I love the smell of rubber in the morning. It smells like … Silverstone. The Silverstone Classic, specifically – running since 1990, a three-day festival of classic cars, music, revelry and speed. Speed, speed, speed: although we arrive by train via the shrine to glamour that is Milton Keynes, by the time we collect wristbands and are gravitating towards VIP mission control in a courtesy cruiser, the whiff of speed is already seeping under the windows. It’s a gently intoxicating brew of hot rubber and spent petrol. Guttural, aggressive splutters from post-war engines are circling us at a distance – the festival makes use of every service road to put you in and around the track-based mayhem – and by the time we reach the international paddock, testosterone levels have kicked up a notch. Not quite Top Gun, but much better than Top Gear.
Snatching up a flute in the hospitality lounge, we can head out onto the balcony to see the speedsters up close. The racing programme extends over several days and is an uncensored display of full-frontal classic car pornography. The pre-’63 GT cars were winding up when we arrived, and as we take to the terrace, the pre-’56 sports cars have been let off their leashes and out of their cages to prowl around Silverstone. The noise levels make us glad of our complimentary ear plugs, but we’re always free to step back inside and take advantage of the day-long array of buffet and alcohol in the lounge above the parc fermé area. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, evening cheese and biscuits are available at the appropriate times of day, and prosecco is uncorked at the appropriate hour too (i.e. constantly).
We take a walk through the attractions in the shopping village. One busy crew under the eBay banner are restoring a 4×4, live, over the weekend; everywhere there’s vintage memorabilia, clothing, merchandise, antiques, and of course everything you might need to pimp your particular ride. The general quantity and range of classic cars is staggering – I eschew rows and rows of gleaming Aston Martins to stand and gawp at a fine cluster of late-80s white Porsches, pining for the carphone and cream leather seats I never had. Officials offered the conservative estimate that the cars on-site were worth around £350m. On the track, the Masters Historic Formula One race is cranking into action. The noise is too infectious I have to get in a car.
The Jaguar experience, in the shadow of the ‘reverse bungee flyer’, is a visceral affair: we hop one by one into an intimidating Jag with a jaunty professional driver and strap in. He guns the engine and my heart rate leaps up in sync with the rev needle: he then throws it around a tiny,skid-friendly track in a gratuitous series of figures of eight, sliding it around in clouds of smoke and noise, with two cameras filming the action through the windscreen and my facial reactions. I collect these after for posterity – it’s good to know what a combination of deep fear and wild elation looks like on my face.
We cruise back to the hospitality zone while vintage planes loop around in aerial displays overhead, another treat for thrill-seekers. After lunch and few choice withdrawals from the bar, it’s a perfect time to head down to the auction. The Silverstone Classic Sale is not to be trifled with. More than 450 lots are presented over the duration of the event, with race cars on Thursday. Among the most eye-catching lots is a 1966 Porsche 911 SWB Competition, for those who fancy celebrating the anniversary of England’s World Cup win by splashing a few hundred grand on an utter beast of a race car. The reserve prices tend to top out at around £500,000, but there’s something for everyone: Saturday’s sale included automobilia, lifestyle items and watches, as well as classic cars. The personalised number plates FI FAN and FI NUT were up for sale – apt descriptions for so many of the event’s attendees.
Silverstone has thoroughly seduced me. Last time I came it was to run a half-marathon in the February chill, and this has been a marked improvement. The only way to sign off before leaving is to take up a kind offer and hop in a Maserati with an off-duty race driver, who spins us around the circuit with ease, drifting up to 100mph without so much as a blink. It’s a fitting end to an adrenaline-fuelled, but marvellously civilised, day of speed, with a great deal to offer even the mildest of petrol-heads. Come for the cars – stay for the hospitality.
Photos by Jakob Ebrey Photography. To discover more about the Silverstone Classic visit the website.