18 December 2018

Fascinating F1 Facts: 20

Foreign folk tend to get very confused about the British Grand Prix, some even make the mistake of calling it the English Grand Prix, not understanding that wars have been fought over the misuse of such names.

So, for their benefit, here is a very brief explanation. The largest island of the British Isles is the sovereign state of Great Britain, which is divided into three countries: England, Scotland and Wales. Great Britain and Northern Ireland together are referred to as the United Kingdom. Brexit should actually be referred to as Ukexit, which sounds like some exotic capital city in one of the 'stans in Eurasia, but let's not get any further into that mess...

The southern part of Ireland is an independent republic, but used to be part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland between 1800 and 1922, after which it seceded. We'll not trouble ourselves with complicated details such as the crown dependency known as the Isle of Man, nor the bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, suffice to say that they are not part of the United Kingdom (nor the EU) but are self-governing possessions of the British Crown.

That is simple enough, isn't it?

Although it does not explain at all why the first Grand Prix held on these troublesome islands, in August 1926, was called the Grand Prix of the RAC. This is best explained by saying that it was the style at the time with the French Grand Prix being officially known as "the Grand Prix de l'Automobile Club de France".

"For the first time in the history of automobilism Great Britain has received the sanction of the International Association to run a race within its own shores comparable with the historic events which are carried out in America and on the Continent," Motor Sport reported. "The limitations imposed by the law have hitherto precluded any idea of holding such a race here."

Limitations? Well yes, you see the British had some really daft laws that were designed to stop mechanical road transport becoming a rival to horse-drawn carriages and to the new-fangled railways. The Locomotive Act of 1861 imposed severe speed limits on any self-propelled road vehicle. A similar act in 1865, known as The Red Flag Act, required a person bearing a red flag to walk ahead of every steam vehicle; and the Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act of 1878 made it illegal to run a steam engine if any horse was visible. This legislation wiped out any widespread development of steam-powered vehicles in Britain for 30 years, and handed leadership in road transport technology to the French, who had much more relaxed attitudes and even allowed racing to take place on their public roads (the horror!). In Britain this was impossible thanks to the Motor Car Act of 1903, which imposed a 20mph speed limit on all public roads. In consequence, racing developed first in Ireland (when it was still part of the UK, but with different laws) and on the Isle of Man, which is why the Isle of Man TT exists...

What was the solution? The only option was to race on private roads, But who owned land with sufficient roads suitable for racing? 

In 1906 a Weybridge landowner called Hugh Fortescue Locke King, from a prominent local family and related to the Lord Kings of Ockham, decided that he would build a speedway on the estate that he had inherited from his father. The land was called Brooklands and had been in his family since 1830, having been acquired from "The grand old Duke of York", King George III's second son Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

This would become the world's first purpose-built racing circuit, but it nearly bankrupted Locke King in the process, as he spent around $20 million at modern prices to build the 2.75-mile concrete banked oval. Locke King became so stressed that he had a nervous breakdown in January 1907 and while he recovered his wife Ethel took over the project. The daughter of the Governor of Tasmania, she was a character and shared her husband's passion for automobiles, so much so that in 1906 she had travelled to Turin and had bought the Targa Florio-winning Itala and had then driven it back to England.

The construction costs were such that the Locke Kings had to sell a lot of property and land, take out a number of mortgages AND borrow money from family members. But the goal was to make money from automobile racing and testing - and from aviation. The circuit did eventually pay off its construction costs and generate some profits, but what it really did was to kick-start British motorsport. Locke King's idea was quickly copied elsewhere, notably at Indianapolis but later at Monza, Montlhéry, Miramas and Sitges-Terramar. Until the 1930s Brooklands was Britain's only major racing facility, although it would be joined later by Donington Park, a circuit laid out on the roads of an impressive country estate in Leicestershire, the owner of which was looking for ways to make money.

Ironically, Brooklands's links with aviation would ultimately be its undoing. When World War II broke out, it became a major production facility for both Hawker and Vickers. It was bombed twice in 1940 by the Luftwaffe and then trees were planted on the track, in an effort to camouflage it from the air. The place was a mess by 1946 and was sold to Vickers-Armstrong, which continued to use it as an aircraft factory in the years that followed. In 1951, needing to have more runway to allow the new high-altitude Vickers Valiant bomber to take off, it was decided to demolish a section of the Byfleet Banking...

There is still more irony, of course, because the war may have destroyed Brooklands, but it created what British racing needed for more than anything. During the war years a total of 444 Royal Air Force stations were constructed in the UK, each with paved runways, perimeter roads and hard standing. In 1942, at the height of the work, there was a new airfield being completed every three days. By 1945  there were 720 operational airfields in the UK - and they were no longer needed… Dozens of them were used as motor racing circuits in the years that followed, notably Silverstone, which in 1948 hosted the RAC International Grand Prix, a race run to the new Formula 1 regulations.

The British GP would come two years later...

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