famous gates of Silverstone on race day morning, despite having been beaten to pole position the day before by my long-time nemesis Michael Schumacher in his Ferrari, I was utterly determined to win. And win I did, beating Michael by more than half a minute.
As I say, that day I was overjoyed for the McLaren guys, but I was also very pleased for myself. Silverstone was like a second home to me, you see. I had probably driven more laps there than anywhere else – first of all in British Formula 3, then in Formula 1, not only once a year at the Grand Prix but also many times in testing, for there were many Formula 1 tests at Silverstone in those days. So I knew every inch of that wonderful ex-airfield racetrack, and I loved it too.
Every driver adores Silverstone’s famous Maggotts-Becketts combo, and I was no different. If you make even a slight mistake on entry to Maggotts, you will be punished all the way through the rest of the Maggotts-Becketts combo, and you will consequently be slow all the way down the long Hangar Straight that follows. So it is a great combo for two reasons: one, because it is so crucial in terms of nailing a quick overall lap-time, and, two, because it is so quick and so challenging; not many combos anywhere in the world have both those attributes.
Furthermore, as a test track, Silverstone is truly fantastic. When you drive a series of quick laps there, you are giving your car a proper work-out. On some circuits, a good driver’s natural ability to compensate for the shortcomings of his chassis by ‘monstering’ his car around the corners can make testing difficult and its results inconclusive. But at Silverstone, especially in the fast turns, that conflicting variable is impossible because you simply cannot ‘monster’ an ill-handling car through the Maggotts-Becketts combo, for example. It is too difficult for that.
In addition, sometimes a sensitive driver can feel and report things in a knife-edge combo like Maggotts-Becketts that even the most sophisticated telemetry cannot reveal. For instance, one day, while we were testing at Silverstone (I cannot remember which year), I drove down the pit-lane, pulled up outside the McLaren-Mercedes pit, was pushed back into the garage by the mechanics, hopped out, and said, “Something feels wrong at Maggotts-Becketts. The car seems to be moving around, a bit unstable. Is it maybe the tyres’ sidewalls? Is there some flex there? Or some flex somewhere else? Could you have a look at it please, guys?”
They had a look, but they could not find anything. “I promise you I’m not making it up, guys,” I said, so they had another look, but still they could shed no light on the problem.
In the end they worked it out. So high were the g-forces, first this way, then that, that the fuel in the car’s fuel tanks was slopping about with such force that the baffles were not able to contain and stabilise it. When new baffles were designed and fitted, the car felt much better. You would never have discovered that problem on most other racetracks, but at Silverstone the intensity of the assault a car undergoes always brings to light all its imperfections.
So, as I say, Silverstone was always one of my absolute favourite racetracks. And, yes, as I say too, I was thrilled to win the British Grand Prix there in 2001. And, in fact, of the two Grands Prix I vowed to win that season – Britain and the United States – I won both. Those two final victories meant a huge amount to me, and I will tell you about my Indy win, which was the last victory of my Formula 1 career, in a future mclaren.com/formula1 blog.
So enjoy the British Grand Prix, whether you will be watching it from your sofa or from the grandstands. Despite the rain, which always seems to dog ‘our’ corner of Northamptonshire for at least some part of the three-day BGP weekend, Silverstone is the undisputed home of British motorsport. Oh, and, despite the weather, it is also one of my favourite places in the whole wide world. And it always will be.