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Friday favourite: Why F1's original circuit retains its thrilling appeal

The very first circuit to host a Formula 1 world championship race in 1950, Silverstone has earned classic status over its subsequent 57 appearances on the calendar. Amid its many facelifts, Bertrand Gachot’s love for the circuit he picks as his favourite hasn’t changed

Bertrand Gachot, Moneytron ONYX ORE-1

Photo by: Andre Vor / Sutton Images

Silverstone has featured many different guises down the years. But, in the eyes of Bertrand Gachot, who drove several of them while ascending the UK racing ladder, the British Grand Prix venue's core appeal has been successfully retained.

A winner at the circuit in British Formula 3 in 1987, a Formula 3000 polesitter in 1988 and a points finisher in Formula 1, a key part of Gachot’s racing education came at Silverstone in Formula Ford slipstream-fests. He claimed back-to-back titles in FF1600 and FF2000 in 1985-86 with Pacific-run Van Diemen and Reynard machinery.

“I always liked Silverstone, it’s the heart of Formula 1,” says the Dubai-based Belgian. “This is the track that shows the potential of an F1 car with those high-speed corners and it’s just a very special place.

“Even today’s version [unchanged since 2010] is interesting. It’s very high-speed, a beautiful layout. When you see Copse corner then go up the hill and have the S [complex of Maggotts, Becketts and Chapel] leading onto the Hangar Straight, this is just amazing. You enter this with 300km/h, full power, don’t lift and you take a lot of Gs. There you show what a Formula 1 car can do.”

Gachot’s earliest visits to Silverstone came before the Luffield chicane was installed in 1987, with the flat-out blast from Club through the left-hand Abbey kink only briefly interrupted by the fast Woodcote chicane. That and the limited power of Formula Ford machinery meant Silverstone habitually produced pack races, but drivers who worked together could partially alleviate this.

Gachot would go on to win the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours for Mazda alongside Johnny Herbert, but the two came to blows at Silverstone in an FF1600 clash that the Briton regales gleefully in his autobiography, What Doesn’t Kill You. “He still laughs today about this!” Gachot sighs.

Herbert came to blows with future Mazda team-mate Gachot at Silverstone in their Formula Ford days

Herbert came to blows with future Mazda team-mate Gachot at Silverstone in their Formula Ford days

Photo by: Sutton Images

He had hatched a plan with Herbert before the race to tow each other clear of the pursuing pack, before sorting out the battle for victory between them on the final lap. Herbert explained that he was immediately suspicious, “because I just knew that he’d be up to something… I decided that whatever Bertrand was planning, he’d be playing the long game so whatever I was going to do I’d have to do it early doors”.

“So we went out, me and Johnny took the lead,” Gachot remembers. “When Johnny was behind me, I pointed where to pass him so we didn’t lose time, he passed me on the Hangar Straight. And then the following lap, I wanted to pass him, he pointed, so I went and he pushed me in the grass.”

Herbert recalled in his book: “Just as he began to pull out and make the move, I went over to the left slightly, which forced him on to the grass. I knew from personal experience that this particular stretch was like a Highland Moor, and sure enough a second or so later Bertrand was about six feet in the air and on his way to the back of the field.”

"The first time I went in an F3000 was at Silverstone and I thought to myself, ‘woah, what am I doing? These cars are fast.' It was scary. I remember feeling impressed"
Bertrand Gachot

Gachot adds: “And he was looking in the mirror as I was flying in the air over the bumps. I got so pissed with him!”

In 1987, British F3 raced at Silverstone on no less than five occasions. Showing his affinity for the track, Gachot came away with four podiums including a victory at the British Grand Prix support race with his West Surrey Racing-run Ralt-Alfa RT31, as he ultimately finished second in the standings to Eddie Jordan Reynard-VW driver Herbert.

After passing Herbert, Gachot was second to Gary Brabham in April, the leading Ralts sharing fastest lap. One month later on the Club circuit, Gachot was boosted to third late on when Brabham ploughed into a backmarker in a failed bid to deprive Perry McCarthy of second. Back on the full Grand Prix layout in June, Gachot fought back from 10th on the grid – losing his best time in qualifying to a fire extinguisher infringement – to second on the road behind Herbert and third on aggregate after red flags.

Gachot saved his best display for July and the massed spectators who would later watch Nigel Mansell score one of his most famous F1 wins. He absolutely crushed the field after his best engine was rebuilt, winning by 8.02 seconds in 15 laps after “an opening lap reminiscent of so many produced by Senna back in '83”, as Tony Dodgins put it in Autosport.

“Nobody could touch me,” says Gachot, who prevailed in a race-long duel with Brabham and McCarthy to take fourth when the F3 circus made its final visit of 1987 in September. “I had this engine twice in Formula 3, once at Brands Hatch and once at Silverstone. And I knew I would win the race, this engine was just so good. It was unbelievable. Eight seconds, imagine, on 15 laps.”

Gachot dominated the fourth Silverstone British F3 race of 1987 in front of the F1 team bosses

Gachot dominated the fourth Silverstone British F3 race of 1987 in front of the F1 team bosses

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Silverstone would again make an impression on Gachot on the next rung of the ladder, as he graduated to F3000 in 1988 with a Reynard 88D entered by the late John Wickham’s Spirit TOM’S squad. Although by this stage the circuit had featured its first modifications since the Woodcote chicane’s introduction in 1975, with the cars slowed by the left-right at Luffield before blasting through the reprofiled Woodcote sweeper and onto the pit straight, Gachot admits he was taken aback by unleashing the DFV-powered machine around its fast turns.

He says: “The first time I went in an F3000 was at Silverstone and I thought to myself, ‘woah, what am I doing? These cars are fast.' It was scary. I remember feeling impressed.”

Back at the circuit for round four with the car's chief designer Malcolm Oastler engineering his car, Gachot seized pole but was overhauled in the race by Roberto Moreno’s Bromley Reynard, still taking a creditable second. His overriding memory is taking the opportunity to remind Marlboro’s Graham Bogle of his decision not to take him in the cigarette manufacturer’s world championship team, which would have secured his budget for the year, something Gachot says had been justified with the statement that he wasn’t quick enough…

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His fortunes at Silverstone in F1 were mixed. Gachot was the last classified runner in 1989, only his second race start with Onyx after several pre-qualifying disappointments. He finished 12th aboard the spare car, which he felt had too long gears and had an understeer balance, then perhaps unsurprisingly couldn’t pre-qualify the Coloni-Subaru in 1990.

But aboard the Jordan 191 in 1991, the first year Silverstone introduced the new complex of corners commencing with a sweeping right-hander at Bridge while also reprofiling Stowe and fashioning a hard braking zone at Club, he logged a second points finish of the year with sixth. This was a superb drive, without a pitstop, after he’d spun back to 23rd in an early tangle with Emanuele Pirro. Gachot occupied fifth until Nelson Piquet’s Benetton passed on fresher rubber with three laps to go.

“That was the best car at Silverstone, there is no question,” he says. “We didn’t have an engine, again, we had the normal Ford HB and Benetton had an updated version of ours. But that car was just amazing at Silverstone.”

He again came through pre-qualifying in 1992 (fastest by 2.7 seconds) with the Venturi-Larrousse and qualified 11th but retired when a wheel-bearing broke. His final two British GP outings with Pacific, following the addition of the Abbey chicane to slow cars on their approach to Bridge, were a hiding to nothing.

He failed to qualify the hopelessly outdated PR01 in 1994, a trend that would not change for the remainder of the year. But Gachot, now the CEO of Hype Energy Drinks, did at least see the flag in 1995, the first time he got the PR02 to the finish all season after a series of gearbox issues.

Gachot finished in the points with the Jordan 191 in the 1991 British GP

Gachot finished in the points with the Jordan 191 in the 1991 British GP

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

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