A Silverstone Classic

I spent an evening recently watching excellent highlights of the 1973 British Grand Prix on YouTube.

It is quite unusual to see a race of that era ‘as live’ with pre-race interviews, pit-lane insights and befuddled commentary from the day itself, and with the washed-out appearance of a BBC colour television broadcast instead of the crisp, saturated film footage of the Brunswick archive.

And having seen this, I think there really is a case for nominating the 1970s as the golden era of Grand Prix racing.

It feels raw

What strikes you is how interesting proceedings are.

There is a palpable sense of expectation from the crowd, which is standing close to the track and not barricaded in austere grandstands. They are obviously excited at the prospect of a seeing a motor race, rather than an event. And they get one.

As the field smokes off on the parade lap, it’s great to hear the off-throttle crackling and popping as thirty – yes thirty – cars swarm into Stowe. And that’s nothing compared to the start.

Diversity in appearance, not in performance

As the cars head towards the camera on the first racing lap, there is a staggering difference between their appearance of the cars as they bomb down Hangar Straight. The Tyrrell 006 tall and bulbous, the Lotus 72 sleek and slight, the McLaren M23 aggressive and angular. Each just as fast as the other, noses diving under braking, simple nose fins resembling garden trowels instead of the convoluted, fragile horrors we have today.

The drama

It’s almost easy to forget that this was the scene of Jody Scheckter’s infamous first -lap crash, that took eleven of the thirty starters out of contention for the rest of the weekend and marked his card for a long time to come. But it’s fantastic to see it unfurl in front of you.

The racing itself

In 1973 the grid was made up of rows rather than slots. So the pole man started from the same white line as his colleagues in second and third.

This meant that there was not the same sense that there is in 2016, that your grid slot determines your finishing position. Especially if you’re one of the two Mercedes drivers.

Overtaking is not that common, but that makes it better. You know when you see a manoeuvre – which you will – it is because of of sheer determination on the part of the overtaker, rather than because he’s going to open his DRS and just drive past.

Quality, not quantity is the order of the day.  Plus all the leading cars have the same engine, the Ford DFV.  Proceedings are also enlivened by a very rare ‘off’ for Jackie Stewart, which takes him out of contention.

The commentary

In the 1970s the BBC had a roster of announcers they turned to for big events, and ex-RAF pilot and all round good English egg Raymond Baxter got the nod for this particular Saturday, and he sounds as though he’s wearing a dinner jacket and speaking into one of those old BBC radio microphones.

His clipped tones are in marked contrast, to the cheerful, soft-R’d delivery of Graham Hill, who comes up to the commentary box to join him after retiring with steering failure.

But the commentary primarily takes the form of the race positions and each corner’s name, as well as a few pet Baxter phrases – the wonderfully quaint ‘they’re all covered by a pocket handkerchief’ (they’re close together), ‘he’s doing a bit of agricultural’ driving (he’s off on to the grass) and his mystifying pronunciation of ‘Yody’ Scheckter and Francois ‘Sevvay’’s names.

Frankly the commentary is totally pointless. Which is why I like it.

Technical discussions are few and far between, although Hill makes an interesting point about how drivers following each other closely lose downforce on their ‘aerofoils’ – so this is not a new issue!

The phrase ‘two stop strategy’ is, thank God, nowhere to be found.

Cheap and cheerful

There’s a wonderfully low-fi air to the event.

After the chaos at the final corner at the first start, the officials simply run into the road in front of the leaders. Never mind five red lights on the starting gantry, pit-to-car radio messages and big screens all round the circuit bearing the legend ‘race stopped.’Both Stewart and Peterson come through Woodcote at full speed and only just get stopped in time.

At the restart, Niki Lauda comes in to change his front left tyre, as it’s blown. Only problem is, his mechanics can’t find a wheel that fits. They try two or three, while Lauda sits impassively in the cockpit and waits for them to wake him up again.

And James Hunt’s Hesketh March, which had its white airbox knocked off in the Scheckter crash, takes to the restart with a yellow one instead, swiped from fellow March runner Mike Buettler’s spares box.

His race number, 27, was affixed to it in gaffa tape. But not well enough to stop one of the ‘2’s blowing off halfway through the race.

And a final word: despite having no intimate knowledge of that season, it is easy to identify each driver as they roar into view, simply by their helmet design. And people whined when the FIA banned in-season design changes last year…

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