Why the fans at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone are the main event

Sports Editor Toby Lock on why the British Grand Prix won't be the same without the fans at trackside.

Wednesday, 29th April 2020, 2:56 pm
Fans at the height of Mansell-Mania in 1992

Cast your mind back, if you can, to 1992. It was the height of Mansell-Mania, and Our Nige was en route to the world championship at long last. The roads into Silverstone weren't as they are now - the tail-backs were miles long as thousands tried to get into the track.

As a seven-year-old at the time, I was well versed in this. After all, the 92 race was my fifth time at the Britsh Grand Prix. Eventually getting to the circuit, our general admission tickets meant we had to battle to find a spot somewhere close to a fence so I could actually see something, and we managed to get a spot on the inside of Stowe corner - the spot Ayrton Senna ran out of fuel 12 months earlier for one of the most iconic pictures in motorsport, not just at Silverstone. I vividly remember we were near a particularly potent lavatory too. Silverstone has changed a lot over the years, but their toilets are still as grim. I digress.

The race itself was not a spectacle of worthy note. Mansell's Williams FW14B was the class of the field by a significant distance (and people moan about Lewis Hamilton having the best car...) and from the green light - such was the start process of the time - Nige checked out. He always claimed the British crowd gave him half a second every lap and he was roared on for every one of the 59 laps by a packed house to win by 39 seconds - that's 0.6s per lap for those asking. What happened next was why the British Grand Prix will a completely different prospect this year.

"They're breaking ranks!" beamed commentator Murray Walker as the fans poured onto the circuit at the chequered flag, just as they had when Mansell won back in 1987 after an epic battle with team-mate Nelson Piquet for the win. Seeing the thousands hop the fences and stream towards the track, I looked at my dad, and he looked at me. "Don't tell your mum," he said as he placed me the other side of the guardrail, jumping over and grabbing my hand as we tore off towards the course. Sorry mum.

Such was the invasion, Mansell had to stop his car and get a lift back to the pits with the marshalls, leaving his race-winning Williams in the throng of fans, but not before warning any souvenir hunters that if the car was remotely damaged or touched, he'd be disqualified. The car remained untouched. I distinctly remember Michele Alboreto's Footwork - which was built in Bletchley - worrying little for the safety of those on the course as he completed his return lap at some speed still. There was a good reception for some guy called Damon Hill who was making his debut for Brabham - another car from MK, this time Tilbrook, long before Red Bull took up residence. He went on to have quite a career too...

Of course, it was a different time back then. Fans are far better-behaved these days (for the most part) but the atmosphere remains. No longer Mansell-Mania, but Hamilton-Hysteria still has the British fans roaring on their favourite lap after lap. The celebrations after his pole position lap in 2007 still gives me goosebumps. Track invasions are more controlled and permitted when there aren't any cars left on the track. And we still do it, every year. The chequered flag drops, the cars return to the pits, and the gates open. Thousands race towards Club corner to get a glimpse of the podium, or of Lewis Hamilton's crowd-surfing exploits after his recent victories at his home track, while those further afield make their way onto the track to get a piece of tyre rubber, get pictures on the grid, or just walk along the course.

I've been lucky enough to save up my pennies to go to circuits all over the world to watch the sport I adore more than any other. But my British Grand Prix streak will come to an end in 2020 at 32 in a row. Though understandable in the current climate, it still leaves a sense of disappointment to the ticket holders who will make up the 350,000-odd thousand attendance across the three days of action in Northamptonshire. The fans and their, our, passion pouring out from every possible vantage point at Silverstone is what sets it apart. The race this year may be excellent on track, but it won't be half as exciting without the roar of the crowd.Biased though I may be, you can keep your Monaco - the British Grand Prix is the one any fan should aspire to go to. Save up your pennies: 2021 will come around quicker than Alboreto did.

Damon Hill about to get lapped by Nigel Mansell, with Michele Alboreto in the background.
Track invasions are more controlled nowadays, but Lewis Hamilton still likes to mix it with them.