How did a windswept WWI airfield become one of the world’s most iconic international Grand Prix circuits and the ‘Home of British Motor Racing? asks racer turned writer Ken Davies.
Now you can discover this remarkable metamorphosis by visiting the newly opened £20M Silverstone Experience, charting progress from medieval farmland to international stardom, via an 18th century aristocratic estate and distinguished WWII record. The objectives of this unique attraction are the preservation of motorsport history and its value in educating the next generation.
Imaginatively created in one of Silverstone’s last surviving hangers – conveniently preserved near the main entrance – the SE has been eleven tough years in gestation, completely absorbing the project’s architect and CEO Sally Reynolds, who joined Silverstone from Legoland in 2011 with a remit to attract more people to the circuit.
It was Reynolds who submitted the successful application for Lottery funding on behalf of the BRDC led attraction, which enjoys the royal patronage of HRH Prince Harry of Wales, who lends his full support ‘for a scheme that recognizes the major role Britain plays in the global motor racing industry’.
Partly financed by the £9.1M Lottery Heritage Support Grant, construction work started two years ago to refurbish and extend the 1943 Wellington bomber hanger and a quirky discovery was made. Over 70 years of people seeking somewhere discreet to pee had caused acidic erosion, which had completely detached three corners of the steel-framed building from the ground – honestly! Post-war, the hanger was subjected to various uses including indoor Karting, boatbuilding as well as being home to the FF Corse Racing Team.
The original hanger now houses the museum, chronicling the circuit’s history, with the contemporary extension home to offices, BRDC’s extensive archives, meetings rooms, café and shop. A typical visit is estimated to last 2½ hours and starts dramatically with a pre-show ‘The Grid’, featuring strong visual and audio effects to set the atmosphere for a journey through 70+ years of motor racing history.
Visitors are then released to follow the defined timeline route through the exhibition at their own speed and absorb the numerous audio and visual contributions, many from household motor racing names.
Section one deals with the original Priory, Chapel and Stowe estate before progressing to Silverstone’s WWII role as a training airfield and contains various interactive exhibits that allow visitors to fly a Wellington bomber and operate its machine guns and bomb-bay, although only propaganda leaflets are dropped!
The trail then picks up the BRDC’s rich motor racing history from its formation at Brooklands in 1928 and includes the exhibition’s oldest exhibit, the 500-Mile Trophy dating from 1929. The stunning British Empire Trophy is also displayed as won 1932 – 1961 by some legends of the sport, including the remarkable disabled driver Archie Scott-Brown 1955/57 and Stirling Moss, its final winner in 1961.
Illustrating an important part of the circuit’s social history and its close links with Silverstone village and its motor-racing oriented community, the trail continues past an authentic reconstruction of the saloon bar of The White Horse pub. Then there’s the actual 500 cc Cooper Mk II that took part in the F3 race supporting the first F1 race in 1948 and the ERA from that inaugural feature race, when circuit preparations included 8,600 straw bales and quantities of empty oil drums to mark out the fledgling track.
On to the ground floor and Silverstone through the decades 1970-89, containing familiar cars, motorcycles and memorabilia, including several helmets and race suits worn in battle by the great and the good including Sheene, Senna and Mansell. Then the decades 1990 – present day, from Formula One to Moto GP and World Endurance Championship and everything in between, even one of the 750-MC Birkett trophies.
The Tech Lab occupies a large part of the ground floor, showcasing 2019 technology including CAD, 3-D printer, Wind tunnels and fine tolerance machining. This section of the Experience is targeting schools and colleges, with an eye towards the next generation of engineers, designers, race technicians and strategists.
The tour ends with ‘The Ultimate Lap of Silverstone’, another extra-sensory experience in a panoramic sensorium to view 16 iconic moments of Silverstone’s history, condensed into just one frantic lap of the Grand Prix circuit with all-star commentary team, including Murray Walker, Martin Brundle and David Croft, providing voice-overs, a remarkable compilation! There are 177 exhibits on show, ranging from cars, motorcycles, trophies, programmes, signing-on sheets, scrapbooks to original parts of a Wellington bomber!
Open 364 days of the year from 10.00 am to 18.00 – last entry 16.00 – the 4,000m2 Silverstone Experience has something for everyone and provides great facilities including meeting rooms and a well-stocked shop and, there’s the excellent Atrium café, appropriately overlooking the BRDC clubhouse and Luffield. Admission prices start at £10 for children (5-15), £16 concessions and £20 adults, parking is free. Every motor racing enthusiast must experience the truly memorable and immersive, Silverstone Experience!
© Words and images by Ken Davies