The champ brings back memories of Jim Clark


Since it looked as if it might be the last chance, I went back to Copse Corner for the start of the British Grand Prix. Silverstone’s first corner, a flat-out right-hander, still seems, as it did back in 1965, one of the best places in the world to see Formula One cars and drivers at work, doing what makes them special. Four and a half decades ago it was Jim Clark, Graham Hill and John Surtees who captured the senses. Now it was the turn of Sebastian Vettel (in pic) and his Red Bull to put on a duo performance of such virtuosity that they might as well have been the only performers on the stage.

Before the race I had been told by the chief designer of a front-running team that in the qualifying session the young German’s car had been going through Copse a full 20kph — which is to say 12.5mph — faster than his own driver had managed on the lap with which he achieved a place high up the grid. That sounded like it might be worth watching. And anything seemed better than the prospect of staying in a paddock overwhelmed by the stench of politics. From the outside of Copse you can see the cars waiting on the distant starting grid, their outlines blurred by the heat haze rising from the asphalt track, and hear the distant blatting of their engines as they wait to be released. Once it was a union flag that unleashed them, flourished by a chap in a club blazer and tie. Today it is a set of lights high on a gantry, automated and impersonal. The impact, however, is identical.

On that grey and increasingly chilly day almost four and a half decades ago I stood on the grass bank as the little white Honda of the crew-cut American driver Richie Ginther emerged from the pack of 25 cars and took the lead as they screamed into the long right-hander. Ginther’s advantage did not last and before long Clark was in charge. It was a typically smooth effort until the final stages, when the Scotsman’s car started to suffer from failing oil pressure, forcing him to improvise a solution. Switching the engine off and on as he glided through each corner in a weird silence, he crossed the chequered flag three seconds in front of Graham Hill’s fast-closing BRM.

No such alarms interrupted the progress of Vettel. Every spectator in the grandstands that now line Copse could see for themselves the truth of the chief designer’s words. As the Red Bull darted off its arrow-straight trajectory at around 180mph and began to describe the parabola that would take it towards the apex of the turn, leaving a view of its elegantly sculptured hind quarters as it dissolved into the horizon, it created an impression of perfect balance, with not an ounce of energy wasted in the process of creating momentum.

Vettel had arrived in the paddock on the dot of nine o’clock in the morning, wearing a woolly hat, a backpack, and the air of a student on a gap-year trip. At 21 he is the youngest man ever to win the British Grand Prix, but he often looks even younger. Although there were glimpses of a darker mood in Turkey recently, after a strategy mistake had forced him to settle for third place behind his team-mate Mark Webber, when things are going well his enthusiasm has a charmingly unspoilt quality.

The Silverstone crowd set aside their disappointment at the failure of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton to shine in their home GP and rose to Vettel on his lap of honour, the main grandstand welcoming him with a sustained round of applause.

Richard Williams/ © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009