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Britain has been wanting for a proper motorsport museum ever since the Donington Grand Prix Collection faded and fell into disrepair over the course of a few decades, to the point that it eventually shut for good in late 2018.
Two years later, Silverstone, ‘the home of British motor racing’, fulfilled its age-old promise of a museum and it was opened by Lewis Hamilton and Prince Harry – only for the world to shut down temporarily and Silverstone to claim more than £1million in grants to ensure the museum survived the pandemic.
Anyone who has visited since will agree that it was money well spent.
It’s now a little over a decade since planning was approved but, such is the speed of progress with these things, the Silverstone Interactive Museum feels very new.
Situated inside the main entrance by the old Bridge Corner, it is an unremarkable building in the way these innovation and technology parks generally are, yet its back garden is unlike any other.
As you climb up the steps into the lobby, hanging over which is a 2016 Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid, on race weekends cars can be seen in the distance braking hard into Brooklands then tentatively powering and sliding around Luffield.
An ideal distraction from waiting for the doors to open.
Inside a dark corridor, anticipation builds further with grid slots on the floor and CGI flashing along full-length screens until the lights go out and the doors swing open at the end.
The group mercifully disperses to all manner of screens, displays and, more likely, the balcony overlooking the cars below.
This is a museum that majors heavily on the ‘interactive’ part of the name.
Where Donington comprised an impressive but entirely static amalgam of competition cars and military vehicles, gathered from either side of the war in more than one sense, Silverstone’s take is a truly modern experience.
Its creators know full well that the history of Silverstone did not begin in 1950, when World Championship Grand Prix racing began here, or in 1948, when 100,000 attended the first British Grand Prix, or even in 1947, when a farmer opened his gate one quiet weekend for some locals to have a run-around for sport.
The circuit naturally gives the museum the perfect launching-off point in the names of its corners: Abbey (now Turn One), Chapel, Maggotts and Becketts, Farm and Stowe all recall local landmarks – physical and historical – and are explained by a large, knee-high map.
Children are clearly as important to the museum as the motorsport geeks, and around the corner is a small hole in the wall that leads to a tunnel with a stained-glass window at its end for them to crawl through – or anyone else who doesn’t want to read about the 12th-century monks of Luffield Priory.
Part of a Wellington bomber’s landing gear heralds a fast-forward to the former airfield’s more recent history, with a variety of military paraphernalia on loan from the Yorkshire Air Museum.
But it does a fine job of linking the Second World War with the drivers who later made their names on the old airfield perimeter roads.
At the press of a button, the familiar voice of Ian Titchmarsh tells of former Spitfire pilot and racer Roberta Cowell, serial escapee Tony Rolt and Goodwood co-creator Tony Gaze, while elsewhere the likes of William Grover-Williams are introduced (despite him never having actually raced at Silverstone).
Among all of the historical touchpoints are fascinating artefacts for the anoraks, as kids bash buttons and pull drawers around them.
Race entry forms from key players, dinner-party invitations and menus from celebratory events, plus trophies and placards that all precede Silverstone as a race track, have been compiled via the great and good of the industry.
Downstairs, having navigated hands-on displays including a replica ERA Grand Prix car and a recreation of the famous village pub that welcomed the likes of Graham Hill and James Hunt, things are ramped up yet further.
Although it is confusingly circular as you exit the spiral staircase, there is not so much of a linear story downstairs as there is upstairs.
Most will be drawn to the small but curated collection of cars and ’bikes: one of Henry Pearman’s works Rothmans Porsche 962s currently slots in beside a gaggle of Barry Sheene Suzukis, while an ex-works Austin-Healey under the care of Woolmer Engineering is a surprising non-track-related addition.
It is supposedly preserved exactly as it was the day it left the works, when its RAC outing was cancelled due to a foot-and-mouth outbreak. Behind it is an MG YB from the dawn of saloon-car racing; in front is a Grand Prix Brabham.
Race suits and helmets track the evolution of safety, from pudding-bowl helmets to today’s Nomex overalls – some are on loan from Silverstone board member Stuart Graham, rising star George Russell and his neighbour Martin Brundle, plus lids worn by many more.
Where once there was an Audi e-Tron LMP1 sports car is now a homegrown Pegasus single-seater in front of a Jaguar medical car and Force India F1 challenger, perhaps highlighting the breadth of Silverstone’s current interests, and again it’s very hands-on.
Dummy pit wheel-guns, pop-up marshals’ posts and pop quizzes, plus games and more, continue the interactive element. After that, a pair of brake pedals compare F1 car with road car, an engine cutaway explains how motion is made and three kart wheels describe the roles of springs and dampers, all in the superb Tech Lab.
The cars on display come and go, such as the Brawn GP 001 beside the Tourist Trophy-winning Rover Vitesse SD1, and likewise a celebration of BRM has recently drawn to a close.
Key points in the team’s history, from creation to Grand Prix victory to its demise in 1974, were wrapped around a P48/4.
Among the fascinating automobilia was a telegram from Donald Campbell congratulating the team on its victory at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1963.
To remind visitors of the interactive nature of the museum, ‘The Ultimate Lap’ sends people on their way with a clever tour of the circuit as aircraft from the Second World War trade places with the Red Arrows, the latter a fixture of British Grands Prix, while famous moments from the past 70 years play around you in an immersive experience.
Damon Hill punts off Michael Schumacher, à la 1995; Barry Sheene ‘waves’ to Kenny Roberts in 1979; and there’s Nigel Mansell’s 1987 dummy to pass his teammate Nelson Piquet before the lights come up and the gift shop beckons.
So, too, on fine days, does the Heritage Track Trail, which makes the most of the final vestiges of the old circuit, from Bridge to Priory to the current Brooklands complex. More interesting on race days than weekdays, that.
Images: Max Edleston/Jack Phillips
Exhibits change and were correct on the date of our visit
- Name Silverstone Interactive Museum
- Address Silverstone, Northamptonshire NN12 8TN
- Where Minutes from the A43; turn left at the circuit entrance
- How much? Adults £22.50 adv (£25 on the day), 5-15s £13.50 (£15), under-5s free
- Opening hours 10am-5pm April-November, 10am-4pm December-March
- Web silverstonemuseum.co.uk
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