Silverstone History: WW2 Airfield turned F1 Race Circuit

Alex Gassman

by Alex Gassman

Silverstone history

During WW2 the Silverstone site was an active RAF base for a training squadron of Wellington bombers. But thanks to a small group of enthusiastic Frazer Nash drivers hosting an informal race on the Silverstone airfield, and a chance encounter with a sheep, Silverstone has become the home of British motorsport.

This article looks at the old Silverstone Airfield and the history of the site before it became one of the most popular F1 venues on the calendar.

Contents

Bomber Command in WW2

During the later stages of World War 2 – mainly from 1942 onwards – Britain’s RAF was frequently engaging in large bombing raids on strategic industrial, tactical and defensive targets across Germany and other parts of occupied Europe. From the start of the war, all of the RAF’s bombing operations were controlled by Bomber Command.

Wellington Bomber

Being aircrew on an RAF bomber did not come with particularly great chances of survival. By the end of the war, Bomber Command reported that of the 120,000 airmen involved in bombing activities, over 44% of them were killed.

With the casualty rate so high, it was critical to get as many aircrew trained up as quickly as possible. Numerous airfields were built across Britain, not with the aim of being operational airfields dispatching planes in to action, but to home various training units. RAF Silverstone was one of these

RAF Silverstone airfield

RAF Silverstone was built just outside the village of Silverstone in Nothamptonshire and completed in 1943. It was designed and built to meet the standards set by the British Air Ministry of a Class A airfield, which included three intersecting runways set at 60 degrees to each other. The longest of these three runways had to be aligned Northeast to Southwest.

Below is an image of Silverstone from 1949. You can see the three separate runways intersecting each other, the longest of which is aligned according to the Class A specifications.

Silverstone circuit 1949

Class A airfields also had to have a perimeter road linking the ends of each runwa. The perimeter riads had to be a minimum width of 50 feet. Little did the British Air Ministry know at the time that their requirements for the perimeter road of Class A airfields would make the perfect future race tracks.

17th Operational Training Unit

Once the RAF Silverstone airfield was completed, the 17th Operational Training Unit (OTU) of the No. 6 Group of Bomber Command were assigned to the site from 1943 to 1946. They also used the local RAF Turweston airfield as a satellite site to take off and land from, which is now one of the Silverstone park and ride locations.

17 OTU was set up to train aircrew in night-time bombing operations using the Vickers Wellington bombers. The Wellington bombers were twin engined long range bombers, but had a reputation for being difficult to manouvre. 

Pilot Joe Patient who won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in the skies in WW2 wrote in his book that after many hours flying the de Havilland Mosquito bombers, “the Wellington was a wallowing old duck.”

The amazing aerial image below from 1946 shows a number of the Wellingtons parked up around the outside of the airfield.

Silverstone airfield in 1946
Silverstone airfield in 1946 with Wellington bombers

In the three years that 17 OTU was based at Silverstone airfield, they had an appalling safety record. 37 reported accidents occurred in Vickers Wellingtons that took off from Silverstone or Turweston, killing more than 40 airmen in the three year period. 

In 1947 17 OTU was renamed No. 201 advanced flying school and moved to RAF Swinderby in Lincolnshire. RAF Silverstone had served its purpose with the war having ended two years earlier and was left deserted.

There is a memorial to 17 OTU present at Silverstone to this day. You can find it tucked away behind Luffield grandstand.

17 OTU memorial at Silverstone

The Mutton Grand Prix

In 1947 a local villager and car enthusiast had noticed that Silverstone airfield was abandoned. He was the owner of a Frazer Nash motor car and a member of the owner’s club for the marque. 

After seeing the vast expanse of open concrete at Silverstone he organised a meeting of fellow Frazer Nash owners at a pub in Ombersley, just north of Worcester. It was agreed that an informal race would take place with 11 Frazer Nash cars on Silverstone airfield the next day.

Frazer Nash

1928 Frazer Nash” by Andy Carter is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In September 1947, after plotting out a make-shift course, the 11 cars ran around the abandoned RAF Silverstone  until most of them had broken down. During the race, one of the many sheep that had inhabited the site wandered on to the track and was mowed down by one of the cars. Both the car and the sheep were written off, but the driver was luckily ok.

Due to the demise of the sheep, this inaugural race at Silverstone was infamously named the Mutton Grand Prix. Whilst it was a very informal event run by a few enthusiastic drivers, it caught the attention of some of the bigger motoring clubs in the UK. Little did they know that their escapades would result in Silverstone becoming the most prestigious motorsport venue in the UK for decades to come.

The early years of F1 at Silverstone

The following year the Royal Automobile Club secured a lease to use the circuit and in 1948, after fencing in all the sheep, they held the RAC Grand Prix. This was the first official race at Silverstone and it attracted over 100,000 spectators. The circuit for this race predominantly used the two main runways on the airfield, joined by a few tight hairpins.

In 1950 it was agreed that the very first Formula One Grand Prix would be held at Silverstone. This time the circuit had been changed, making use of that 50-foot wide Class A perimeter road for the majority of the track.

In 1952 the BRDC took over leasing the circuit. This image and this image from 1953 show hundreds of cars parked around the outside of the perimeter circuit during a race. You can also see that by this point the runways were in a state of disrepair but the perimeter road had been resurfaced.

Silverstone airfield remembered

There are a few nods to the WW2 history of RAF Silverstone at the circuit even today.

The Hangar Straight has been named as such ever since the perimeter circuit was first used in 1950. The image below from 1945 shows two large aircraft hangars directly adjacent to this bit of the track. Whilst the hangars are no longer there, the name of this straight still stands.

Hangar straight at Silverstone

The name for the Wellington Straight was taken from the Vickers Wellington bombers that were based here for No. 17 Operational Training Unit to practice in.

The corner that follows the Wellington Straight is Brooklands. Brooklands is named after the motor racing circuit in Surrey, but it is also the site at which the Vickers Wellingtons were built. So its name is poignant for a couple of reasons.

Silverstone airfield old circuit corner names

Alex Gassman

I‘m Alex. I write F1 and motorsport travel guides based on my experience as racing driver and full-time motorsport nerd. I’ve traveled the world watching F1 and other racing series.

I started oversteer48 with the aim of helping other motorsport fans who are planning on watching some racing themselves.

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Chris Brockcank

Can we have a correction please.
RAF Class A airfields had runways 50 YARDS (150 feet) wide.

Neil Davey

A lovely little history. It was my grandfather who designed the bomber base during WW2, when he was an architect working in the Ministry. Little did he know how it would be used in the long run.

Tony

Hi Neil, was your dad involved in the upgrade of the buildings towards the end of the war, the ones that were never used as the operation moved elsewhere? A friend of mine’s Dad was a builder involved in their construction and he’d be interested in any info. or photos of them.

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