As you will doubtless have noticed, Silverstone hosted a two-day Formula 1 test earlier this week, which in McLaren’s case showcased the considerable talents of not only Kevin Magnussen (on Wednesday) but also Stoffel Vandoorne (on Tuesday), whom I am led to understand is rated extremely highly by the Woking powers-that-be.
It was wonderful – and illuminating – to be able to watch Stoffel wrestling a stupendously powerful yet awkwardly twitchy grand prix McLaren through mighty corners such as Copse and Becketts, and all who saw him do it were left in no doubt that, like Kevin, he is without doubt made of the right… er… stoff. Believe me, the boy done good.
However, putting to one side for a moment the prowess and progress of Messrs Magnussen and Vandoorne, those two Silverstone days were also notable in that they afforded British Formula 1 fans an opportunity to see Formula 1 cars and drivers up close and personal, a world away from the access-no-areas culture with which the British Grand Prix, like all modern-day Formula 1 races, has become afflicted.
Now, before all my old mates on the BRDC (the British Racing Drivers’ Club, of which I am a proud member) jam the McLaren switchboard by ringing up to complain that, on the contrary, the British Grand Prix constitutes a fantastic show for British Formula 1 fans, let me state here and now that I wholeheartedly agree with them. It does. As always, I hugely enjoyed this year’s British Grand Prix, and I was delighted not only that a British boy won (Lewis Hamilton) but also that another local lad drove wonderfully well to within a hair’s breadth of recording a formbook-busting podium finish (Jenson Button).
But, inescapably and undeniably, no modern-day grand prix, however well run, can ever again be as access-all-areas as Formula 1 races used to be when I was young, non-championship Formula 1 races back in the day all the more so.
In many ways the Race of Champions was the definitive non-championship Formula 1 race. A Brands Hatch institution, it was first held in 1965. Mike Spence won that inaugural RoC, stepping up to fill the breach after Jimmy Clark had shunted his sister Lotus 33 heavily on Bottom Straight. I was there.
Mike was a lovely guy, by all accounts, born in south London. He was quick, too, but we never found out quite how quick, for he was killed, aged 31, in a Lotus, in a practice accident at Indianapolis in 1967.
His fastest lap, set earlier that day, would remain unbeaten for the next five practice days.
I was at Silverstone that same year, 1967, as one of an International Trophy crowd treated to a superbly dominant performance by Mike Parkes, in his Ferrari 312, smoothly outpacing Jack Brabham in his Brabham-Repco and Jo Siffert in his Cooper-Maserati.
When he wasn’t driving race cars, Mike, also a south Londoner, used to work as an automotive engineer, and was largely responsible for the development of the Hillman Imp of 1963. His Formula 1 career ended after he had crashed and broken both his legs during the 1967 Belgian Grand Prix, at Spa, less than two months after his International Trophy triumph.
Once his legs had healed, he raced on into the 1970s in sports cars, often for Ferrari. He was killed in a road accident, near Turin (Italy), in 1977.
Everyone knows that the first grand prix won by the McLaren team was the 1968 Belgian Grand Prix, run on June 9th; but not everyone knows that McLaren’s first Formula 1 victory had occurred almost three months earlier, on March 17th.
I was at Brands Hatch for that Race of Champions, and I duly watched the company’s founder, the great Bruce McLaren, stroking his beautiful M7A from pole position to historic victory, carving the race’s fastest lap on his way, and finishing an impressive 14 seconds ahead of Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM – a huge margin when you consider that the race comprised just 50 laps (ie, 130-odd miles).
Such races were meat and drink – or, in the Essex parlance of the day, cream ’n’ almonds – to cash-strapped fans like me, who had barely been able to raise the funds to top-up the fuel tank of my mother’s Morris Minor to drive the short journey across the River Thames from Essex to Kent in the first place.
The success and popularity of non-championship Formula 1 races built a healthy British racing fan base throughout the 1960s and 1970s – but, as the world championship became more and more dominant as the supreme barometer of a driver’s and a team’s success, and as winning world championships therefore became a commercial imperative not least for success-hungry sponsors, and as teams duly began to field fewer and fewer cars in non-championship races (often only one rather than the then norm of two or even three), and as crowds gradually grew smaller as a result, it soon became clear that non-championship Formula 1 races were fast becoming a luxury that circuit owners could no longer afford.
I miss them. I miss them bitterly. I vehemently wish they were still a part of the Formula 1 calendar, in fact.
Why? Why do I miss them so? Well, consider this. In the year in which Bruce McLaren founded his eponymous team, Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd, 1963, the Formula 1 world championship comprised 10 grands prix: Monaco (Monte-Carlo), Spa (Belgium), Zandvoort (Netherlands), Reims (France), Silverstone (Great Britain), Nurburgring (Germany), Monza (Italy), Watkins Glen (United States), Mexico City (Mexico) and East London (South Africa).
How many non-championship Formula 1 races do you think there were that year?
Go on, guess.
Okay, I will tell you: 14. Yes, 14. Fourteen.
They were held at Snetterton (Great Britain), Goodwood (Great Britain), Pau (France), Imola (Italy), Syracuse (Sicily), Aintree (Great Britain), Silverstone (Great Britain), Vallelunga (Italy), Stuttgart (Germany), Karlskoga (Sweden), Enna-Pergusa (Italy), Zeltweg (Austria), Oulton Park (Great Britain), and Kyalami (South Africa).
That is correct: five of them took place in England, all five within feasible commuting distance of Essex, where your humble correspondent lived, then as now.
Happy, happy, happy days.