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F1: Silverstone’s Rich History, From Bombers to Racecars

Silverstone, where the British Grand Prix will be held on Sunday, is one of the most renowned tracks in Formula 1. The first Grand Prix was held there 74 years ago, at a rudimentary site that began life as a R.A.F. airfield during World War II.

In 1942, a flat piece of farmland between London and Birmingham was converted into an air base, which became R.A.F. Silverstone the next year, taking its name from the nearby village.

The base, built with three runways, became the home of the No. 17 Operational Training Unit for Wellington medium bombers.

“You’d get new aircrew who did basic training, and then you had the operational squadrons,” Stuart Pringle, Silverstone’s managing director, said. “In between were operational training units. They took newly trained crews and gave them exposure to the combat environment without being in the absolute thick of horrendous bombing missions, so they did things like pamphlet drops — propaganda drops — or they flew on the edge of bombing formations.”

The large site, with its runways, perimeter roads, hangars and various buildings, was used by the automotive company Rootes Group for vehicle storage and occasional test runs after the war. Soon, some local amateurs sensed an opportunity.

“It was unofficially discovered by a group of enthusiasts in 1947, who managed to get into the locked airfield and go for an informal race around the circuit, principally driving Frazer Nash sports cars,” Pringle said. “They famously managed to wing a sheep on there, which was grazing on the farmland. It became known as the Mutton Grand Prix.”

The Royal Automobile Club wanted to revive the races it held before the war, but two prewar tracks, Brooklands and Donington Park, that had been requisitioned were unsuitable for racing, so the auto club turned to Silverstone. The club leased the site from the Air Ministry and turned it into a racetrack.

It was created from parts of the runways and the perimeter roads. The Royal Automobile Club International Grand Prix was held on Oct. 2, 1948, and was won by the Maserati driver Luigi Villoresi in a little over three hours.

“Over 100,000 people turned out to see racing back in the U.K.,” Pringle said. “Despite the fact we’d been fighting with the Italians, we were perfectly willing to overlook that, because the motor racing history of those Italian marques was fantastic.”

The auto club had its 1949 race at Silverstone, too, and called it the British Grand Prix. It was held in May of that year on a modified layout, using the perimeter roads, but not the runways. A year later, Formula 1 held its British Grand Prix there.

There were minor revisions during the years until 2010, when a new section of track was built between the Abbey and Brooklands corners, and a portion of the old runway — now called the Wellington Straight — was used. Another of Silverstone’s high-speed sections — the Hangar Straight, in use since the track’s inception — is a nod to the aircraft hangars that were once adjacent to the track.

Very little remains from R.A.F. Silverstone, though in aerial photographs the three runways are still discernible, and during the British Grand Prix weekend sections of them are used as access routes, parking lots and walkways. The air traffic control building is now within the British Racing Driver’s Club campsite, behind Abbey Curve, which is Silverstone’s first corner. The last hangar was restored to house the Silverstone Museum, which opened in 2019.

The British Grand Prix was attended by almost 500,000 spectators last year, attendance that rose during the dominance of the English driver Lewis Hamilton, when about 240,000 people were there in 2008 as he began his run of seven drivers’ titles. Many fans camp in the fields surrounding Silverstone, creating a festival-like atmosphere.

“This Grand Prix is the best,” Hamilton said in 2023 at Silverstone. “Well, I remember coming here the first time when I was a lot younger, racing cadets.” The track used straw bales. “I remember crashing. It wasn’t a good race.

“I remember the crowd the first time, in 2007, when I got the pole,” he said. “I think that’s probably the only time I’ve ever heard the crowd over the sound of the car. So that’s pretty special.”

The race is also important to the English driver Lando Norris of McLaren, who is second for the drivers’ title.

“It’s my home race, the team’s home race, and one of my favorite weekends of the whole year,” Norris said.

“The fans are amazing, and the track is great, and being on the podium last year was so special [he finished second].”

Silverstone has become a magnet for teams, with seven of the 10 organizations based nearby, most prominently Aston Martin, whose headquarters are opposite the entrance to Silverstone’s main gate.

“The motorsport industry is worth in excess of 10 billion pounds [about $12.6 billion] to the U.K. gross domestic product,” Pringle said about the sport’s impact.

Silverstone also has a school, Silverstone University Technical College, on site that teaches engineering, among other subjects.

About “465 children come inside the wire at Silverstone and go to school next to the track,” Pringle said. “There’s a lot going on here. It is absolutely the center of a world-class ecosystem.”

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