• Days At The Races, The Silverstone Classic Is An Unmissable Event

The biggest event in Britain dedicated to historic racing must be on your bucket list if it isn’t already

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Silverstone hosted, in the vicinity of hangars that once housed fighter airplanes, the first Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix in 1950 and, over the years, has established itself as ’The Home of the British Motorsport’. Last weekend, this homey feeling was in the rain-dampened air as Silverstone welcomed hundreds upon hundreds of historic racing cars that arrived for the annual celebration of vintage motorsport that is the Silverstone Classic. We were there to see it all unfold and we’re already making arrangements for next year - and you should be close behind!

If you are keen to browse through the classifieds in automotive magazines from 40 or so years ago, you’ll find plenty of interesting racing cars selling for nothing or close to nothing, while those same cars are out of the reach for most of us mortals. You could, for instance, buy an unlovedFerrari 250 GTO (yes, that GTO) for the equivalent of $51,000 in the late ’60s. Likewise, four or five decades ago, historic racing was seen as a weird way to spend your weekends. Who’d want to waste their time trying to bring back to running order some old, outdated race cars when new ones were the talk of the town? But, as it happens, people started appreciating these old cars more and more and, by the early ’80s, historic racing started to become a thing.

It’s been over three decades since then and now, historic motorsport events are some of the most popular in the world with venues such as Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, Daytona International Speedway, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps or, indeed, Japan’s Fuji circuit, all hosting race meetings reserved for cars of a certain vintage. It’s big business nowadays and the cars are maintained to the highest standards, just like modern ones are, and they’re also safer than ever - to ensure that you can actually push them to their limits without fearing (that much) for your life, as you would’ve back in the day. Among European historic racing events, the Silverstone Classic is considered to be the biggest, attracting thousands of fans and cars every year for over 20 years, so we had to be there to see it all for ourselves - and to report it back to you.

The 2019 Silverstone Classic left us drool-free

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We’ve attended quite a few race meetings over the years and, while all at least somewhat memorable, they never seem to incite the same levels of excitement in us as is the case when we talk about events open to cars, bikes, and even planes of yesteryear. There’s something truly unique about seeing old cars come out of retirement to race again, sometimes truly in anger like they used to 15, 25, 35, or even 75 years ago.

That's why we jumped at the opportunity to attend the 2019 Silverstone Classic, Britain's best-well-known historic racing showdown that's so much more than a series of races for old bangers.

Before we delve into what happened last weekend, here’s a little bit of history for you, in case you’re not familiar with the event. In the ’80s, the Monterey Car Week that featured the Monterey Historic Reunion at Laguna Seca was already a well-established event in the small (but burgeoning) calendar of historic racing events. This event, as well as others of its kind, prompted Stuart Graham, former race car driver and then-BRDC director, to organize a similar festival in the U.K. on the circuit that hosted the British Grand Prix, Silverstone.

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At the time, the former aerodrome’s major source of income was the Formula 1 Grand Prix and Graham reckoned a meeting for historic cars could provide added funds if ways could be found to attract more than just the people that were there to race. With the idea approved by the BRDC board and with a main sponsor singing up for the first edition of the now-traditional gathering - known at the time as the ’Silverstone Historic Festival’ - it was decided that a date two weeks after the 1990 British Grand Prix would be satisfactory to all parties involved as ancillaries in place for the F1 race could remain in place for the festival as well.

Graham appointed the late Mervyn Garton who would take care of arranging all of the off-track activities in the paddock and parking areas around the venue. Garton managed to get car clubs to attend by assuring each club of each marque that it’d get a dedicated parking area for members to park their cars thus creating a plethora of car corrals all around the track. He also brought in vendors and, as Christie’s was the main sponsor, there was also an auction taking place. With demonstrations (on and above ground) taking place outside of the Grand Prix track, people really had a saucerful of reasons to attend the event and that they did, albeit not in the numbers they do nowadays.

If the first edition saw attendance figures hover around 20,000 people, in the past few years the organizers reported that over 100,000 joined in on the fun over the three days of the event.
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Despite the fact that the first edition of the festival was a success right out of the box, by the end of the ’90s, financial troubles jeopardized the future of this popular reunion for gearheads of all ages. Indeed, shortly after the organization of the festival was taken over by Octagon Motorsports as part of their partnership with the BRDC (the company also leased the circuit from the BRDC for a period 15 years), interest seemed to die out and so did the festival. However, a couple of years later, in 2005, it was reborn as the ’Silverstone Classic’ and it has been going from strength to strength ever since, attracting some 1,000 historic racing cars that compete in numerous categories part of a number of distinct series.

In 2019, we had 14 grids that saw anything from pre-War sports cars to post-War Formula 2 single-seaters take to the track. There was also a Mini-only race with the grid filled to its capacity (58 cars, that is) and a grid dedicated to ’90s and ’00s sports prototypes and GT cars. Many firsts were recorded during this year’s event such as the first outing in a race in Britain of the Le Mans-winning 2003 Bentley Speed 8. Among the parades, there was one dedicated to Fiat 500 owners, another in honor of Bentley’s centenary, and also one for the 60th anniversary of the Mini and the 50th anniversary of the Ford Capri - Europe’s Mustang.

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In short, the schedule was packed with both on-track and off-track action from Friday all the way through to Saturday and there was little time for anyone to catch his or her breath and think about the magnitude of the event.

Silverstone Auctions brought over 100 cars to sell on Saturday and people could view all of the lots throughout Friday and there were even open-air concerts staged at the end of each day as the organizers thought about celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original Woodstock Festival by bringing in a host of original acts as well as established cover bands that performed well into the evening.

Adding to all that were the clubs which, as mentioned, are more than keen to participate. This year, over 80 car clubs from the UK took part and some 9,000 cars were displayed over the three days of the event. Among the other things going on in the areas around the track itself were stunt shows performed by the likes of Terry Grant (there was also a Wall of Death), drag-style shootouts, rally demos, AWD rides, dream car rides, the ’Young Driver’ driving opportunity for kids under the age of 17 to drive cars in the confines of a closed course, and a lot more.

The Variety Of Cars Present At The 2019 Silverstone Classic Was Astonishing

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We arrived on Friday around lunchtime at the track, just in time to catch the FIA Historic Formula 1 Championship contenders strutting their stuff out on track during qualifying. We traveled from the airport to Silverstone, which is located in Northamptonshire next to the villages of Silverstone and Whittlebury, in a rental and you can’t help but think that renting cars is, in essence, an exercise in trying out cars that you’ll never buy for yourself unless some sort of force majeure makes you to. In other words, most (affordable) rental cars out there easily find their way on everyone’s list of dreadful, unimaginative, and boring cars one way or another.

But enough about rental cars and their shoddy character. Not that there isn’t more to say about them but, as we made our way to the designated parking area for VIPs and not-so-VIPs (read ’media representatives’), we stumbled upon an impeccable-looking Aston Martin DB5, the kind Sean Connery strolled in in the early Bond films but in blue.

Seeing such a car merely parked away from the action got us even more excited about what awaits within the boundaries of the Silverstone Circuit.
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The ’70s and ’80s Formula 1 cars were a sight to behold although one can’t help but be surprised at how compact they are, even compared with their older brethren from the early ’60s and late ’50s. I mean, if you look at the 1976 McLaren M26 you’d think it’s just a toy car next to whatever McLaren is running in the 2019 FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Modern F1 cars are obscenely large and the point is nowhere better underlined than at a gathering of old F1 machinery that are purposefully small by comparison to the point that modern helmets and HANS devices look too big for these lithe single-seaters, despite their ample display of dive planes, wings, and other aerodynamic add-ons that’d become commonplace by the dawn of the ’70s.

The rest of the day saw an eclectic mix of Minis (including a Countryman Woody Wagon example), modern-classic sports cars and GT cars competing in the Aston Martin Trophy for Masters Endurance Legends, FIA Masters Historic Sports Cars, and pre-’66 GTs, sedans, and Grand Prix cars.

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The Minis seem slow when viewed from the edge of the track but, truth be told, seeing (on the live broadcast) almost 60 of these lilliputian warriors together on track is fascinating as everybody seems to be pushing to the limit aboard various iterations of Alec Issigonis' legendary brainchild.

You’d see folks picking the strangest lines through corners just to try and keep momentum going on a Silverstone that’s long since been butchered with unnecessarily slow sections that ruin the once ultra-fast nature of the Grand Prix course. Contacts are few and far between because, although the cars are being raced hard, all of the drivers display tons of respect for one another and you seldom see an over-optimistic lunge on the inside of another car or someone simply outbraking himself into a bend.

As the Minis were being pushed back in the garages, out went the Masters Endurance Legends cars, a stark contrast from the pedestrian-looking Minis with stuff like the epic Peugeot 908 HDi FAP, the Pescarolo-Judd 01, and the Lola-Mazda B09/60 racing again on the track they once competed in anger - no more than a decade and a half ago.

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BBM Sport (formerly known as Chamberlain Synergy Motorsport) was the de facto works-backed Lola team for a short while in the mid-’00s and ran a large variety of sports cars and GTs in the past few decades. Nowadays, the team specializes in maintaining and racing cars that are past their expiration date but still more than worthy to be out on the track to flex their muscles. Such a car is Peugeot’s world-beating 908 HDi FAP, the nemesis of Audi in the glory days of the diesel sway. Three 908s were present at Silverstone, two displaying 2010 bodywork and livery and another, commonly referred to as the 90X HDI FAP, only ran on Thursday during practice and could then be seen parked in front of the Masters Historic Racing tent in the paddock.

This latter example is a very special one for it was used by Peugeot Sport in late 2011 as a test mule right before PSA’s clampdown on its own LMP1 program that was about to deploy a hybrid version of the 908 for the 2012 season to do battle with the Audi R18 E-Tron.

The 90X incorporates all the latest parts developed for this platform since the program was launched in 2007.

But the Peugeots didn’t shine as they usually do as the two OAK-Pescarolos in Gulf Oil colors and the 2007 ex-works 01 driven by Emmanuel Collard proved to be quicker - as was Steve Tandy’s ex-Dyson Racing Lola B09/60 that, in its day, played second fiddle to Pickett Racing’s Acura HPD 03A in the ALMS.

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The pre-’66 grids for F1 cars, sedans, and GT cars were delightfully colorful with anything from Alfa Romeo 1300s to Corvettes, Porsches, Aston Martins, and Coopers taking part. A Ferrari from 1965, the likes of which Lorenzo Bandini piloted to second place in the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix, was also present and, despite putting out under 300 horsepower from its tiny 1.5-liter, naturally aspirated engine, it caused quite a stir. As you’d expect, the Britons were out in force with plenty of MGs, Austin-Healeys and Lotus Elites racing on their skinny bias-ply tires that wrapped around elegant wires or purposeful steelies.

With the sky remaining overcast throughout the day, the threat of rain was looming and, although sprinkles did reach the ground, a downpour was not on the menu on Friday but nor was a nice sunset that announced the end of all racing activities and invited those on hand to witness the concerts in the paddock at a stage placed right next to the track where a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band as well as a Joe Cocker tribute act played.

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While 'Racing and Rocking' was the theme of this year's Silverstone Classic we turned down the 'rocking' part and headed to our accommodation to rest our heads and begin the arduous task of planning what needed to be done on Saturday - when it was bound to rain quite a bit.

That evening we had fish & chips, as you would being a visitor in the UK, and complained a bit about how flat the track is.

You see, American road courses (think Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca, Barber Motorsports Park, or Lime Rock Park to name just a few) are revered by drivers for their old-school nature and their roller-coaster-like appeal but their up-and-down profile is also something that photographers like as you can get more interesting vantage points if the track offers healthy elevation changes, as opposed to one that’s flat and, on top of that, features an uninspiring backdrop to fill the frame. Still, it could’ve been worse!

British weather was in full force on Saturday

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Our second day at the Classic afforded us the chance to taste at least some of the facets of your typical British weather with intermittent rain, wind, and a bit of fog animating the proceedings. While some races were impeded by the presence of the Aston Martin Vantage safety car when things got really wet (the whole event was backed by Aston Martin and AMR), red flags were freak occurrences as were crashes.

The ’70s Formula 3 cars again kicked-off the action little after 9:00 AM in the morning and, thereafter, the menu was full once again. We watched the Historic Formula 1 cars dashing through the wet, leaving behind massive rooster tails, from the balcony of The Wing along the International pit straight, and, from that vantage point, with rain falling on the cars, you could really see how the aerodynamics work and how the air is being directed along the bodywork.

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Before that, we took the time to explore the paddock, the garage area, and a few of the car clubs that were present despite the not-so-pleasant weather. Porsche owners were, seemingly, the keenest to attend as products of the house of Wiessach were everywhere around Silverstone but Aston Martins, Austin Healeys, Capris, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW cars were also aplenty and there was also a parking lot jampacked with Ferraris - mostly of the newer but an F40 was parked right as you stepped in the area dedicated for the members of the Ferrari Owners UK Club to set you in the right mood.

More supercars could be found in the International paddock hidden underneath white tents.

They were part of the Yokohama-presented Supercar Legends display. Among the stars were, undoubtedly, a rare Jaguar XJR15, the road-going equivalent of a Jaguar Group C prototype, a McLaren P1, a Ferrari Enzo, and a Brabham BT62 in matte black. Sadly, they didn’t move an inch - at least not while we were there.

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We didn’t talk much about aural pleasure and, frankly, old racing cars are the best at giving you eargasms. The HSCC Thundersports Sprint race was a prime example with a pair of Can-Am juggernauts fighting for supremacy in the wet race. The protagonists were a Papaya Orange McLaren M8F (so not an actual works car built by McLaren but we digress) and a 1972 Lola T310, one of the lowest and widest Can-Am cars ever built that was unlucky enough to debut at the same time as the Penske-run Porsche 917/10-TC and, as such, has been largely forgotten. But we won’t forget it, not that you could ever forget a car that can actually shake the ground as it passes by and that also blows your eardrums in the process. The V8s powering these Group 7 prototypes were pushed to their absolute limits back in the day, putting out about 700 horsepower to try to keep up with the turbocharged Porsches that were nearing 1,000 ponies on full boost.

More aural nirvana came curtesy of a host of Lola T70s that competed in the Yokohama Trophy for FIA Masters Historic Sports Cars in the evening.

Not that the pre-’66 sedans and GTs aren’t cool but those Chevy-built, 7.0-liter V-8s gave out the kind of growl you’d expect out of the throat of a lion if a lion happened to morph into an automobile of sorts. It also helped that Eric Broadley’s most famous creation is also achingly beautiful to look at from any angle and, at the Silverstone Classic, we also saw earlier T70s sans roof, as raced in the USRRC and in Can-Am over five decades ago. One example was even dressed in the colors of John Mecom’s team while another displayed the full John Surtees Racing treatment, looking just as it did in 1965 when it raced at Mosport in the hands of Jackie Stewart.

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Talking about JYS, the three-time F1 World Driver’s Champion was present to drive his championship-winning Matra-Ford MS80 and, as if the Gods listened, just as he pulled out of the International pit garages to take his old friend out for a spin, the cloud bed partially cleared and rays of sunshine bathed the track with some much-needed heat.

The day ended on a high with the prime sunset spot (yes, we could see bits of orange and yellow dimming in the sky between the clouds) being taken by the main 50-minute Masters Endurance Legends race. Pescarolos occupied the front row (we hope Henri was watching from the comfort of his home!) and they rocketed away at the fall of the green flag, leaving the pair of Peugeots, Tandy’s Lola, and the Dallara that attacked the Goodwood Hillclimb course so aggressively barely a fortnight ago to scramble in their wake.

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The Peugeots tried very hard to keep up with the Pescarolos, one of them, No. 8 driven by historic racing champion Kriton Lendoudis even crashing out of the race in spectacular fashion. Happily, the precious tub wasn’t damaged and BBM Sport managed to repair the car, although some niggly little issues prevented it from racing again in the second Masters Endurance Legends race on Sunday.

Final Thoughts

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Seeing thousands of classic cars in one place makes the Silverstone Classic a bucket list event for sure, although this year's edition was a bit of a letdown as far as entries go for the 14 classes of racing that took part in on-track activities throughout the weekend.

What we mean is that, although we’ve had some 1,000 cars compete every day, it seems like the depth of quality and variety was down a bit this year in comparison to the 2016, 2017, or even the 2018 edition. We’ll not discuss here the potential reasons behind the situation but you can’t help but hope that the future developments in the UK won’t harm the success of events such as the Silverstone Classic, the Goodwood Festival of Speed, the Chateau Impney Hillclimb, and others alike as it would be sad to see them shrink due to turmoil of any kind.

Having said this, we think you should add the Silverstone Classic to the list of must-see events and take a trip to Northamptonshire as soon as possible. Sure, the track isn’t as scenic as Road America or Laguna Seca as it’s a full-blown FIA Grade 1-compliant venue and that means you’ve got retaining fences everywhere (not to mention the fact that it’s all flat) but the cars and the party-like atmosphere in the grandstands, in the Village Green area, and in the parking lots make up for it.

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Truthfully, you can spend the three days of the event and never even get close to the edges of the track and just enjoy chatting away with car owners and taking part in the various activities around Silverstone (there’s even a Ferris wheel like at Le Mans or Daytona). In short, this really is an event that’s welcoming for the whole family, not just for the gearheads and avid car guys and girls.

Further reading

Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion 2016
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Rolex Monterey Reunion 2016

Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion 2017
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Rolex Monterey Reunion 2017

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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