Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Aintree: The Goodwood of the North

This is a short blog about Aintree motor racing circuit.

In 1949 the Topham family purchased the 260 acre Aintree venue from Lord Sefton at a cost of £275,000. Mirabel Topham was tasked with the management of the venue, with a view to restarting horse racing after the Second World War. This she did, but with only a few race meetings a year, the National Hunt course struggled to pay it’s way. It was through her connections with the Duke of Richmond, who owned Goodwood that she sought to build a motor racing circuit within the grounds and in 1953 formed the Aintree Automobile Racing Company. Horse and car racing had been successfully combined at Goodwood since 1948 and the facilities shared. Her plans for this did not go smoothly however and after years of discussion and the re-routing of a public footpath, in 1954 she was finally granted a licence to run a motor race.
The 3 mile circuit was built at a cost of £100,000 and completed in just 3 months, opening in May 1954. 

Aintree racing circuits

From the start/finish line, the track ran on the outside of the horse racing course to Waterway Corner, a fast 120 degree right hand bend. It then ran adjacent to the canal on a short straight towards a tighter 80 degree right hand bend, after which it crossed over both the Melling Road and the horse racing course at Anchor Crossing. It then continued on the inside of the horse racing course along the Sefton Straight to Cottage Corner, a tight 60 degree left hand bend. After this there was a very short straight before reaching Country Corner, a 90 degree left hand bend. Another very short straight followed after which was Village Corner, a tight 60 degree turn to the right. From here it headed down Valentine’s Way, a decent length of straight before a double apex bend to the right at Bechers. This bend was a reverse involute with an exceedingly fast exit onto the ¾ mile Railway Straight. At the end of this was a fast right/left chicane, before the track again crossed the Melling Road and horse racing course. It was now on the outside of the horse racing course once again and headed up to Tatt’s Corner, a complex 70 degree turn to the right. From here it was a short burst to the finish line and the lap completed.

The track was largely flat throughout, as was a windblown Silverstone, but it was the facilities that had been built for the horse racing fraternity that made it an instant success. The grandstands and spectator amenities were second-to-none and the organisers used to handling very large crowds, as quite simply the Grand National was the biggest horse race in Britain. From the outset there was grandstand accommodation for 20,000 spectators and an overall capacity for the venue of 200,000. The Aintree organisers managed to convince the CSI (forerunner of the FIA) that the new circuit would be a much better home for the British Grand Prix, it being run here on alternate years to Silverstone.
In 1954 the track was run anticlockwise, but following numerous accidents and safety concerns had reverted to the usual clockwise direction for the 1955 season.

Ray Amm's 350cc Works Norton 1954

The British Grand Prix was run at Aintree in the years 1955,1956,1957,1959,1961,1962 and in addition to this the typical main events in the racing calendar were as follows:-

1960 Major Events

In 1955 to jubilant scenes, Stirling Moss made history by beating Fangio and in being the first British driver to win his home Grand Prix. Both were driving W196 Mercedes. In 1957 the race was billed as the European Grand Prix and once again Moss and Tony Brooks made history by winning for Vanwall. This was the first ever GP win by a British driver in a British car and came after Moss broke down whilst in the lead and was passed the No.2 car by Brooks. He re-joined the race in 9th position but fought through to win.  In 1961 it was a 1st/2nd for Ferrari with Von Tripps and Phil Hill heading the field home.

1957 Grand Prix of Europe

Motorcycle racing also played a big part in the racing calendar, the two biggest events being the Red Rose National meeting and the Aintree “Century” International. The inaugural event was sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and took place on Saturday 25th September 1954, all the top riders and bikes being there. The main 500cc race was won by Geoff Duke on the works Gilera from John Surtees on a private Norton. The overall lap record was set by Ray Fay from Liverpool in September 1960 and stood at 86.4mph, although it was equalled by Mike Hailwood at the same meeting the following year. The last Aintree “Century” meeting was held in 1962 and won by Derek Minter on a Norton.

Red Rose and Aintree Century programmes

After the Brands Hatch track was extended to full GP length, Mirabel considered it would be unprofitable to run the British Grand Prix at Aintree on what was likely to be a three-way split and the 3 mile GP circuit was closed in August 1964. Car racing continued on the shorter 1.64 mile Club Circuit until 1982 and this is still in use today for motorcycle races.

Mirabel and the Aintree management were very astute when it came to advertising and promoting their events. The publicity material used was of the highest order at the time and some of the posters were works of art in their own right.

1958 Red Rose Meeting

Trains were also chartered to bring spectators from London Euston up to Liverpool, the allocated seating being in carriages bearing the iconic Aintree racing silhouette.

1958 Aintree Century Meeting

The following Colibri cigarette lighters were given as mementos to drivers and riders in the feature races during the 1950’s.

Colibri Monopol lighter

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