Behind the Scenes of Silverstone’s Gamble to Save the British GP

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The 2018 British Grand Prix at Silverstone was a miserable affair from every possible perspective.

On Friday, the riders complained bitterly about the bumps that had appeared, despite the track having been resurfaced over the winter, a complaint which echoed the Formula 1 drivers, who had raced there several weeks earlier.

On Saturday, in a downpour, several riders crashed at the end of Hangar Straight, including Tito Rabat. Unfortunately for Rabat, Franco Morbidelli crashed immediately after him, his bike slamming into Rabat and shattering the Avintia Ducati rider’s leg. Rabat would face a very long recovery to come back from such a severe injury.

Things got worse on Sunday. Heavy rain drenched the track after warm up, and continued steadily throughout the day. Mindful of Rabat’s accident, and the fact that there was standing water at several points on the track, the racing was delayed in the hopes of better weather. When better weather didn’t arrive, it was called off altogether.

That created a massive problem for Silverstone. Though fans who had turned up on Sunday had their tickets and parking refunded, the future of the British Grand Prix – both of them, F1 and MotoGP – was at stake.

The surface laid by Aggregate Industries was not deemed good enough to race on, the bumps coming through too quickly, and the drainage not good enough.

If Silverstone wanted to continue hosting world championship motorsports, they would have to resurface once again. And they could not afford to get it wrong again this time.

New Surface

That is precisely what they have done. The Silverstone circuit management enlisted the help of world-class track designer Jarno Zafelli and his company Studio Dromo.

They engaged Tarmac (the company after which the road surface material is named) to remove the old surface and lay a new one, to the specifications drawn up by Zafelli and Dromo.

They have taken as thorough and scientific an approach to resurfacing the Silverstone circuit as possible, mindful that if they get it wrong this time, that would be the end of the circuit as a viable commercial concern.

At Barcelona, Silverstone managing director Stuart Pringle spoke to a couple of groups of journalists to explain the process of resurfacing the track, and how the decisions had been made along the way.

Work got underway on June 9th, shortly after wrapping up the third round of the British GT Championship.

“Half an hour after we dropped the checkered flag on the British GT championship, we handed the circuit over to Tarmac, and they started planing that evening,” Pringle told us.

Getting the Base Right

The planing – the removal of the old surface, and preparation of the substrate on which the new surface will be laid – is absolutely crucial to creating the right conditions, Pringle explained.

The process had been designed in detail by Jarno Zafelli and Studio Dromo, and was based around extremely precise GPS mapping of the circuit, as well as laser scanning of the surface, to build up a 3D model of the track.

Removing the old surface meant Tarmac had been required to invest a million pounds sterling in two special machines. These are tracked vehicles with GPS, but Studio Dromo demanded that these vehicles be used as they were the only ones capable of operating to the levels of precision required by the project.

The planing has removed up to 14cm of material, digging down at one spot to one of the runways laid when the location was still an air force base. “That’s World War II airfield underneath,” Pringle explained. “This is Wellington Straight, where the bombers used to take off.”

Drained by Design

In the process, the camber of the track has been changed to ensure the track drains properly. At Brooklands (Turn 16), for example, the outside of the corner has been raised by 7cm to ensure the water runs off the track quickly and into the drainage on the inside of the turn.

Along the Wellington Straight, the left hand side of the track – the side opposite the racing line – has been lowered by 7cm, to ensure the water clears from the track away from the racing line.

The slope has similarly been modified all the way through Vale and Club Corner (Turns 8, 9, and 10). There is now more camber to the corners all the way through that section, as well as more slope on the following front straight past the new pits at the Wing. Again, it has all been done to ensure that water is cleared as quickly as possible.

In the week after the work started, it rained heavily, which turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise for the work. Though it made working conditions less than pleasant, it gave direct and very graphic feedback on the success of the work.

Critically, the heavy rainfall showed the Hangar Straight, where standing water had caused the crashes which led up to Tito Rabat’s injury, was draining well, and there was no water on the racing line.

“An absolute benefit of it lashing down is that we’ve been able to see where the water is going,” Pringle explained. “We have a film camera on a drone also to check that.” That wasn’t the only camera being used to keep an eye on the work.

“We’re doing a huge amount of monitoring on this. We’ve turned all the track cameras to the work zones, and so they’re recording all those. Race Control is being used as resurfacing control, so you can monitor there.”

Infrared cameras were also being used to monitor the new surface being laid, ensuring the asphalt was at the right temperature as it was laid on the track.

Ten Times Tougher Track

The asphalt used was a special formulation as well, Pringle explained. The aim was to produce a surface which was hard-wearing enough to withstand the heavy use which is made of the Silverstone circuit, and not start to ripple or produce bumps in braking zones.

“It’s a special mix that Dromo have created for us,” Pringle said, “taking into account the British climate, by which I mean the need for water to permeate through it and move.”

“Our winters. The high trafficking on our track. Not only do we have a number of championship events on two wheel and four, but we’re actually a very, very busy track, probably the busiest in the world in terms of track use.

The unique asphalt mix – the stones used in the aggregate had been double-washed and specially selected, the bitumen was a special formulation from Shell – was designed to be a massive improvement over the surface that caused the problems last year. “Ten times more durable, three times stronger,” is how Pringle characterized it.

“We have complete confidence laying this now ahead of Formula 1. There was a suggestion that we were laying it too close by somebody, we were laying it too close to Formula 1. Would that not be a problem? No. We are aware. It has been designed that it is way stronger than anything we’ve ever laid. It will mix together.”

There would be enough time for the new asphalt to settle in properly, Pringle assured us. “It needs four or five days, but we’re going to give it a little bit longer than that,” he said.

“We’re going to give it about seven, subject to when we finish, weather-dependent. We’re going to do some light trafficking only to begin with. We’re going to put just road cars, track day stuff on it to begin with. Get a little bit of rubber down.”

“Then one of the reasons why we chose to do it at this time of the year was that we have to make the circuit available to Formula 1 for their setup for a ten-day period in advance. So it actually has that additional time.”

In for the Long Haul

Pringle was supremely confident this would fix the problems Silverstone has suffered in the past, and be a sound, long-term solution. “This is a commitment that I hope I don’t have to do again. I’m 48-years-old this year, and this should see me out of my stay at Silverstone,” he stated.

Laying a surface that would last that long was a long-term investment, but an expensive one. “It’s a serious financial commitment by the BRDC,” Pringle said. “It’s cost us over a million quid more than the last resurfacing cost.”

He would not be drawn on the exact cost, though he did acknowledge the cost was similar to the amount Dorna would charge the circuit to host the British Grand Prix. That would put the total cost at around £5 million.

Can Silverstone afford that investment? The legal battle over the new surface is still ongoing, though we have learned that it is between Silverstone’s insurers and Aggregate Industries, rather than the circuit itself. Pringle did not want to comment on the case before it was settled.

The circuit’s insurers have already paid out for the spectators who attended the race, and would like to recoup that money from Aggregate Industries. They may also attempt to recoup the costs of the surfacing work, which could then be paid out to Silverstone, and cover the new resurfacing work.

Realistically, however, the resurfacing has to succeed. If the new surface is not good enough, the circuit will not be able to hang on to the contracts with F1 and MotoGP.

Though those events are not directly profitable, the revenue streams they generate indirectly are a huge boost to the economic viability of the circuit. Other events pay a premium to be held at Grand Prix tracks, and the name recognition a Grand Prix produces also generates additional sources of income.

Silverstone aims to capitalize on this by expanding some of the facilities at the circuit. A new hotel is planned, opposite the Silverstone Wing and the international pits, and the Silverstone Experience, an educational visitor attraction is due to open soon, telling the history of the circuit. The Silverstone Wing itself will also double as a conference and exhibition center.

Grand Prix Contracts

MotoGP is safe at the circuit, for the near future at least. As resurfacing work started, Dorna agreed a one-year extension with Silverstone to host the British Grand Prix, meaning the race will stay at the circuit through the 2021 season.

The only question mark is whether F1 stays at the track. The contract with F1 ends this year, with a new contract still to be renegotiated. Pringle was keen to emphasize what a unique proposition the resurfaced track would be.

“I’m completely confident this will make us one of the best tracks in the world, if not the best track in the world. One of the old, truly historic tracks, but with state-of-the-art asphalt.”

He hoped that would persuade F1 to give Silverstone special treatment. “We are still negotiating with Formula 1, but they’re on record as saying they want to have a British Grand Prix,” Pringle said.

“And we’re on record as saying we very much want to keep it. We are edging ever closer to concluding something that will work for both of us, but it’s a tricky commercial negotiation and it will take as long as it takes.”

The reason it is taking so long is because of the costs involved in F1, with the price of hosting a race often four to five times that charged by MotoGP.

Silverstone could not afford to pay the kind of money which tracks in Asia and the Middle East are paying. Pringle was prepared to drive a hard bargain, he insisted. Silverstone could only afford to host F1 “if we do the right deal,” Pringle said. “Not if we don’t. That’s why it’s taking some time.”

Can Silverstone afford to lose F1? “Our business is completely robust,” Pringle said.

“If we don’t have Formula 1 and we don’t have MotoGP, one of my absolute priorities and focuses the last four years has been to ensure that Silverstone reengineers itself in such a way that we have a very robust business that can survive without these peaks, cash flow peaks. Of course we want it, because that’s what defines the brand.”

Having MotoGP allows Silverstone to retain at least some of that aura.

Hope for the Future?

Will the resurfacing succeed? The impression I was left with from the presentation was that Silverstone have done everything to ensure that the mistakes of the previous resurfacing are not repeated, and to ensure that if the weather is as miserable as it was in 2018, the racing can go ahead as scheduled.

Silverstone has worked in very close cooperation with Dorna, and the collaboration with Jarno Zafelli of Studio Dromo and Tarmac means the work should be done to the highest standard.

After the disaster of 2018, all eyes will be on the British Grand Prix in 2019. Silverstone, but also Studio Dromo and Tarmac, have a lot at stake. They are putting their reputations very publicly on the line.

David Emmett

One of MotoGP's most respected journalists, David Emmett is the proprietor of the esteemed MotoMatters. We are very grateful to republish David's work here on A&R...though dread the day we ever again get in a car with him.