Silverstone is no longer the pits

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 July, 2011, 12:00am


Those petrol heads lucky enough to be heading to Silverstone this weekend may struggle to recognise the place. After last year's upgrade to the famous track, this year the teams can luxuriate in a brand new pit and paddock complex. It's not before time, to be honest. You may recall a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to sneak my way into the pits and was more than a little surprised to see a glamorous, multi-billion-dollar industry making do in such cramped circumstances.

The old pits were pretty cramped for the F1 teams, but it was even worse for the support races. The GP2 teams had to make do with a tented enclosure a couple of hundred metres away and then wheel the cars, spare tyres and the rest of the equipment to the pit lane. The F1 cars sat in the garages, cordoned off from the GP2 teams who had to make do the best they could outside in the elements. Crowded it was; ideal it wasn't.

The paddock hid the signs of ageing a bit better, after all the motorhomes lined up at any race circuit on the calendar are the biggest and best money can buy. But the permanent structures were creaking. I can't imagine Bernie Ecclestone, the man who has driven the sport's transformation into the exclusive, top end event it now is, would have been happy to see broken, dripping drainpipes. It just didn't fit into the Bernie brand.

The new pit complex is much more 'on message' for Ecclestone. More than GBP27 million (HK$337.6 million) has been pumped into the 'Silverstone Wing' as some have dubbed it (although veteran commentator Murray Walker thought it looked like a 'corrugated Concorde', perhaps a description that was 'off message').

It's been made possible because at last Silverstone has the security of a 17-year deal. That enables the British Racing Drivers Club, owners of the circuit, to invest knowing they will get a return in the long term. Of course, it suits Bernie Ecclestone, who always gets what he wants in the end.

After years of arguments with the BDRC, threatening to remove the grand prix unless facilities were improved, he's got a better track and more importantly a better deal. He pockets a reported GBP2 million a year, increasing every year on an 'escalation fee'.

One thing that Silverstone probably can't promise this weekend is an end to the dominance of Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel. Dominant again in what was an incredibly dull European Grand Prix last time out, it's hard to see who can get within touching distance. McLaren's Lewis Hamilton said as much after the race in Valencia, claiming he wouldn't win his home race.

Attempts to slow down the Red Bull by recent rule changes don't look to have succeeded. The season's statistics are scary. Vettel is the first man to have finished first or second in the first eight races of the year. He has dropped only 14 points this season. His 77-point advantage at the top of the table means he is already three race wins ahead of anybody else. It must be comforting to know he could fail to finish the next three races and still be championship leader.

Still, other teams strive to compete and there have been interesting developments in the past few days.

Virgin Racing have always seemed the most competent and ambitious of the newer teams and this week they appear to have taken another big step forward. They've signed a deal with McLaren to enter into a technical partnership that allows Virgin to use McLaren's wind tunnel, driver simulator and test rigs. McLaren employees will be embedded with Virgin, too. Expect to see improvements soon.

For us slightly older F1 enthusiasts there has been a more significant development in Williams' decision to use Renault engines from next year. It revives the partnership that brought glory in the 1990s. There were four drivers' titles and five constructor trophies for the team in a six-year spell and for that the likes of Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Damon Hill were very grateful.