Not the British Grand Prix
There's more to Silverstone's Formula 1 heritage than the British Grand Prix alone…
With 56 British Grand Prix to its name (57 including the 2020 anniversary GP), Silverstone hasn't quite racked-up the race numbers of Monza and Monaco, but that's because in the early days, it moved around a lot. Aintree in Liverpool had a few turns, while Brands Hatch alternated yearly with Silverstone for a period.
That's not to say that Silverstone was quiet to the sound of F1 engines in its off years. Anything but.
While in the modern era, the terms ‘Formula 1 and ‘the Formula 1 World Championship’ are entirely interchangeable, it wasn’t always this way. In the early decades of the sport, a healthy non-championship calendar ensured F1 cars were racing most weekends, somewhere in the world. Silverstone was very much a part of that, hosting the BRDC (British Racing Drivers’ Club) International Trophy, running from 1949 to 1980.
While the Pathé film reels of British Grand Prix past are rolled out every year, the non-championship races tend to get lost in the signal – but they were contested just as keenly, with a list of winners that reads as a roll call of the great and the good of F1 history. Here’s a few of our favourites…
The 1968 season began on January first, with a New Year’s Day Grand Prix at Kyalami in South Africa. It would be four months before the World Championship raced again, at the Spanish Grand Prix on 12 May… but the months in between were not idle.
First, the teams and drivers went to Australia and New Zealand for the Tasman series, racing F1 chassis with slightly downsized engines. Then F1 came back to Europe for two non-championship races in England.
Bruce won the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch on March 17th, but reigning World Champion Denny Hulme took the honours at Silverstone on 27 April in a McLaren 1-2. It was actually an all-New Zealand podium, with Chris Amon in third for Ferrari.
Eight McLarens in the Field
The distinction between formulae used to be a little blurred, back in the day, and so it wasn’t uncommon to see F2 cars contesting F1 races to make up the numbers.
The BRDC International Trophy was often a mixed bag, with F2 and F5000 cars both featuring. F5000 was an odd category of racing, designed as an ‘everything else’ formulae, for cars that no longer met the regs in other categories, the ‘5000’ referring to a maximum engine capacity of five litres.
The 1970 BRDC Trophy races (it was split into two 26-lap heats, with a combined aggregate time determining the winner) featured eight McLaren’s in the field. Bruce and Denny drove the new McLaren-Cosworth M14A F1cars, while Reine Wisell drove an M7A. The field was bulked out with F5000 cars, including five McLaren-Chevrolet M10Bs, driven respectively by Peter Gethin, Mike Walker, Howden Ganley, Graham McRae and David Prophet.
There wasn’t much to separate the cars: Denny qualified third in the lead McLaren, but Gethin was only two-tenths slower in the F5000 car. In the race, the three F1 cars finished fourth, fifth and sixth, (Bruce in fourth and Denny sixth, sandwiching Wisell in the old car), while Walker was 10th in the best-place M10B.
Silverstone’s International Trophy was – with a few notable exceptions – contested on the raw days of early spring which, on the Northamptonshire Plateau, often feels more like late winter.
Things, however, may have been taken to extremes in 1973, when the race took place on 8 April during a snowstorm. And while it’s not unknown to see a flurry or two at winter testing, you’d never dare put a modern F1 race on at Silverstone in April.
Peter Revson finished fourth for McLaren, while Denny Hulme had a DNF, but the weekend is best remembered for the heavy rain of qualifying, giving way to a snowstorm during the race.
Lauda by a whisker
The 1971 Italian Grand Prix is generally regarded as the closest finish in F1 history – but the 1975 International Trophy must have run it close, with Ferrari’s Niki Lauda beating McLaren’s Emerson Fittipaldi by 0.1s (it's worth noting that timing was only recorded to one decimal place).
The race was something of a dry run for the British Grand Prix, and a first opportunity for teams to sample the new pit-lane and garage complex (now referred to as the ‘old’ pit-lane). Keen to ensure a full grid for the following Spanish Grand Prix, each F1 team was restricted to one entry – except Lotus, who were allowed two for sponsorship reasons.
Another joint F1/F5000 race was mooted until the promoter managed to create a grid of 20 F1 cars – albeit with a few unusual names, including a Lyncar-Cosworth that only entered the British Grand Prix of 1975 (when it did not qualify) and 1976.
The reason this is interesting? On both of those occasions, and at the International Trophy, it was driven by John Nicholson.
Nicholson, the 1973 and 1974 British Formula Atlantic champion, was an occasional racer but much better known as the founder of Nicholson-McLaren, an engine builder and the tuner that prepared McLaren’s Cosworth DFV engines from 1972 until the DFV’s retirement in the early 1980s.
Hunt gets Going
Sometimes, it was drivers rather than cars that used the non-championship races for a much-needed tune-up.
With the early-season flyaway races being somewhat sporadic, the addition of non-championship rounds allowed the drivers to get into a rhythm. James Hunt’s progress in 1976 is a good example. McLaren’s new signing started his tenure with back-to-back poles in Brazil and South Africa – but walked away with a DNF and a second place.
His first victory came at the Race of Champions, at Brands Hatch, followed by another crash at Long Beach. In between the Californian race and the Spanish Grand Prix, Hunt got another opportunity to get to grips with his M23, at Silverstone in the International Trophy.
He never put a foot wrong: winning from pole and setting a new lap record for the circuit, Hunt went to the next Championship round at Jarama in excellent form and duly secured the ‘first’ victory of his World Championship-winning season.
Everything you need to know for the British Grand Prix
Race preview for the 2022 Formula 1 British Grand Prix. Hear from Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo and Andreas Seidl.
The Science of Landology
Lando Norris quiz
Lived experiences: Mind's James Lindsay on how sport has helped his mental health
Mind's James Lindsay speaks about McLaren's One Lap for Mind
McLaren driver Lando Norris has released a new range for the 2022 British Grand Prix at Silverstone
Join the team
McLaren Plus is our free-to-join fan engagement programme, bringing McLaren fans closer to the team with the most inclusive, rewarding and open-to-all fan programmes in motorsport.
Sign up now, or current members can amend their details in the form below if necessary.