From one of the newest venues on the Formula 1 calendar, Valencia, the circus moves to one of the oldest, Silverstone. And it’s not just age that separates them, as there could not be a greater contrast than a track that skirts a Mediterranean port and the fast flowing lines of the circuit based on an old military airfield in the middle of the English countryside.
Need we add that the weather is likely to be very different too, especially as England, like much of northern Europe, is experiencing one of its coolest, wettest summers on record. Nevertheless, like the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, the finals of which also take place on the same Sunday, the British Grand Prix is one of the sporting highlights of the year.
It is definitely a highlight for one member of Scuderia Ferrari, Felipe Massa’s English race engineer, Rob Smedley. “For me, it’s first of all a great circuit, but as a “Ferrarista” it’s one of my two home grands prix, the other being in Monza,” explains the engineer. “I love Silverstone, I have great memories and it’s like going home, my one trip per year. I first went there in 1988 with my dad. I was not even one hundred percent sure if I wanted to go. I was thirteen and I had never seen Formula 1 or knew anything about it. I was mad keen on football at the time, but I went and I was immediately hooked. It blew me away and I was mainly interested in the technical side. I remember we leapt over the fence into the paddock – something you couldn’t do today! - and some of the mechanics from the March team took us in to their garage and showed us around. So now, if kids with their dads stop me at the circuit, I’m always happy to have a chat with them, because I will always remember when someone was kind enough to do that for me when I was a lad.
Today, the number of spectators at Silverstone is restricted on safety grounds, but there was a time when the crowd was huge, drawn to the track by what became known as “Mansellmania.” Smedley remembers it well: “my father was a big Nigel Mansell supporter at the time. He was driving for Williams and I think the whole country was supporting him as he was a fantastic driver. When I arrived at Silverstone for that first time on the Friday, I was not supporting anyone, but by the Friday night I was a Nigel Mansell fan too and I remained that way, even when he came here to Ferrari in the early 90s. After he stopped racing, I became less partisan and just enjoyed watching the racing and unbelievable drivers like Ayrton Senna. It was a magical time when you think of those great drivers and also how quick the cars were, given what people had to work with and the technology of those days, 20 years ago. It was quite incredible.”
“On the calendar since the World Championship began in 1950, with the exception of five years when the British GP was held at Aintree and twelve at Brands Hatch, Silverstone has evolved over the years, while maintaining its high speed character. “Silverstone now has a new layout, but from the earliest days I worked there, in Formula 3 and Formula 3000, it was always changing,” says Smedley. “Now it has become much more of a professional ambience, and a more slick operation rather than what seemed like people just taking their cars for a race on Sunday afternoon! The new layout is much more interesting and gives we engineers much more of a headache because the circuit is now split into two distinct parts. It has changed a lot and I think for the better. The atmosphere is incredible with well over 100,000 spectators on Sunday afternoon: the only venues that come close to it are Suzuka and Monza, because of the immense passion from the fans. Most of them British, but they also come from all over the world to experience this atmosphere, even though it is an airfield in the middle of nowhere!”
The Scuderia has plenty of history linked to this windy corner of England, including recording its first ever World Championship victory here in ’51, courtesy of Jose Froilan Gonzalez, with a further fifteen wins after that, culminating in an emotional victory for Fernando Alonso last year, on the 60th anniversary of that maiden win for the “Pampas Bull” as Gonzalez was known. Alonso’s team-mate has not had the best of luck at Silverstone, with a fourth place in 2009 his best result. Ensuring Felipe does something better this time will be Smedley’s priority at the weekend. “In sport you need some luck, even if it’s true to say you make your own luck and, in the past, maybe we have not made our own,” admits the Englishman. “There have been bad races here and in 2008 at Silverstone I personally had my worst ever race, where I did not make a single correct decision throughout the afternoon. But we never stop hoping. Right now, going into Silverstone, there is very little that Felipe is lacking for him to be back where he was in terms of driving and confidence in the car. You need things to go your way and at the last race we didn’t have that. Going back to Canada, he made a little mistake at the start, which changed everything and in Monaco he was stuck in a train of traffic for 70 laps. However, in terms of his pace in those recent races and the way he was driving and his confidence, he is a different driver to the way he was at the start of the season. So, we are missing very little, maybe a tiny one percent to make it all start happening for us.” As for Fernando, he is clearly on great form at the moment and his main concern on arrival at Silverstone will probably be to check he gets a friendly reception from his team, following Spain’s victory over Italy in the European Football championship final!
Smedley is equally optimistic when it comes to the Scuderia’s prospects as a whole. “I think our chances are good at Silverstone this weekend, even if it’s no secret we still need to develop and have a quicker car. In Valencia we didn’t have the quickest car, but compared to the start of the year, we had a much improved car, which is down to a great job from the whole team. However, our car has always been particularly suited to high speed corners and Silverstone is dominated by high speed turns for almost two thirds of the track. I hope therefore that we can go and make the most of it; not only all the recent development work we have done on the F2012, but also the fact that our car is fundamentally good in high speed corners. That is why I feel we are in with a very good chance this weekend.”
Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, Smedley the race fan, the boy who climbed over the paddock fence, is also looking forward to a great weekend. “I don’t think we have ever seen racing this close, as no one has a clear understanding and all the knowledge, specifically about the tyres” he enthuses. “It means you go to Silverstone and really, any one of ten drivers could win it. In all the time I have been working in the sport and even before when I was just watching we never had that situation. It’s great for the sport and it’s also great for us.”Source Ferrari