It’s July and Britain’s annual motorsport garden party at Silverstone. The British Grand Prix is one of the oldest Formula One World Championship races. The 1950 British Grand Prix was the very first ever Formula One race held, which was won by Alfa Romeo driver Giuseppe “Nino” Farina.
Silverstone circuit is built on a disused Royal Air Force airfield and whilst the layout of the track has been progressively changed over the years, it is still considered to be a challenge for the drivers, and an established part of motorsport’s heritage.
Over the years it has had its political challenges between Formula One Management and the ultimate owners- the British Racing Drivers Club- as it struggles to be a financially viable event. This certainly was the case when in 2000 the event was moved from its traditional July date to Easter in April. It was British weather at its worst: cold and wet. In those days there was a half hour morning F1 warm up session at 9:30am, but the session was delayed by 100 minutes due to persistent fog which prevented the medical helicopter from arriving at the track and the Drivers’ Parade had to be cancelled because of the delays.
However, the 1992 British Grand Prix at Silverstone will largely be remembered by the total dominance of Nigel Mansell, the enthusiasm of the capacity crowd and the track invasion.
From the start of qualifying to the end of the race, there was only one man in it. This was a story of patriotic fervour, a capacity crowd, as the ‘Great British Public’ came to laud ‘Our Nige’, who captured the public’s imagination.
As the chequered flag was waved the British spectators invaded the race track to congratulate their hero. Mansell’s car was blocked by the crowd, preventing him from driving back to the pits and eventually he was returned to the pits for the podium ceremony courtesy of the marshals.
The British Grand Prix that year also saw a trial run of the Safety Car, which was to be introduced. However, this didn’t go exactly according to plan because Mika Hakkinen- in a Lotus- who had been designated as the imaginary leader, came into the pits, leaving the pace car without a leader to play with!
For me personally, in terms of actual racing and dicing for the lead, the best race was one of the support races. I have particular fond memories as this was a special fund raising charity celebrity event for a very worthy cause, and I had something to do with the bright idea! This was Tommy’s Petit Prix, in aid of St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
When a pregnancy fails or a baby dies, the families affected can be devastated and often have a desperate need to know why. Frustrated at the lack of research that meant they could rarely answer this question, two obstetricians working in the maternity unit at St Thomas’ Hospital were inspired to start fundraising for more research into pregnancy problems. Soon their cause was taken up by others and a charity affectionately known as ‘Tommy’s’ (after St Thomas’ Hospital) was born.
Ron Dennis and his wife Lisa were supporters of the charity, and together with Lisa I ended up being volunteered onto the fund raising marketing committee. At one evening’s meeting, we were discussing various fund raising activities, and whilst memories are a little blurred, I seem to remember mentioning the idea of organising a celebrity race at the British Grand Prix. This seemed to have caught the imagination of the committee and from there the idea snowballed.
Our first issue was to get the official powers that be to agree the concept and then find some cars.
Ron Dennis went into action in selling the idea to Bernie Ecclestone, not necessarily the easiest of tasks bearing in mind support races usually have to pay a fee to Formula One Management to be on the F1 bill. However, Mr E at that time, like Ron and Lisa, had young children and warmed to the idea as it was for a worthwhile charity which was close to many people’s hearts.
Various car manufacturers were sounded out to supply cars, and eventually a deal was done with Honda to supply ten Honda Civics. These were not for free and we had to buy them, albeit for a discounted rate. The cars were then sold after the race, one of which I bought. It was a little rocket ship. When I purchased it, it had done just 1,000 miles and when I sold it years later it had done 100,000. It was great fun to drive.
Once the cars were delivered, they were all modified by McLaren’s sister company Grand Prix Engineering with the various safety requirements, such as roll cage, full harness seat belts and cut off switch etc.
However, being McLaren, there had to be a twist. We didn’t just want sign writing with the sponsors names on the cars, we wanted an image representing the sponsors’ product or service displayed 3D style on the roof to decorate. To hell with the aerodynamics!
This included amongst others; a TAG-Heuer watch, a baby’s pram, a stork and baby, an aeroplane, and a newspaper. They really were works of art and certainly were different from any other cars you would normally see racing!
Next there were the celebrity drivers. Not only did we have to search for willing volunteers, but also train them on the race track and select the best ones.
The roll call included: Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason; Boxer Barry McGuigan; Comedienne (and now Psychologist and wife of Billy Connelly) Pamela Stephenson; Actors Jeremy Irons, Jason Donovan, John Alderton, Christopher Casanove, Clark Peters; Rugby player Jeff Probyn; TV presenter Phillipa Forrester; Children’s entertainer Timmy Mallet; Sunday Times editor Margot Wilson. Plus, making his celebrity debut was journalist & car show presenter Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear (and now Grand Tour) fame.
These were the days when regular testing was allowed and several weeks before the Grand Prix Silverstone held a test for all the F1 teams. It was a great relaxed event, away from the stresses and pass restrictions of the Grand Prix, and the sponsors loved it because they had so much more access.
This was to be the venue for the celebrity acclimatisation and the chance to see who had got it, and who hadn’t! The TAG McLaren motorhome became the celebrity command centre and the base for the celebrities to chill.
In those days the F1 paddock was very different and the motorhomes were positioned on a grassy area set away from the pits, which gave it a distinctively garden party atmosphere. One of the Honda Civic celebrity cars was positioned by the motorhome and attracted a lot of attention, not least by McLaren drivers Ayrton Senna and Gerhard Berger who joined in the fun. Especially Gerhard, who ‘borrowed’ the keys to the TAG-Heuer car, to test drive on the track the aerodynamic inefficiencies of having a watch secured to the roof!
Other memories include the style of the classical actor Jeremy Irons who arrived on his motorcycle and his very distinctive voice and pronunciation. If ever there was considered to be a benefit to smoking, it is the deep golden brown raspy voice that develops, which is so distinctively amongst actors and radio presenters. However, whilst it may work for the men, I am not so sure that’s the case for the ladies!
With the number of willing celebrities fine tuned down to accommodate the number of cars, the race approached and the bonhomie of the drivers became more detuned with the daunting thought of what they had actually volunteered to let themselves in for. McLaren always had a VIP Hospitality tent in the Paddock Club for the sponsors and a tent for the celebrities was annexed next to it. This was their base and the home for their possessions and Boss bags of gifts, including special edition Hugo Boss Tommy’s Petit Prix sweatshirts.
Race day dawned overcast and it didn’t look altogether promising with weather talk of an unsettled day, and, sure enough, there were worrying clumps of blackish cloud around, even the odd spot of rain. With Mansell mania in the air, traffic was bad with large queues to get into the circuit.
All of our celebrities made it on time and the only concern was from Jason Donovan who said he had to leave early to catch a flight! How he expected to leave early in the middle of a race I’m not sure! It turns out that he was going down to Heathrow to catch a shuttle to Glasgow! However once the facts of racing life were explained to him the issue went away!
The race itself really was the most exciting of the weekend, with a titanic three way duel for the lead between Nick Mason, Jeremy Clarkson and Barry McGuigan. With the boxer taking the chequered flag by the narrowness of margins. Apart for the battle for the lead, the race was not without incident with Margot Wilson rolling the Funday Times car. I can’t quite remember how she managed it on her own, but thankfully she emerged unscathed with nothing more than bruised pride.
We watched the race on the big screen from the pits and there was a huge wave of emotion as the chequered flag was waved. I remember giving Lisa Dennis a big hug and saying: “We did it. We actually did it!”.
The race gave Tommy’s huge exposure, raised a lot of money and positioned themselves as one of the major motorsport charities and to this day are supported at the annual Autosport Awards.
As for the Grand Prix itself, it is a bit of a blur, except for the margin of Nigel Mansell’s win, the fans track invasion, and the traffic jam trying to get out of Silverstone!