Sunday, 15 July 2012

Trackside. 6 July 2012

The world holds its breath.

Gossamer curtains of spray hang in the air and tingle my cheeks. Around me the packed grandstand at Abbey, opposite the pitlane exit at Silverstone, is like a giant game of musical chairs. Hands are clasped around cups, flasks, cameras, phones. A thousand people struck deaf and dumb by a sound which renders all else silent.

The visceral scream of a Formula One engine.

We crane our necks as a black-and-white Sauber-Ferrari morphs out of the gloom to our right, towing a rooster tail of spray that tops out above the grandstands. The circuit looks as if it's surfaced in glass. I make out the red, black and white helmet of Kamui Kobayashi, and know I'm not alone in clenching my fists a little tighter. Practice, qualifying, race, or trip to the shops - Kamui has only one speed. Flat out.

The scream drops an octave as he brakes just short of the hundred-metre board. The car's rear wheels lock instantly on the streaming surface, the driver's white-gloved hands already moving as it starts to skip wide, trying to swap ends at a hundred and fifty miles an hour. A flash of opposite lock and the slide is checked, gearchanges thumping our chests. Slowing now, sweeping in towards the apex of the right-hander at still-impossible speed, Kobayashi taking a slightly wide line to avoid what looks like a lake at the kerb.

The car tries to rotate again as he treads the throttle with a dancer's touch, the staccato rise and fall of revs telegraphing every beat of man and machine's fight against the elements. Both outside wheels are beyond the exit kerb before the aerodynamics finally squash the treaded tyres through the water. With grip restored, the Sauber is flying again; one more skitter and it's gone, V8 wail fading away to our left.

"Come on Jenson! Let's be 'avin' ya!!"

Four hours later, and the crowd is restless. This sodden British summer is doing its worst, and eighty thousand of us stare glumly as raindrops pepper the growing puddles like machine-gun fire. We can see almost a mile of track - from the exit of Stowe to our right, through the Vale chicane and double right-hander of Club in front of us, all the way up the start-finish straight. We can also see right along the pitlane. It's a great spot.

But Silverstone is silent. Nearly forty minutes of the ninety-minute session gone, and no amount of cheering or Mexican waves have brought the cars out of the pits. The rules strictly limit their usage of wet weather tyres; with the weather forecast to stay dire, the teams have no option but to conserve them for qualifying and the race.

There's a growing edge of desperation in the voices on the Tannoy. Please, give us something to talk about. To cheer about.

In the pits, an engine fires, buzz-saw idle echoing out over the great circuit and its assembled masses. The crowd twitters, and waits. We've seen this before; it could be a false dawn. But now the revs rise, and... yes! A huge cheer rocks the grandstand as the car pulls out into the pitlane and ambles away from us towards the exit, red wet-weather light flashing below its rear wing.

From our vantage point we can't yet see who it is, but he's soon filling the giant screens all around the circuit. It's Kamui Kobayashi, of course. Nobody else has spent more time on track today. There's still a chance that he could return to the pits without completing a lap, and we hold our breath as he exits Stowe, accelerating towards us...

Passing the pit entry. Now we're on our feet, clapping and stamping; he passes us, treading very carefully through the huge puddle that caught out so many drivers in the junior formulae earlier on, and engages warp onto the start/finish straight. After more than half of the session, this will be the first timed lap.

Next time through, Kamui means business. We're on our feet again as the Sauber wiggles its hips under braking, floating its way to the apex of the Vale chicane. Kobayashi dances it right to the outside of the kerb at the exit, practically underneath us, and somehow finds some traction. The car leaps forward, heading straight for the final right hander and its inch-deep lake, and two thousand spectators share the same thought.

No way he's getting through there at that speed-

Kamui hits the puddle, the four furrows ploughed by the car's wheels deepening visibly. In split-second beats we watch the rear wheels begin to snap wide, the start of the inevitable spin-

But Kamui has other ideas. He backs off the throttle, just a little; the white-gloved hands whip the steering wheel a half-turn to the left... and the rear wheels respond, halting their slide, the car cocked at an angle of ten degrees.

And still, incredibly, angling towards the corner's apex, the start-finish straight beyond. Then it's through, drifting to the red-and-white striped kerb, held in check by a myriad tiny inputs of steering and throttle... and we're roaring our appreciation, drowning out the staccato scream as Kobayashi straightens up and powers away.

Silverstone hosts the most knowledgeable motorsport fans on Earth, and we know sublime skill when we see it. Formula One cars just aren't designed to be driven like this, and even we can't fully understand what it takes to dance along the knife-edge in the most difficult conditions imaginable.

Kobayashi's efforts bring out the rest of the field to join the fray, and we cheer the swashbuckling Hamilton, the ever-smooth Button. We gasp anew as the old Rainmaster himself - Schumacher - slithers his Mercedes through the puddles. We purse our lips at the obvious confidence and rediscovered speed of Ferrari's beleaguered Felipe Massa. And we silently pay our respects to the drivers of the black-and-red cars and their Marussia team - devastated just days before by a horrific testing accident. Maria de Villota is never far from our thoughts.

As the chequered flag waves, the crowd is already thinning - fighting its way out through the traffic chaos that will dominate headlines in the days to come. What with relentless rain and rivers of mud, we've rarely seen a tougher day at Silverstone.

Is it worth it? Just barely. But my day is made by the efforts of one man. One man who trailblazed for all the others. Who held an impossible four-wheel drift through a lake at Club Corner.

Kamui Kobayashi, you're my hero.

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