Two weeks in Northamptonshire

Silverstone comes alive for two weeks from the end of June, and awakes to the sound of high performance racing engines as the Formula 1 circus arrives in style for the Santander British Grand Prix. Although the racing is limited to a two week period, the preparations take place over a much longer period as the circuit organisers prepare the circuit for a world class event attracting some 250,000 spectators over the race weekend alone. It's not just the circuit organisers fervently preparing as the Grand Prix attracts its own micro climate of activity with local hotels, guesthouses, pubs, shops and campsites all packed to capacity. Circuit access has improved enormously with the building of the A43 dual carriageway and large tarmac car park areas although due to the huge number of cars arriving some soft parking is inevitable. Increasingly large numbers of fans avoid the hassle of getting to the circuit on race day by camping at one of the many local camp sites for the whole weekend, ideally arriving on Thursday and leaving on Monday morning. There is plenty to keep fans occupied as some of the major campsites lay on their own entertainment and fairground activities which continue late into the night. For the teams the intense preparation begins with the three day tyre test the week before the race, quickly followed by race weekend itself. The latest motor-homes used by the major teams are fabulous, massive multi storey structures that take several days to erect. There is absolutely no expense spared in assuring the comfort that the drivers and team members have become accustomed to, and to provide the very best experience for the major team sponsors that will be entertained during the event.

Tyre Testing

So the Formula One circus fresh from the French Grand Prix at Magny Cours descended on Silverstone Circuit in Northamptonshire, England for the three day tyre test on 24th 26th June. This would be the last time prior to the Grand Prix weekend itself for the teams to perfect their set ups and evaluate tyre compounds and test aero tweaks, hence it was no surprise to see all teams and drivers present over the three days. This year there was just a single week between the test and the race weekend, not leaving the teams with a great deal of time to collate and analyse the information gained or make new parts in time for the race. You can never be too sure of what will happen at Silverstone, the circuit is situated on a plateau, and as an ex World War 2 airfield is exposed and notorious for variable weather conditions. The teams often struggle to find optimum setups here as the wind can change at a moments notice causing real issues for a highly sensitive Formula 1 car. On the first day of the test it was the Ferrari of Felipe Massa that topped the timesheets with McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen second some three tenths of a second adrift of Massa's time of 1m 20.188s. Day two saw Kovalainen move to the number one spot with Massa dropping down to 7th. Jarno Trulli was second fastest underlining the somewhat improved pace of the Toyota as the season has progressed. Giancarlo Fisichella had a wake up call in the Force India car as he was caught out by a gust of wind at the high speed Becketts sequence crashing heavily as a result. Fisichella was fortunately unhurt and given a clean bill of health after a trip to the circuit's medical centre. The Honda team desperate to improve their car for their home race after a dismal season so far had Jenson Button on duty, but despite completing a mammoth 106 laps ended the day ninth fastest. The final day of the test saw the large crowd excited by the appearance of their new hero Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton did not disappoint, completing 88 laps and setting the fastest time of the day and the test overall with a 1m 19.170s. Second fastest was Timo Glock who was the only other driver to get down into the 1m 19's. It was not all good news for Glock however, as the German driver turned in on David Coulthard causing a collision with the Red Bull driver on Hanger Straight. World Champion Kimi Raikkonen took over from Massa on day 3, setting the third fastest time of the day.

Practice and Qualifying

After what seemed like a very short break the teams returned to Silverstone for the race weekend itself and the opening practice day on the Friday. The British Grand Prix is always well attended but this year it has been an unprecedented success being a complete sell out in advance for all three days. The crowd for Friday practice was capped by the organisers at circa 65,000, an impressive number no doubt boosted by the possibility of a British driver taking the honours at the wheel of a McLaren. The weather was bright and sunny all day with a light breeze blowing across the circuit. Felipe Massa was fastest in the first session, but hit oil at Stowe corner from the blown engine of Fernando Alonso's Renault. Massa left the circuit at high speed and hit the tyre wall hard, causing significant damage to the Ferrari but thankfully leaving the Brazilian unharmed. Heikki Kovalainen was second fastest in the opening session with Lewis Hamilton third. The second session saw Kovalainen continue his good form topping the timesheets with a 1m 19.989s. Mark Webber was second fastest giving his Red Bull team a real boost as they continue to extract more speed from the Adrian Newey designed car. Lewis Hamilton was fast but not quite able to snatch the number one spot, settling instead for second fastest. Damp conditions greeted race fans, teams and drivers at Silverstone on Saturday morning with the opening practice session officially declared a wet session. The circuit soon began to dry however as the cars cleared the racing line, and the times began to fall dramatically. As expected with the changing conditions, many drivers took their turn in topping the time sheets, but at the end of the session it was the Renault of Fernando Alonso that ended up fastest from the Red Bull of Mark Webber. Heikki Kovalainen, who has looked strong all weekend so far, was third fastest with Sebastien Vettel and Lewis Hamilton 4th and 5th. Hamilton was impressive in the first sector, but was unable to sustain the pace throughout the final sectors to beat his team mate's time on this occasion. Nelson Piquet was 6th ahead of Sebastien Bourdais and Timo Glock, with Kimi Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello rounding out the top ten. It was a fraught opening session for David Coulthard at his last British GP, as he only managed to complete 6 laps due to a seal having to be changed on his Red Bull. The track had dried for the all important qualifying session but the wind had gathered in strength and rain was still a real possibility. Heikki Kovalainen continued his superb form throughout the weekend to score his first ever pole position in the backyard of his team mate Lewis Hamilton who ended the session 4th fastest. Hamilton's first lap in the final shoot out was scrappy with a short excursion into the gravel, after which he struggled to recover his composure well enough to secure pole. Mark Webber put in a great lap to secure a front row grid place for Red Bull, the first ever for the team. Kimi Raikkonen was never far away but failed to grab pole as the Ferraris struggled to find the optimum set up for the mixed weather conditions and gusty wind at Silverstone. Nick Heidfeld stepped into the breach for BMW today taking 5th fastest, and beating team mate Robert Kubica who aborted his lap in the final shoot out after a suspected puncture. Fernando Alonso was 6th for Renault, just ahead of under pressure Nelson Piquet in 7th. Sebastien Vettel put a smile on the faces at Toro Rosso with a creditable 8th fastest, with Felipe Massa down in 9th for Ferrari after the team struggled with a wheel nut on the Brazilian's car. Robert Kubica ended the shoot out 10th, after failing to set a time.

Lewis Hamilton drove a fantastic race in extremely difficult wet/dry weather conditions to win the British Grand Prix by a mesmerising 68.5 seconds from the BMW of Nick Heidfeld and the Honda of Rubens Barrichello. The track was wet from the start and Hamilton got away cleanly breaking to the inside, passing Webber and getting his nose in front of Kovalainen who kept his line and sliced by Hamilton exiting Copse corner, the two McLaren drivers gently brushing wheels in the process. Kovalainen held his lead for the first few laps, but with Raikkonen edging up on them it was clear that Hamilton was the faster driver, and sure enough he soon passed Heikki for the lead to the delight of the partisan crowd. There was pandemonium throughout the field as the rain fell then eased off, with cars leaving the track almost constantly, none more so than Massa who spun five times. Raikkonen cut Hamilton's lead from 6 seconds to 1 second at the first pit stop sequence, and the pair pitted together with Lewis narrowly beating Kimi out onto the circuit. The Ferrari team made a big mistake in not changing Kimi's tyres, and as the rain began to fall Hamilton pulled away into the distance. The BMW's of Heidfeld and Kubica moved swiftly up the order, with Nick taking a strong second place. Kubica was not so lucky and came to grief in one of the busy gravel traps. An inspired decision by the Honda team to put Rubens Barrichello on extreme wets, enabled the Brazilian to carve his way through the field at an alarming rate, and had the rain continued he may even have overhauled Hamilton. Unfortunately for Rubens there was a malfunction of the refuelling rig during his pit stop, resulting in the need for a third splash and dash stop. Fortunately he still made the podium much to the great delight of the underperforming Honda team. Raikkonen suffered badly with his tyres, and had several off track excursions but recovered to take the flag in 4th place. Kovalainen was 5th after passing an inspired Alonso in the latter stages, with Trulli and Nakajima mopping up the remaining points in 7th and 8th. Nico Rosberg and Mark Webber rounded out the top ten, and both had off track excursions in the difficult conditions. The only other finishers were Bourdais, Glock and the hapless Massa who must have been very relieved to see the chequered flag to bring his disastrous weekend to a close. The title race is now wide open with Hamilton, Raikkonen and Massa all equal on 48 points, setting the scene for a scintillating second half of the season. Once again Silverstone has delivered a superb and exciting Grand Prix.

The FIA and FOM delivered a body blow to Silverstone on the Grand Prix Friday by announcing that the race would switch to Donington from 2010 in a 10 year deal. The announcement brought to a close an ongoing and often traumatic negotiation between Bernie Ecclestone and the BRDC to secure the future of the race at Silverstone. Donington's owners now have a massive task ahead of them, as they will need to extensively rebuild their facility, extend the track and improve the infrastructure around the circuit to enable the vast number of fans to get in and out efficiently. Only time will tell if this is achievable and what the future holds for Silverstone.

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