Monday, September 28, 2020

Voice of Sport: Legendary circuits and their unforgettable moments


Enthusiasts have been racing motor vehicles since they were invented yet it took the advent of the fledgling Federation International de l’Automobile (FIA) to bring regulation and structure, resulting in the first official race on 13th May 1950.  

That it was held at Silverstone meant that Liberty Media, the current owners of F1, fittingly decided to award the same hosts the honour of celebrating the 70th-anniversary race last weekend.

The 1,023rd Grand Prix was won by the Flying Dutchman, Max Verstappen, matching the feat of the Italian aristocrat, Giuseppe Farina, the first to pass the chequered flag at the former wartime bomber base.  It was clearly a lucky omen as the Alfa Romeo driver went on to secure the first-ever world championship.  

Of course, much has changed in motorsport over the years leading to rich and fascinating stories.  Bizarrely, Ferrari, the only team to appear in every one of the 70 years (for which they are annually remunerated) failed to appear for the first round, preferring to focus on the second race in Monaco.

Sepia images barely do justice to the dangers and conditions experienced by drivers of yesteryear, faces covered in dirt and oil; barely recognisable even after the removal of goggles and linen helmets.  

Intermittently positioned hay bales were the only barriers separating careering cars from hazards.  Mechanics are featured with recognisable tools rather than laptops with only a few tasked with eeking performance from heavy front-engined cars.  Huge wreaths adorned the necks of the winners.

Those first past the post are regularly celebrated.  Less so specific moments or tracks that have been forgotten.

Silverstone itself has witnessed some incredible moments.  It helps when fans are able to cheer successes of a local hero.  Lewis Hamilton’s incredible drive for McLaren in torrential rain in 2008 stands out.  Starting fourth on the grid he produced a masterclass to win by more than a minute.

1994 was a dreadful year for the sport following the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger yet Damon Hill attempted to lighten the gloom surrounding the popular Williams team with success in front of Princess Diana, although not without a controversial black-flag on closest rival, Michael Schumacher.  

Senna’s death in particular led to the seismic shift in safety standards from which drivers benefit today, completing the efforts of Sir Jackie Stewart who bemoaned the loss of as many as 57 friends to the sport.

Stewart won the first of three world championship titles in 1969 and set the tone at Silverstone racing his Matra wheel to wheel for virtually the whole race, battling with the Lotus of Jochen Rindt.  The latter finished fourth after Stewart signalled to him that his left-rear tyre was damaged.  Rindt became the sport’s only posthumous world champion the following year, winning the first five races of the 1970 season before being killed at Monza.

The British fans are widely celebrated as being some of the most knowledgeable and magnanimous in the world, as evidenced since 1960 when Graham Hill took the lead in the 55th lap before spinning off with seven to go.  Jack Brabbham eventually pipped John Surtees in only his second race although he did become the only world champion on four and two wheels.

Over the seventy years F1 has visited some wonderful circuits.  Classic venues such as Monza (the most visited), Monaco and Spa-Francorchamps stand out.  However, as cars have got faster there are many of the 69 used that have been out-grown yet will live long in the memory having produced classic moments.

Think of Estoril in Portugal that witnessed Jacques Villeneuve passing Michael Schumacher around the outside of Parabolica in 1996.  Brands Hatch, initially a dirt track when created in the 1920s, houses wonderful grass banks (similar to Donington) in a natural amphitheatre for spectators along with Paddock Hill Bend, an abnormally steep downhill right-hand bend.

Kyalami in South Africa was one of the fastest on the calendar until it succumbed to Apartheid although you could be forgiven for thinking you have seen the same layout at the Buddh International circuit in India!

American fans of a certain generation still revere Watkins Glen while Dutch fans will wish for a return to Zandvoort.
Built as a Honda test track in 1962, Suzuka, a circuit commonly associated with the crowning of world champions before the switch to the modern schedule, also has witnessed two of the most controversial.

Sports in general thrive on rivalries.  While the one between Nikki Lauda and James Hunt, immortalised in the film “Rush”, is credited with taking F1 into the mainstream, the one between Prost and Senna occurred while racing for the same team!

The Japanese track is a rarity in that drivers are punished for their errors, particularly the thrilling Esses section.  In 1989 Prost took the title after colliding with Senna at the chicane while the following year the result was reversed.

Another venue that has fallen by the wayside, although not due to a lack of length, is the Nordschleife loop at the Nurburgring.  Its 22km track features blind crests and banking that will likely never be seen again, partially due to Lauda’s infamous crash that left him trapped inside his burning vehicle.

Bahrain may be relatively new although it has already witnessed some incredible races.  While it doesn’t boast the challenging classic curves or make use of the sand banks for fans, the hospitality the teams receive mark it apart from others.  On track battles will help.  In 2006 when Bahrain hosted the first GP of the season, Fernando Alonso held off Michael Schumacher to win by 1.2 seconds.

A switch to racing at night in 2014 saw Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg go toe to toe in a battle that set the tone for the season ahead and must have had their bosses whincing!

I’m hoping that the rumoured two races later this season will materialise to allow the Sakhir circuit the opportunity to showcase its standard layout and that of the so called endurance circuit (only seen in 2010) that adds 900m of racing and 20 seconds to the lap time.  However, if that is the case then I also hope that the infamous bumps criticised by the drivers have been levelled!