The whole affair starts off badly when the Friday morning practice session is delayed by the most appalling weather. It isn’t that nobody wants to go out in the rain, but international rules state clearly that official practice cannot start until full medical services are ready and waiting, and these include a rescue helicopter. With the clouds down on the deck all flying around the Silverstone area is off, and the military helicopter that is going to standby officially cannot take off from its base nearby, and if it had it could not have got into Silverstone, so no helicopter, no practice. Everyone kicks their heels all morning and a fairly large crowd of paying customers sits in the Woodcote Grandstands and waits very patiently. About 1:00 p.m. there is a break in the clouds, the sun bursts through and within minutes the sky turns almost to summer. Racing engines start, the helicopter hovers into view and within minutes a very abbreviated test-season begins, to sort out tyres, aerodynamics, gear ratios and suspension settings all in a mad rush. The vast programme of events planned for the day is now three hours behind schedule and nobody envies the job of the clerk of the course who has to re-schedule everything and try and make the best of the situation. Something like 20 minutes is allowed for testing, then there is a 10-minute break and then the Friday one hour of qualifying. The short test-session is enough for Patrese’s Alfa Romeo to expire in a cloud of smoke as a turbocharger fails and for the Lotus team to disintegrate into a right old shamble. Senna’s 97T Lotus goes wrong in its Renault engine department, and the spare car is set up ready for the afternoon qualifying, so there is a mad rush to get it ready for him to use for tyre testing etc.
By the time he goes out on wet tyres the track has dried so he is straight back in again. Nobody is really organised or under control during this hurried 20 minutes, but they all do the best they can, pause for 10 minutes and then we are away on marked tyres to qualify for grid positions. The rain holds off and the track is reasonably dry so some fast motoring begins. As always the fast cars and drivers are up the front and the slow cars and drivers are at the back. If we start a qualifying session with no prior practice or testing it probably will give the same answer, apart from obvious trouble. Early in the year it was estimated that the fast laps would be in the region of 155 mph average, bearing in mind that the Formula One cars have not raced at Silverstone since 1983, but then in pre-race tyre testing a few weeks before the meeting laps of 157 mph were recorded so that this first qualifying session starts with 160 mph as the target figure, a time of just under 1'06"0 for the three mile circuit, and that figure is quite a good one for club racing on the short circuit. For nearly half-an-hour Rosberg, Prost, Alboreto and de Angelis try for pole position and the average passes 157 mph, then passes 158 mph and Rosberg and Prost are in with 159 mph. At this point Senna is not even on the score-board, a Renault engine has gone wrong again, this time in the tweaked-up T-car and the shambles continue as everyone works frantically to get his race-car set up for one-lap dash. Meanwhile the young Brazilian stands by impassively, then gets in the car and waits patiently, and with qualifying half-way through he goes out, first of all on race-tyres to see if all is well, and immediately moves up to ninth on the grid. Then he jumps to fourth, and after a change to soft qualifying tyres he is third with a 159 mph lap, to join Rosberg and Prost at the top of the list.
Their times are Rosberg with the Williams-Honda 1'06"107, Prost with the McLaren-Porsche 1'06"308 and Senna with the Lotus-Renault in 1'06"324. Rosberg has changed to the Williams T-car as his own has clutch trouble, and in the dying minutes snatches FTD in a heroic drive that is right on the limit all the way round. His time gives an average speed of 159.668 mph; so near and yet so far. Others merely had trouble. Mansell’s clutch expires (Williams-Honda is using modified clutches to cope with the Honda power, as well as a single plenum chamber on top of the engine intakes) and he comes to rest in a cloud of smoke opposite the pits. Brundle makes a cloud of smoke by the pits as well, but it is tyre smoke as he has spun. The Tyrrell Renault turbo stays in the middle of the track, Brundle keeps the engine running, catches the car at the end of its 360-degree gyration and carries on. In spite of the mad haste in which everything has to be done, the qualifying hour goes off remarkably well and says a lot for the way the various teams work and are able to improvise and adapt to varying conditions. British industry could learn a thing or two from Formula 1 teams. On Saturday things return to normal, the weather is pretty good and the whole schedule of events runs well to time. There is a pause during the morning test-session while the Minardi is collected from where it has come to rest, in a dodgy spot, and a RAM is gathered up at the same time. Testing continues until 11:30 a.m. during which time everyone tries to decide on the best combination of variables for the afternoon qualifying, and also the best combination for the actual race, especially for the opening laps when fuel tanks are full to the brim.
It is dry and windy when the track is officially open at 2:00 p.m. for qualifying and most of the fast runners are soon out having their first go, as the sky is anything but stable and a rain-shower could ruin everything. Lauda does a quick lap, then Piquet, then de Cesaris followed by Johansson and Mansell, and the times keep coming down, but not as low as expected probably due to the wind. It is getting almost like Indianapolis qualifying as drivers make individual runs with just the odd one or two rabbits scattered around the circuit. So far 1'07"0 sec and a bit is the order of the day, but then Senna goes out and does 1'06"794. Prost does a 1'08"0, Brundle does 1'09"0, Piquet has done a 1'07"0 and then Rosberg goes out. Spectacular is a simple word to use, and if you aren’t there to see it it is a great pity. 1'05"967 as near as 160 mph average round the converted airfield! All this is just the first qualifying runs, they all have a second set of tyres to use, but the weather gods decide enough is enough and the pocket-sized shower sprinkles its way across the Silverstone fields. That seems to be the end of it, but with 25 minutes still left the sun bursts through again and everyone is ready to have another go, even though there are damp patches at Becketts and Stowe. There is a real flurry of high-speed driving in the dying minutes of the hour and Senna, Prost, Piquet, Mansell, Alboreto, de Cesaris, de Angelis and Fabi are all having a real go, but almost as the session finishes the incredible Keijo Rosberg is out once more and stands the speed world on its ear with a lap in 1'05"591, an average of 160.925 mph. Piquet does 159.326 mph, well back on form in spite of Pirelli tyres, Prost does 159.184 mph, in spite of McLaren International saying how they don’t allow themselves to get embroiled in qualifying battles, Senna does 159.146 mph, in spite of a demon Renault engine that misfired at the top end, and the rest are slow - a mere 158 mph, or even as slow as 156 mph average for the 3 mile lap.
Last of the 26 runners is Bellof with the Tyrrell-Cosworth V8 with a paltry 137.804 mph. Remember the great days of the past when we saw the first 100 mph lap at Silverstone, and then the progress through 120 mph, 125 mph and the approach of 150 mph laps? Now we have seen 160 mph and even Rosberg admits that such average speeds make Silverstone seem a tiny little circuit with no straights at all. For those of us who are there and see it happen it is a memorable occasion. At the 1983 British GP Rene Arnoux in a Ferrari set pole with a time of 1'09"462, which would have gotten him into 21st position on this year’s grid! The healthy part of this year’s qualifying is that there are four very different engines powering the cars in the first four places; Honda V6, BMW 4 cyl., Porsche V6 and Renault V6, all 1½-litres capacity with turbochargers forcing the air into the cylinders at anything up to 45 psi or even 50 psi and the power output? After an afternoon like that there doesn’t seem to be much point in returning on Sunday, but nevertheless a huge crowd does return, and a very full day of activity is presented by the RACMSA and all its voluntary helpers. It all starts at 6:30 a.m. with coach trips round the circuit, and goes through walk about in the pit lane, Formula 3 racing, Historic racing, air displays, truck displays, parachutes, flag parades, saloon car racing, helicopter displays, music, food and drink which go on officially until 6:00 p.m. and unofficially until long after dark. Somewhere amidst all the fun and games the British Grand Prix takes place, supposedly over 66 laps of the circuit and lasting all of 1 hour 20 minutes.