The 2020 running of Formula 1’s British Grand Prix was one like no other. In 2019 141,000 people attended race day, packing into the grandstands, waving flags, flying banners, and cheering on the field of 20. There was none of that this time around. Lewis Hamilton won a soporific grand prix that exploded into life in the closing moments, creating a thrilling conclusion that will go down as one of the most dramatic last laps in the 70-year history of the sport. The sadness is that no supporters were present to see it at a soul-less Silverstone.
The British GP weekend for many had actually started on Monday, with the requirement of undertaking a pre-event Covid-19 test within 96 hours of Thursday’s first proper track day. Eurofins, the company responsible for carrying out the tests, had repurposed the Media Accreditation Centre adjacent to the main gate. Already there was an eerie atmosphere around Silverstone – and that was only enhanced upon arriving on Thursday.
Usually approaching Silverstone overhead gantries warn of potential delays around the area through the weekend but this year these were blank. There were no temporary signs instructing punters where each campsite was. The fields around the circuit were green and empty, with no tents, caravans or fluttering flags signifying where allegiances lied. Upon entering the circuit, and crossing the access road that goes over the old Bridge corner, the emptiness was stark. In recent years the area of track around the former Bridge and Priory corners have been large fan zones. This year there was no stage, no amusement rides, no merchandising stalls, no food stands, no burger vans, while the picnic benches beneath Village grandstand went unused. In 2018 there was a sensational atmosphere when England beat Sweden in the World Cup quarter-final. Last year there was a huge buzz as race day coincided with the Wimbledon final and Cricket World Cup final, both of which had staggering denouements long after the chequered flag.
Formula 1 personnel have previously parked close to the old paddock, and then used loaned Stagecoach-run buses to reach The Wing. But this year there were no gaudy-coloured buses traipsing up and down the access roads, for everyone was permitted to park on part of the Stowe circuit, within a short walk of the paddock. Each day the absence of noise was startling, with the most sound coming from the wind that always blasts across this old airfield, even on exceptionally hot days. Teams used different entrances of the paddock while, as in Austria and Hungary, the lavish motorhomes were replaced by containers for use only by drivers and senior team management. There were also Covid-19 test facilities for every team, with all personnel requiring a nasal and throat invasion at five-day intervals. The lengthy Silverstone paddock, usually fairly sparsely populated given its size, was even more barren.
Attending media, of which there were around 20 print journalists, were not permitted access to the paddock. It meant a convoluted entrance to the media centre via The Wing’s south entrance (close to the podium), including another name check to ensure you were allowed access; a temperature check had already taken place upon entering the circuit’s main gate. Once inside there was a network of corridors and areas for certain groups to use, while staircases and some passageways were split in half in order to ensure different bubbles did not cross paths. There were regular hand sanitiser points, stickers on the ground informing you of one-way systems and to distance from others, while masks were mandatory aside from at your desk. Perspex screens had been installed where possible while the usually soulless media centre was even more vacant. Rows and rows of tables and power outlet points that had previously been used by around 200 journalists had been replaced with about 20 socially-distanced desks that took many back to exam time in a school hall – all it needed was a large clock and a couple of invigilators and the transformation would have been complete. The few photographers not embedded within teams took up space at the other end of the media centre, with their usual area next door repurposed as the Press Conference room. Despite the journalists being but 50 metres, split by just a wall, from the drivers there was no access as all press conferences were carried out virtually, and the unused commentary boxes were available for people to use for attending those e-conferences – else there would have been a disruptive echo around the room.
The empty grandstands opposite the media centre, and adjacent half-built Hilton Hotel, acted as a constant reminder of what should have been, but what instead it was. The hotel was originally set to be ready for the 2020 event but its opening has been delayed until early 2021. The taped-up windows, unfinished exterior and an assortment of temporary support structures showed how life had been put on hold.
“None of anything pre-pandemic… seems feasible anymore,” said one journalist in passing. “I’m starting to forget what life was like. How do we ever get back to that? Can we ever get back to that?”
The tight restrictions and measures in place for those attending makes the notion of fans returning potentially as early as Mugello – and Sochi and Algarve still aiming for large crowds – seem fanciful at best, and downright negligent at worst. The logistics needed just to tend to essential personnel, and the ever-changing guidelines issued by the different authorities, means Formula 1, the FIA and the venues themselves need huge credit for merely getting the show on the road.
If the weekend was bizarre then race day itself was an even stranger experience. Usually Sunday morning at Silverstone has a tense atmosphere, accompanied by the faint smell of barbecues from the previous day’s campsite activities, with fans lining the entrance routes eager for a glimpse of the drivers. But, obviously, this year there was none of that. There were no queues or traffic jams heading in but no-one was gleeful for that – it only emphasised the emptiness. Silverstone is typically the busiest airfield in the UK on race day as helicopters come and go each minute but this year there was silence in the air, broken only by the occasional whirring of the yellow TV chopper. There were no guests heading to the BRDC Clubhouse. There were no VIPs sauntering to various motorhomes or hospitality suites. It felt very much like an in-season test day. Where usually there was the drivers’ parade 90 minutes before lights out – accompanied by a cacophony of noise – there were socially distanced FOM-run interviews drowned out only by the blipping of the wheel guns as teams carried out pit stop practices. The fact it was a beautiful summer’s day, with sunny spells and warm temperatures, only added to the tragedy of the empty grandstands.
Silverstone’s grid is usually packed – among them a plethora of celebrities and other guests – but this year it was more akin to a Formula 2 grid, with only essential personnel permitted, and the procedure altered to enhance social distancing. The 19 cars lined up on the grid, the engines roared into life, and when the five lights went out they blasted away, rounded Abbey, and disappeared from view. There were no big screens to keep track of the action, no roar of the crowd to indicate anything, and almost no noise whatsoever when the field was at the far end of the track. Was there really a top-level motor-race going on?
Post-race Hamilton climbed from his three-wheeled Mercedes, put his hands on his head in disbelief, and went to the podium. There was no track invasion, no crowd-surfing, and no-one chancing their luck by grabbing a DRS or metre-marker board (there’s always one fan who tries it, and always gets stopped by security). Maybe there never will be again – who knows.
Formula 1 will remain at Silverstone this weekend for the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. There will only be cosmetic changes, with Emirates replacing Pirelli as title sponsor, meaning a few trackside decals will be tweaked. Elsewhere it will be the same. Sport without fans is a bizarre experience. Let’s hope that this will be just a mere aberration and that we can one day return to a life we previously took for granted.