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Guest Post: Horsepower at Aintree

August 17, 2011

To mark Viva F1’s Summer Swap Shop, Phil Charnock from Race of Two Worlds has kindly written a piece about the now defunct motor racing circuit at Aintree – a place more famous for actual horses, rather than motorised ones.

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Aintree Circuit (1955).

2011 marked the year that the “Home of British Motor Racing” finally stepped into the 21st century with the opening of the impressive and imposing Silverstone Wing.

Britain has the Grand Prix venue it deserves at last, one that even Bernie will find it hard to pick holes in.
England may have boasted the world’s original permanent racing facility and Silverstone itself was the scene of the very first round of the Formula One World Championship but we have long been outshone by Asia and the US when it comes to the complete picture of what a racetrack can be.

Humble Beginnings
Back when Silverstone kicked off Formula One, the track was hardly the most attractive patch of green and grey that the racers or the viewing public had been treated to; Monte Carlo or Monza it was not.
This deserted airfield lacked the fortuitous topography of Brands Hatch, the stately magnificence of Goodwood or the tree-lined avenues of Oulton Park.
Silverstone has unquestionably grown into something rather more special since, although at the time it was quite an unlikely place for the world’s most glamorous and sophisticated sport to start its post-war reinvention.

With Brooklands ruined and Donington dormant there was an opening for the role of Britain’s premier circuit. By the 1950s Aintree racecourse was already very well versed in how to stage a major sporting event; punters in their tens of thousands had been entertained here for over a century, a more suitable place for a race was hard to find.
With Liverpool beginning its decline from its position of the world’s number one merchant city many who visited Aintree would stay in nearby sunny Southport instead, mixing the race with a holiday in the tranquil Victorian seaside retreat, Stirling Moss included.
A train line literally neighboured the venue on one side while a major road bordered the other, a great grandstand was already in place and the Aintree name was already familiar to the whole nation. It was all here, the only thing missing was a stretch of tarmac fit for Fangio and friends.

A New Home
The formidable proprietor Mrs Mirabel Topham spearheaded the development of motor racing at Aintree, the Topham family having long been custodians over the course.
For a while the Grand Prix proved to be a boon – 150,000 turned up to enjoy each of its five World Championship Grand Prix held between 1955 and 1962. Plenty of non-championship Formula One events roared around Aintree but the days of suburban Liverpool reverberating to racing engines was not to last.
When they decided to ditch top-line motor racing Aintree proved unable to shake off the lean times of the post-war years, eventually being bought by developers that spent the next decade toying with shutting the whole place down.

Motorsport continued on the Grand Prix circuit until 1982 when a group of errant cars damaged one of the Grand National’s famous fences prompting them to truncate the track, effectively removing it from the motorsport calendar for the sake of a solitary bush.
For years the fences were hastily assembled from gorse bushes trimmed from the pine woods of nearby Formby, it seemed that this pathetic pretence was quite literally the last straw for the owners who could never fulfil the early promise of the pioneering Grand Prix of the Topham days.

I owe Aintree a lot; without the Grand Prix coming to town I may never have happened upon the joys of motorsport. My family have all either been born in or lived in Liverpool at one time or another – my dearly-missed Nan lived more than 60 years of her life within a quarter of a mile from Canal Turn, the cars would have been easily within ear-shot whilst she was gardening.
Indeed it was the sound of the rasping, roaring Mercedes and Alfas that compelled my Dad to attend the famous 1955 Grand Prix at Aintree, “I was on my bike a few miles away and I could hear the sound of racing engines” he tells me today, “I got there, bought my ticket and watched Stirling Moss win the British Grand Prix.” Ah, simpler times.

Thoughts and Memories
Over the following decade my family attended plenty of races at Aintree, none of which were the equine-kind.
So how did it compare to other circuits of the time? “Oulton Park was lovely but you couldn’t see as much of the cars while later in the sixties we moved near to Snetterton which was bleak and featureless,” my parents have visited just about every circuit in England since, “even Silverstone in the 1990s was no better than Aintree in the 1950s from the spectator’s point of view.”
Grandstands towered above the start-finish straight, as the drivers left the throngs behind they skimmed stone walls and passed the fences jumped by the horses.
After the cars slid and slipped through Canal Curve they traversed the Railway Straight where trains would pull up so the passengers could watch the Grand Prix stars from their carriage.

While pushing 160 miles per hour they reached Melling Crossing, a name made famous by the Grand National though the drivers and their mechanical steeds passed through here somewhat faster than the jockeys. It was about the only corner with exposed trees on what was a relatively safe and well designed circuit in a perilous age.
After surviving the right-left flick it was on to the tight Tatts Corner at the end of the three mile lap as they funnelled between concrete walls, the cars back in close proximity of the thousands in the stands who were afforded a view of most of the track if they sat up in the Gods.

The First Time
That first Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955 was a special affair, the kind of race that you know will go down in legend even before the chequered flag falls. Stirling Moss was already a favourite of the faithful and he treated them to a toe-to-toe battle with Juan Manuel Fangio, the acknowledged master of 1950s motor racing.
Their Mercedes machines were head and shoulders above the Italian and British opposition and they duly took command, occasionally swapping the lead between themselves while the other two Silver Arrows of Kling and Taruffi trailed by a minute. After three hours of duelling Moss finally crossed the line to become the first British driver to win the British Grand Prix.

He beat the great Fangio by a scant two-tenths of a second, Moss moving slightly aside out of Tatts to make room for the Argentinian to pass if he could.
Did Fangio gift the win to Moss or did he not have the pace to pass the Englishman even when offered an open door? To this day Sir Stirling does not know, not that it mattered to anybody on that glorious July day.

As Liverpool recovered from the ravages of war it still retained some of the glow of its Victorian glory; a Grand Prix so far up north was the perfect fit. Now the Grand National is about the only major sporting event in the city that doesn’t involve kicking a ball around. The track lives on with occasional sprints on a much-shortened version of the track.
You can also see parts of the Grand Prix track utilised by course cars in pursuit of the horses on Grand National weekend, it is just such a shame that today the horsepower is in units of one rather than hundreds.

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Phil Charnock writes for Race of Two Worlds

1955 British Grand Prix

5 Comments
  1. Steven Roy permalink

    I never saw a race at Aintree but I did spend a few great days at the racing school there. The school used the shorter club circuit which is the top part of the diagram in the post with an open hairpin bend joining the two parallel straights before the Melling Road.

    The fences always looked slightly intimidating on the exit of corners but on one occasion for reasons I can’t remember I was standing near one of the fences around Becher’s. I decided to wander over and take a closer look. I always assumed they were made up of thin twigs but some of the branches that would be about face height in a single seater were two to three inches in diameter and could have caused a lot of damage.

  2. What an enjoyable read. There’s so much history attached to the sport we love and yet it seems we only touch the surface of what’s gone before so it’s lovely to sit back with a grandstand seat and hear about the circuits past glories.

  3. What a great post and an utterly absorbing video clip! Loved it all.

    I like how you can still very much see the circuit on Google Maps too.

    http://maps.google.com/maps?q=Aintree,+Liverpool,+Sefton,+United+Kingdom&hl=en&ll=53.476324,-2.941933&spn=0.0177,0.038581&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=47.885545,79.013672&vpsrc=6&geocode=Fc0fMAMdIRzT_w&t=h&z=15

  4. jabjamesf40 permalink

    Another superb post for the summer swap shop! I’d heard of the circuit at Aintree, but didn’t really know much of its history. Your piece is a beautiful illustration of a track that sounds like it was a real treasure, unfortunately lost to motorsport. Thank you for bringing it back to life, and showing us a little of its history!

  5. Leigh O'Gorman permalink

    I would just like to thank Phil again for submitting a wonderful guest post to The Motorsport Archive. An absolutely enthralling piece about a lost piece of British motorsport history.

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