Abba, Stirling and an Eight Year Old Me at the British Grand Prix 1981
The 1981 British Grand Prix was for me, as an eight-year-old, one of the biggest events of my life. It still is.
Thanks to having a father for whom fast motoring was a religious matter, I’d been to the race since I was in nappies – although usually we’d go for qualifying. This time, however, my best friend Guy’s dad was taking us as guests to one of the hospitality suites – on race day.
Guy’s dad worked for Audi, who were fielding a pair of cars for Stirling Moss and Martin Brundle in the British Touring Car Championship… one of a phalanx of support races for the weekend. The cars were backed by BP, which had the suite right next to Race Control, and it was here that dad and I were to enjoy the race.
The privilege of being on a balcony in front of the start/finish line was one thing, but on Saturday we still went off around the circuit to see the cars in action. Even at that age, the spectacle was to see them braking, changing down, challenging the available grip from their ground effects and fat tyres before blasting away.
Piquet’s Brabham, Jones’s Williams and Laffite’s Ligier burst into vivid life after 12 months of poring over Dad’s copies of Autosport. Patrese’s Ragno Arrows was a vivid orange streak and there was Slim Borgudd’s ATS sponsored by – wow! – by Abba! How amazing! My mum loved Abba!
But most of all it was the rich red Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve that had me screaming my head off. If Formula One was the biggest, most exciting thing in my world then the scarlet whirlwind was the most intoxicating part of it.
It was Gilles and the Ferrari I that watched out for in the BBC’s coverage and whose pictures I gleefully cut out of the Page & Moy travel catalogue (as defacing dad’s magazines was definitely not an option). I had little knowledge about the world but, of what I did know, that car and that driver were at the heart of everything.
On raceday I remember Guy and I being virtually welded to the balcony rail, ear defenders in place. It took considerable coercion to get us inside when Stirling came and addressed the sponsors… I’d be kicking them out of the way these days!
Then it was time for the main event, and the grid formed in front of us with the Renaults of Arnoux and Prost to the fore – turbo power and Silverstone being a marriage made in heaven. At the start my ear defenders were tested to the limit by the array of V6 turbos, V8 Cosworths and pair of V12 Matras in the Ligiers, and out of my sight Gilles had made his usual blinding start to get up to fifth by the time they reached Copse.
Although I never saw it, Gilles was third by the time they reached Stowe and challenging his team mate Pironi, who chopped him off at Club so effectively that Gilles was back in fifth by the time they passed us again.
On the fourth time around, Gilles appeared in front of me going backwards, the Ferrari wreathed in its own tyre smoke. In the melee John Watson’s McLaren virtually had to stop to avoid the mess, while his team mate Andrea de Cesaris was in the catchfencing – and so too was Jones’s Williams.
The innocent parties popped their buckles and hopped furiously out of their cars but Gilles was pointing in roughly the right direction and simply drove out of the carnage in a very tired-looking machine – to as close an approximation of a roar of delight as an eight-year-old boy can make.
That was the last time I ever saw my idol in motion with my own eyes. The dilapidated Ferrari expired at Stowe and, for Gilles, there would be no return to the UK.
I was downcast but there was excitement, not least when Elio de Angelis abandoned his car in the pit lane entry after getting black flagged. And then there came the tide of enthusiasm around the circuit as Watson – the only British driver in the race – began a sterling recovery from Gilles’ earlier contretemps.
A thunderous roar from the stands greeted Wattie’s muscular pass on Reutemann for fourth on the run into Woodcote. Turbo gremlins then hit Pironi and the two Renaults and so, with eight laps to go, the McLaren led in front of a delirious home crowd – including much-cheered little boy and his best mate.
It was like being at a football match where everyone’s on the same side. Silverstone became 800 acres of cheerful delirium. That euphoria that lasted, in our house at least, long enough for dad to call the photographer Jeff Bloxham upon receiving his copy of Autosport. In Jeff’s shot of Wattie taking the flag you could just about make out two small boys and their dads on the BP suite balcony – and a copy of it has been in our living room ever since.
It’s days like that which make motor sport what it is to people. I’ve often thought back fondly on that race, but this year all the more so. For a start we had the great Bahrain Grand Prix debacle.
I wonder what the aspiring Hemingways in the media centre could might have written in a year when, in Northern Ireland, 61 people died through violence and protest. Doubtless the debate over whether or not the 1981 British Grand Prix should have taken place would have been the ‘elephant in the corner’ when Wattie – an Ulsterman himself – was being interviewed about his performance at Silverstone.
Except, of course, that it wasn’t. The 1981 British Grand Prix wasn’t the greatest race of all time, but it was a rousing success. Undoubtedly it coloured my life for the better, leading me around the world with the rest of the circus.
And for that – as well as a splendid weekend 31 years ago – I owe tremendous thanks to Rodney Clinch and his invitation to the BP suite. I shall be wishing him well this weekend.
by Nick Garton
Images: Nick Garton