Timeline: The History of the British Grand Prix
Posted by Andrew Balfour on 08 July, 2021
A calendar fixture in every year of the modern World Championship since 1950, the British Grand Prix – held at Silverstone for most of the last 70 years – remains one of the most coveted trophies in Formula 1.
The first British Grand Prix of the modern era was held at Silverstone, three years after the end of World War II. After taking a one-year lease on an ex-RAF airfield at Silverstone, the Royal Automobile Club created a rudimentary 5.9km circuit that utilized perimeter roads and two of the airfield’s three runways. The event, which attracted over 100,000 spectators, was won by Luigi Villoresi in a Maserati.
Silverstone hosted the opening round of the modern Formula 1 World Championship on 13 May 1950. Twenty-one drivers from nine countries contested the event, which was won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were among the 200,000 spectators watching on – the only time a reigning sovereign has attended an F1 race.
The British Grand Prix moved to Aintree in 1955, a circuit near Liverpool that would host the event five times in the next seven years. The inaugural race at Aintree was won by Stirling Moss, who passed his Mercedes teammate Juan Manuel Fangio for the lead on the final lap. It was the first of sixteen Formula 1 wins for Moss and the first time an Englishman had won the British Grand Prix.
For the first time, the British Grand Prix was hosted by Brands Hatch under a new agreement that saw the race shared with Silverstone in alternate years from 1964 to 1986. The first race at Brands Hatch, an undulating circuit set in pretty countryside near London, was won by Jim Clark, who took pole position and set the fastest lap and led every lap en route to a dominant victory. The legendary Scottish driver won the British Grand Prix five times in the 1960s, including four consecutive wins from 1962-1965.
The 1969 British Grand Prix at Silverstone saw Jackie Stewart overcome a sustained challenge from his friend and rival Jochen Rindt as the two frontrunners traded the lead multiple times in a spellbinding, wheel-to-wheel duel that lasted for more than half the race. Stewart eventually won by more than a lap after the Austrian was forced to pit for wing repairs, but the race is still remembered as one of the best ever at Silverstone.
Controversy surrounded the 1976 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch after James Hunt was stripped of the victory two months after the event. A big crash at the opening corner had brought out the red flags, prompting James Hunt to return to the pits in his damaged car via an escape road, which flouted the rules. Fearing a riot by the partisan fans, the organizers let Hunt restart the race, which he went on to win – but the result was later overturned following a protest from Ferrari, handing victory to Niki Lauda.
Alain Prost won the 1983 British Grand Prix, the first of five victories for “The Professor” at Silverstone over the next ten years. The race also saw a very promising debut from Nigel Mansell, who charged through the field from 18th on the grid to finish just off the podium for Lotus. Also turning heads that day was Ayrton Senna, who won the Formula 3 support race – within a year, the Brazilian would be standing on the F1 podium at Silverstone.
After winning for the first time one year earlier at Brands Hatch, Nigel Mansell made it back-to-back victories on home soil with one of his finest ever performances in the 1987 British Grand Prix. Trailing teammate Nelson Piquet by almost 30 seconds after pitting for fresh rubber, Mansell reeled off a series of lap records to close the gap to the Brazilian. With three laps to run, Mansell brought the partisan crowd to their feet with a pass on Piquet down the inside at Stowe Corner.
Silverstone was extensively remodeled ahead of the 1991 British Grand Prix to improve safety on the high-speed circuit. It was no longer the fastest on the calendar but was still a supreme test of the drivers’ skills. Nigel Mansell took another hugely popular victory at home (his third of four wins in the British Grand Prix) and was even kind enough to give Ayrton Senna back to the pits on his sidepod after the Brazilian had run out of fuel on the final lap – creating an iconic F1 image in the process.
After winning the British Grand Prix for the first time in 1994 (a feat his champion father never achieved), Damon Hill was battling rival Michael Schumacher for the lead in 1995 when an ill-advised passing move by the Brit took them both out of the race. The battle for victory was now between two British drivers, both looking for their maiden F1 win. David Coulthard’s chances went out the window when he had to make a stop-go penalty after speeding in the pitlane, handing a popular debut win (at home no less) to Johnny Herbert.
David Coulthard took the first of his two British Grand Prix victories in 1999, but the race is best remembered for a serious accident involving championship leader Michael Schumacher – the German suffered a broken his leg after his Ferrari’s brakes failed, pitching him head-on into the barriers at Stowe. Schumacher missed the next six races and eventually finished fifth in the drivers’ championship, which was won by McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen.
On the backfoot after a costly mistake in the previous month’s Canadian Grand Prix had seen him fall to fourth in the drivers’ standings, Lewis Hamilton needed a good result at home in 2008. And he delivered in spades. In a race that Hamilton described as the best of his career, the young McLaren driver outclassed the field with a fine performance in tricky wet conditions to win by over one minute. It was the first of Hamilton’s record-breaking six wins at Silverstone.
Nico Rosberg won the 2013 British Grand Prix, but the weekend was overshadowed by safety concerns after a several drivers, including Lewis Hamilton, Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez, suffered dangerous tyre blow outs during the race. Pirelli blamed the “high kerbs” at Silverstone, as well as the teams using the tyres in an incorrect manner – notably by running the rear tyres on the opposite side of the car from the one intended.
On the weekend that a new race contract was announced, confirming the British Grand Prix on the Formula 1 calendar until at least 2024, Lewis Hamilton won the race for a record sixth time. It was another bad weekend for Sebastian Vettel after the Ferrari driver collided with Max Verstappen, eventually finishing a lowly 16th.
Silverstone hosted two race weekends in 2020 after the F1 calendar was modified due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lewis Hamilton was lucky to hold on to victory at the 2020 British Grand Prix after being one of several frontrunners to suffer tyre failures in the closing laps of the race. One week later, Max Verstappen tasted victory at Silverstone for the first time when he won the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix for Red Bull Racing.