Visitors lucky enough to have a ticket to the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Northamptonshire, will have a grandstand view of at least some of the circuit from the cafe of the £20m Silverstone Experience, the first major motor museum to open in the UK in recent years. As well as a new visitor attraction, it also holds the archive collection of the British Racing Drivers’ Club (BRDC).
The location at the heart of the enormous racing complex is apparent as you drive past acres of car parks built for the thousands who attend Formula 1 (F1) and Moto GP events. The hi-tech appearance of the building belies its past as a world war two RAF hangar – the new entrance space looks like a modern airport terminal, with an F1 car hanging above the ticket desk.
More evocative content might have helped raise expectations and excitement, but walking upstairs to the start of the experience the pace quickens and visitors begin their journey on a virtual starting grid, complete with deafening video content highlighting some of the famous drivers who have raced on the circuit. This sets the scene, and when the lights turn green, visitors are directed into first-floor displays telling the story
of the Silverstone circuit and the landscape around it.
Having raised pulses on the starting grid, what greets visitors on the first floor is more low-key. Perhaps not wishing to fall into the motor museum trope of filling galleries with cars and technology, the first exhibition spaces stick to providing historical context about why Silverstone became a racing circuit. The content is well-paced and interesting, but the momentum generated by the opening interactive grid gets lost.
Pit stop in history
The first real cars do not appear until almost the end of the first-floor displays; the exhibition instead provides background to some of the evocative bends and straights reflecting Silverstone’s history. There is a good mix of video, interactive and graphic content, although some of the text is small and hard to read.
The Abbey, Becketts and Chapel corners are named after the medieval monastery built on the site, but the foundations of Silverstone as a race track were laid when the land on which it now sits was used to build a second world war airfield.
The exhibition includes great interactive content telling its story and the Wellington bombers that flew from there. Close by is a recreated village pub exhibit, which is used to talk about the impact of the growth of the circuit and motor racing on Silverstone village, and the memories of local people, which are remarkably positive considering the traffic seen there on race days.
With the scene set, visitors head downstairs. The main space provides three themed display areas: the first focuses on race days at Silverstone, particularly on behind-the-scenes elements that support a grand prix, such as track safety, medical support and the media, including an excellent interactive allowing visitors to commentate on a race. The centrepiece is a recreated pit lane complete with more hands-on content such as a popular tyre change interactive, where visitors can compete with each other to achieve the best time.
Tech Lab is an interactive space showing the hi-tech engineering behind F1 cars and motorbikes. Racing teams such as McLaren have provided input on the interactive and video exhibits demonstrating the science and design of key components like braking, tyres, engines and suspension. This Stem – science, technology, engineering and maths – element will be of huge benefit to educational groups and will inspire young engineers and scientists.
Although Silverstone is not hosting any Formula E electric car grand prix currently, it does seem strange that the displays do not discuss the future of F1, especially in the context of the climate crisis.
The third chronological section of the experience is a history of the circuit from 1948, when the first British Grand Prix was held there, to the present. Those familiar with the layout of motor museums in the UK and elsewhere will find the design here reassuring – the story is told through cars, motorcycles, memorabilia and clothing. Material held in the BRDC archives is much in evidence and touchscreen interactives enable visitors to see more of the rich collections.
Videos feature famous winners such as Jackie Stewart and Nigel Mansell, but I would have loved to have seen more. The screens are relatively small and I could not help feeling that the experience did not make enough of the people who have made Silverstone so famous, such as Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Barry Sheene and, of course, Lewis Hamilton, even though his suit and helmet are on display. Although there are barriers, visitors can get close to the iconic F1 cars and motorbikes.
They have been borrowed from museums and individuals, so some eras of racing are less well represented than others. It would have been good to see more cars from the 1960s when Clark and Hill dominated the sport.
The visit ends with the Ultimate Lap experience, which is terrific. It’s an exhilarating virtual trip around the Silverstone circuit that recreates the motion of an F1 car at speed.
The Silverstone Experience styles itself as an immersive visitor attraction, not a museum, but I’d argue that it is a mix of the two, with some hands-on science centre content added. The visitor journey is certainly bookended by two dramatic audiovisual experiences and there is a lot of interactive content throughout, but there is also no lack of real objects, drawn from the BRDC collection and private loans.
There is no doubt the experience will appeal to committed petrolheads, but it’s hands-on accessible approach will certainly also gear up the less committed family groups who will visit away from race days.
Tim Bryan is the director of the Brunel Institute at the SS Great Britain Trust in Bristol, and is a former head of collections of the British Motor Museum in Gaydon
National Lottery Heritage Fund; Garfield Weston Foundation
Mather & Co
Mather & Co
Mather & Co; The Silverstone Experience collections and exhibitions team
Adult £20; Child £10