First world drivers' championship at Silverstone 70 years ago brought to life by museum archive

Photos, paperwork and the race programme from the Grand Prix D’Europe on display at The Silverstone Experience

By Jack Duggan
Wednesday, 13th May 2020, 11:36 am
Updated Wednesday, 13th May 2020, 11:38 am

Evocative items in the archive at the new museum at Silverstone Circuit 'bring to life' Formula 1's first world drivers' championship race held 70 years ago today (Wednesday, May 13)

Photos, paperwork and the race programme from the Grand Prix D’Europe form part of the extensive historic collection of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC), which is held by The Silverstone Experience.

Victoria Worpole, director of collections, exhibitions and learning, said: “The photos really bring to life how different motor racing was 70 years ago, when the drivers competed without helmets or safety harnesses.

Grand Prix DEurope winner Giuseppe Farina in the Alfa Romeo 158 during the historic race at Silverstone on May 13, 1950. Photo courtesy of Silverstone Heritage Ltd

"Some of the photos in the archive were taken by a spectator in the pits and tell a different story to the shots of the cars on track.

"As a museum, we are really able to build a broad picture of the history of motor sport by collecting from a range of different sources.”

One of the cars that competed in the race, a 1939 E-Type ERA raced by Leslie Johnson which retired on lap two, is one of several historic vehicles on display at the new museum.

It is estimated 100,000 people came to watch the race, which was won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo 158.

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret at the Grand Prix DEurope. Photo courtesy of Silverstone Heritage

Motor racing was dominated by Italian and French manufacturers at the time, making the choice of Silverstone to host the first world drivers’ championship race all the more interesting.

Ian Titchmarsh, chairman of Silverstone Heritage and member of the BRDC, says: “Although there had been a British Grand Prix in 1949, there had been nothing like a world championship for drivers and the fact that the first race happened at Silverstone really established it as the major track in the UK.

“The race was attended by King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, and remains the only time a reigning sovereign has attended a motor race in this country.

"It was really quite a feather in the cap of Silverstone.”

King George VI meets the drivers. Photo courtesy of Silverstone Heritage Ltd

Among the spectators was Ivy Cakebread, who has contributed to the museum’s archive with an oral history interview.

“I can just remember being in the middle somewhere on a stand and we were all gathered down around Stowe corner," she said.

"There were so many people. The king and queen of the day were there, and Princess Margaret came.”

The Silverstone Experience was officially opened in March by the Duke of Sussex and Lewis Hamilton in March following a seven-year project to restore a Second World War RAF hangar.

The ERA E-Type GP2 on display at The Silverstone Experience. Photo courtesy of Silverstone Heritage

Silverstone Heritage was awarded a grant of £9.1m by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the museum features state-of-the art facilities to hold the BRDC archive.

Visitors take a journey from the medieval history of Silverstone, through to its time as a WW2 airfield and the start of racing in 1948.

They go on to learn about the science behind the modern-day sport as well as seeing historic cars and bikes.

On display is Barry Sheene’s 1979 Suzuki, leathers and helmet, Nigel Mansell’s 1992 British Grand Prix-winning Williams-Renault and Lewis’ race suit.

Chief executive Sally Reynolds said: “As with all museums and visitor attractions, we are temporarily closed to the public, but we look forward to re-opening and telling our terrific stories to fans of motorsport and history alike.”