A truly British Grand Prix

A lot can be said about British summer, more often than not by the way of unflattering adjectives: wet, damp and depressing. In this respect July did not disappoint the attendees of the Santander British Grand Prix in Silverstone last weekend. The extreme downpour on two of the three event days made for a dramatic experience for the drivers, the organisers and the fans alike.

Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images for The Guardian

This was meant to be the race for three British drivers, with each of them: Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Paul di Resta, promising to do their best to please the home crowd. The first wave of disappointment came on Saturday when Jenson did not leave Q3, and therefore starting the race from 18. and then finishing 10 on Sunday; Paul was out of the competition as early as lap 3 after a contact with Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and a puncture whilst Lewis, who David Coulthard bet on to bring the gold home, finished 8.

But in the end, it still was a home driver who snatched the win; Mark Webber, a Silverstone local (having lived in a nearby village for several years) trailed behind Fernando Alonso for 48 laps, unable to minimise the gap to the Ferrari – until the Prancing Horse’s last pit when the Aussie took advantage over the Spaniard struggling to pick up the pace.

“…when I arrived on Fernando, reasonably close I got to see where he was struggling with his car,” Webber told the three-time Champion Jackie Steward in the post-race conference. “It was obvious that he was pushing as hard as possible but the balance wasn’t with him. That’s when you’ve got to smell the blood and you’ve got to go for it.”

Mark Webber did not seem to be moved by his British GP win
Photo: Getty Images for Red Bull Racing

As he comfortably crossed the finish line, he didn’t shout out in excitement, and on the radio his voice sounded surprisingly calm.  “Another great day for us and great day for me to win here again. It is fantastic. Yeah.” He then said the win was “taking a while to sink in.”

And he wasn’t the only one who needed some sobering after this event. Apart from the mentioned British hopes that simply didn’t deliver, there were other drivers who saw a different end to this weekend.

For over an hour of the race it seemed Fernando Alonso was unbeatable, charging to victory ahead of all opponents. This was his first pole since 2010, and if he had done it, it would have been a third consecutive win this season, making him the only clear favourite of 2012, with all the other realistic Championship competitors having not one more than once this year – in the meantime, he is now in the same two-win boat, together with Webber. Despite the second place on Sunday, Alonso is still leading the classification, but now with only 13 points ahead of Webber.

“Yeah, still there,” said Alonso after the race about his position in the Championship. “It’s the main target obviously for us. Today I think we lost seven points with Mark but we gained some extra points on the rest of the field. So I think it was a good Sunday in terms of championship points for us.

“I’m happy with the second place. Now obviously, ten minutes after the race there is a strange feeling of losing victory. But it’s the same 18 points you get if you are third and you overtake the guy in second on the last lap and you are so happy, so it’s the same second place but different feelings in these ten minutes. But I’m sure in one hour’s time I will appreciate it much more.”

The McLaren team didn’t deliver in front of their home crowd
Photo: PA

Michael Schumacher, who qualified in 3., saw his chance in a wet race; but because the weather gods in Silverstone decided to cancel the rain for Sunday, he could not repeat the result from Valencia, finishing only 7. His teammate, Nico Rosberg, who shared the weather sentiment on Twitter, surprised himself more than anyone else by finishing 15:

“The whole weekend just hasn’t gone to plan for me which is a bit unexpected and really disappointing. In the race today, I had a poor start and generally we just didn’t have the pace. Then a slow second pit stop held me up towards the end; so all in all, it really didn’t come together,” he said after the race.

The Mercedes team have been very vocal this season criticising the dry Pirelli compounds for being too unreliable and difficult too manage, and Silverstone seems to prove their point, considering the more promising results of the wet qualifying session.

Extreme downpour in practice and qualifying meant that drivers could not figure out a good tactic for the Sunday race
Photo: Andrew Hone/Getty Images Europe

But it wasn’t only the drivers who were hoping for a different outcome in that weekend; the fun had been spoiled to many fans before the race even began. The disastrous weather conditions drove Silverstone and surrounding area to a standstill on Friday and Saturday, leaving hundreds of commuters stranded in traffic. Due to the prolonged downpour many campsites were unusable and their visitors had to be relocated – including the event’s host venue, Silverstone Woodlands; not mentioning the floods on local roads across Northamptonshire. South Northampton Police tweeted on Saturday: “All campsites shut, car travellers shouldn’t journey to #silverstone on Saturday but those using park and ride and those on foot are okay.”

On Friday evening the race organisers requested fans not to attend the qualifying session to conduct any possible repairs and reinforcements to the car parks, promising refunds to any of the 100,000 ticket holders that had to be turned down.

Jed Leicester, a photographer, tweeted on Saturday: ” If u want it was diff getting in.. Don’t try to leave. Carnage. All lanes. Gridlock 4 miles”

Silverstone organisers have promised to learn from the event to avoid a similar situation in the future; however, the same had happened in 2000 British Grand Prix, when torrential rains turned the weekend into a “mudbath”. As a consequence, a bypass was created and the surrounding fields were turned into car parks. The FIA bosses defended the circuit management, claiming that there wasn’t much more that could have been done to prevent the traffic chaos.

Sue Smith from the South Northamptonshire council, and the Chair of Inter Agency Group, which manages key events at Silverstone and minimises the impact on the local community, told me that the weather outcome was “really unfortunate”:

“We have been planning for this event throughout the year, and we were expecting rain but no one could predict this horrendous weather, which affected also other events that were planned. It caused a great inconvenience to all, organisers and the visitors. At least the fact that the race took place on a Sunday when the weather improved was a good result and the event was a success.

“The weather issue will be looked at in the future. During the weekend we sought alternatives in terms of hard areas to replace the grass camping areas. As a council we had the ability to work with other campsite operators, not necessarily linked to Silverstone.

“However, any projects for progressing improvements have to come from Silverstone, as they are the organiser of the F1 race; they have to lead in making this event run as smoothly as possible. We on our part will give all our support, as the South Northamptonshire community relies greatly on Silverstone in terms of jobs and general development.”

Many commuters were stranded on their way to the Saturday qualifying
Photo:Jed Leicester published on Twitter

Despite the disruption to traffic and horrific weather, an estimated 125,000 fans flogged to the Sunday race, that turned out to be dry, glorified by outbreaks of sunshine; and although not all drivers were happy with their performance, they were unanimously grateful to the public for their support.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren: “I gave the fans a little donut on the slow-down lap – simply because I wanted to say thank-you to everyone who came out to watch us here today. I’d love to have done better in my home Grand Prix, but, regardless, the fans were fantastic throughout the weekend.”

Paul Hembery, Pirelli motorsport director: “Like everybody else, we’ve been hugely impressed by the dedication and commitment of the fans this weekend, who have endured some extremely arduous circumstances, but were finally rewarded with another great race.”

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari: “As Mark said, thanks to all the fans. We had not so good weather during the weekend and they were cheering all the time for us. I hope they enjoyed the show today and see you all next year.”

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