FRANK KEATING Whatever the rival domestic attractions over the 12 months, the defining spectacular of Britain's sporting year could well be revealed in a field in Northamptonshire over a couple of noisy hours on Sunday afternoon. Bobbing a debutant's curtsy in his first home Grand Prix is 22year-old sensation Lewis Hamilton, whose driving has electrified the hardbitten world of motor-racing since its Formula One season began in March. If Sir Stirling Moss, 78 this summer, leads the global cognoscenti astonished by the youngster's improbably rare talent, then this weekend's blanket coverage will enlighten the vast army of his compatriots usually oblivious to the exclusive and excessive din, dissonance and multinational machinations of Mr Ecclestone's Grand Prix circus.
In Formula One's half-century and more, a notable litany of British drivers have been as fast as they've been fabled — Hawthorn, Surtees, Hill, Clark, Stewart, Hunt, Mansell — but it has been a decade now since the world championship was won by a Brit (son-of-hisfather, Damon Hill, in 1996). It is sometimes said in the pitlane, disparagingly, that some winners have no bespoke talent which sets them apart but are 'only as quick as their car'. Yet no end of sober greybeards in the know have leapt this summer to acclaim their awe of the assurance, judgment, confidence and cool which Hamilton has displayed after only half a dozen Grand Prix races. Some wise judges go so far as to reckon that for precocious skill and mature self-belief, Hamilton's explosive initial impact not only matches that of Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher at the same stage, but for unruffled competitive composure and un-arrogant tranquillity behind the wheel he already, and emphatically, outpaces them. And those two temperamental titans are generally acknowledged as history's brace worthy to share either side of the all-time pantheon topped by the onliest Juan Manuel Fangio, the sport's immortal Bradman/Ali/Pele.
The onus on, and expectations for, young Hamilton make this weekend's Silverstone jamboree a significant pageant. There is another reason as well to shake the magnum of fizz, although I daresay the sport itself hasn't even noticed. So unremittingly self-centred and greedily blinkered is Formula One's worldwide whizz that it rarely stops to celebrate and savour its own culture, heritage or prehistory. So it strikes me as evocative and timely that when the appealing boy racer from Hertfordshire jumps from the grid to seek pole position at his first home track 'major' it marks the centenary anniversary of the inaugural race held on the world's first custom-built motorracing track. On the Continent, public roads were being used.
The 2.75-mile Brooklands track in a corner of Lord Northcliffe's estate near Weybridge in Surrey had taken less than a year to build alongside the Waterloo-Woking railway line. Prime motive was to provide the fledgling British motor industry with a private haven to test their products, for it was being hampered and chivvied by an official speed limit of 20mph, which was attracting strict police action. Brooklands was opened for action on 6 July 1907 and its first race was won in his Mercedes over 11 circuits by J.E. Hutton, a northcountryman (with a good, sporting Yorkshire surname). The starter was 'Mr Owens of the Jockey Club', and the drivers wore different coloured jockeys' silks for identification. For we were, of course, still firmly in the age of four-footers and the horse-drawn carriage. Not for long, however.