The 90th anniversary of the first British Grand Prix at Brooklands

PUBLISHED: 10:48 04 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:48 04 September 2016

The start of the first British Grand Prix at Brooklands in 1926

The start of the first British Grand Prix at Brooklands in 1926

Brooklands Museum

A key feature of the sporting calendar, the British Grand Prix is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. But what many people don’t realise is that it all started here in Surrey at the historic racetrack at Brooklands

The British Empire trophy at Brooklands in 1934The British Empire trophy at Brooklands in 1934

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2016

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The smell of petrol. The roar of the engines. The thrill of knowing that history is being made… It’s 90 years since the flag was raised on the very first British Grand Prix, with the race taking place on the concrete course built at Brooklands, in Weybridge, in 1907.

The world’s first purpose-built motor racing venue, Brooklands hosted the British Grand Prix in both 1926 and 1927 as the sport was developed in the UK by racing driver Sir Henry Segrave, who won the French Grand Prix in 1923. Ironically, it was the French who took top place in the first UK race, with Louis Wagner and Robert Senechal driving the car that beat the rest.

It was a landmark moment as that first British Grand Prix got underway on August 7, 1926, and it was to be the first of many important milestones at Brooklands. Not only can the legendary racetrack lay claim to being the birthplace of British motor sport but also the home of pioneering aviation development, too, as well as a wide variety of other technological developments.

Top attraction

Today, visitors to Brooklands are more likely to be tourists than motor racers. Now a popular museum, it allows people of all ages to look back not only on the vintage races but also the records broken there and the engineering developments made both on land and in the air.

“As the birthplace of British motor sport and aviation, home of Concorde and site of many world speed and endurance records, visitors to Brooklands are immersed in that heritage as soon as they step foot onto the site,” says Paul Stewart, marketing and PR manager at Brooklands Museum.

“The stories and people behind these significant moments in history are told through the buildings, vehicles, aircraft and many exhibits that reside here. It is incredible to think that from the moment the track opened in 1907, followed by 
the earliest flight trials in England, the first person on the planet to travel 100 miles in an hour, through two World Wars and into the jet age and eventually Concorde, this one place in north-east Surrey saw it all.”

With this summer’s 90th anniversary of the British Grand Prix to add to the many milestones (not to mention the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklands Concorde), and various events taking place to celebrate that landmark, there has perhaps never been a better time to pay a visit.

“From that first race in 1926 and onwards, the British Grand Prix has evolved into one of the most well-known sporting events on the planet, attracting the world’s best drivers, the world’s largest corporate sponsors and the millions who watch it,” continues Paul. “Then, as is the case now, it also attracted foreign entries using the best cars prepared for such endurance. Equally similar were the near-misses and mishaps; overheating, engine fires, blown tyres and cars retiring were all part of the drama during that first race.”

Among the top attractions today at the museum is a Delage 15-S8 racing car that took part in the 1927 British Grand Prix. Left to the museum in the will of naval architect and master engineer Alan Burnard, who restored it over many years, the car is one of only four built by the Delage factory for the 1926 season. The car came third in the race and seeing it now is quite a thrill.

Vintage glamour

But why is all the nostalgia of a race that took place 90 years ago so appealing to customers wanting a day out in 2016? Paul Stewart offers an explanation: “The romance and glamour of early racing gripped the public as it was the only place you could see such daring competition in action right before your eyes,” he says. “Plus, people are often surprised to learn that from the very opening meeting in 1907, women competed – and often they raced on equal terms with the men.

“For visitors today, it is a very evocative situation with the sounds, smells and rumbling of the cars that actually competed within these iconic environs; it can’t fail to stir the imagination.”

Motor racing at Brooklands reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, when thousands came to the meetings, and it gained so much popularity with celebrities that it was known as the ‘Ascot of motor sport’. Speed records were set by the likes of Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb in some incredible machines, and the thrills and spills of the races were often heightened by the dangers of driving at such high speeds. Sadly, accidents were inevitable – especially with health and safety not being the big concern that it is today. Perhaps the most tragic accident at Brooklands involved Percy Lambert, the first person ever to travel at 100 miles in an hour. He promised his fiancée that he would give up motor racing after one final try at breaking his own record but the attempt led to an accident and his death.

Eventually, the track closed in 1939 and motor racing never resumed again at Brooklands. But the history of the track certainly doesn’t end with the outbreak of war. Aircraft production and testing continued through the war years, despite being a target for bombing in the Blitz of September 1940. Also, Barnes Wallis, the man behind the famous bouncing bomb, set up his research unit there in 1948 to work on engines and wing design.

But the British Grand Prix never returned to Brooklands; the track had been too badly damaged in the Blitz and significant repairs were needed so the coveted race resumed at Silverstone (though fittingly one of the corners there was named Brooklands). So, in the end, there were only two Grand Prix races held at the Surrey track, with a range of other motor racing events put on during the 1930s to quench the demand of the public.

Future is bright

Nowadays, tourists not only have the chance to learn all about this colourful history, but there are also special events in school holidays and at weekends – such as visits from car clubs, Auto Italia’s Italian Car Day and The Brooklands Double Twelve Motorsport Festival.

But perhaps the most exciting prospect, looking into the future, is the £4.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to transform the Grade II-listed World War Two Wellington Hangar into what will be called The Brooklands Aircraft Factory.

“This unique exhibition will give visitors of all ages an unmatched, immersive and imaginative experience,” says the museum’s director, Allan Winn. “I’m now really looking forward to working with our consultants, contractors and volunteers to turn this fantastic vision into an exciting reality.”

It seems that history is still being made at Brooklands, even today.

• Brooklands Museum, Brooklands Road, Weybridge KT13 0QN. Open daily. Admission: Adults £11; seniors/students £10; children (five to 16), £6; children under five, free; family ticket, £30 (two adults and up to three children). Supplementary prices apply for the Concorde Experience. Tel: 01932 857381. Web: brooklandsmuseum.com

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TIPS FOR BROOKLANDS VISITORS

• Brooklands Museum displays a wide range of motoring and aviation exhibits, from vintage racing cars, motorcycles and bicycles to wartime aircraft. It is also home to the only publicly-accessible Concorde in the south-east.

• Look out for the special Concorde events, too, including the chance to have lunch with a captain, take a flight in the multi-million pound simulator or enjoy a glass of champagne on the aircraft.

• The perfect destination for petrolheads, why not enjoy a spin at the neighbouring Mercedes-Benz World at the same time.

• For a relaxed bite to eat, head to The Sunbeam Café at Brooklands Museum, offering seasonal recipes covering breakfast, lunch, snacks and treats.

• For something a little more swanky, visit Brooklands Hotel next door (the historic racetrack runs through their reception) for dinner in their 1907 restaurant or a cocktail in the 1920s-style bar.

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IN NUMBERS

• The British Grand Prix was held at Brooklands on 2 occasions

• In all, there have been 70 British Grand Prix races

• 5 of these were called The European Grand Prix

• Jim Clark (GBR) and Alain Prost (Fra) have both won 5 times

• The first 4 races were not actually part of the F1 World Championship

• The fastest lap at the Brooklands Grand Prix course was by Sir Henry Segrave at 1min 49.5secs

• The course there was 4.21km long

• Ferrari has won the British Grand Prix 15 times

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