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Saving an F1 icon: The new Silverstone

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This weekend's British GP marks Silverstone's 60th year as a F1 circuit
  • The historic former airfield track staged the first race of the F1 championship in 1950
  • The British GP's future was in doubt after it was axed from the provisional 2005 F1 calendar
  • Silverstone signed a deal in 2009 to remain hosts of the British GP for the next 17 years
  • Silverstone has a new "Arena" circuit with extra corners and a longer track

(CNN) -- Sixty years ago, the world's biggest motorsport series was launched at an old air force bomber station in Britain.

English circuit Silverstone has since become one of the iconic venues on the Formula One calendar, but not long ago many people feared it would never hold another race.

A year after briefly losing the rights to host the British Grand Prix, this weekend it will once again stage the event with a new, improved layout and hope for the future.

Red Bull's title contender Mark Webber said the race -- which had been in danger of slipping off the calendar due to organizers' disputes with F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone -- is integral to the sport.

It's been several years of work leading into this. We had a lot of hiccups because one minute we had a Grand Prix and the next we didn't
--Silverstone's Richard Phillips
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"In tennis you have the grand slam of Wimbledon, and Roland Garros, and this is similar in a way," the Australian told CNN.

"You need a British Grand Prix, you need an Italian Grand Prix, Monte Carlo -- all the ones that are the real signature events of our championships.

"Yes it is a world championship calendar and we need to go to other venues, but the British Grand Prix has always been a very famous and popular event because there are so many cars designed and built here.

"They've had so many world champions in the past, and there is so much history. It's in the DNA and it should be on the calendar. So it's great that it's here."

Silverstone unveils new circuit

A crowd of 160,000 racing fanatics will once again head to the Silverstone to watch their racing heroes in action this weekend, as the season approaches the halfway stage.

They will find a newly-configured track at the venue, a former airfield which staged its first race in 1948 and then two years later hosted the opening event -- won by Italian Emilio Giuseppe "Nino" Farina -- of the newly-formed F1 championship.

It has been remodeled to help the circuit become more suitable for hosting motorcycle races, after Silverstone signed a deal last year to host the MotoGP from 2010.

Since then $7.5 million has been spent on adding a new "Arena" section, which has lengthened the course by 0.472 miles to 3.666 miles -- which will add four seconds to lap times. There are also extra corners to help improve the chance for drivers to overtake and three new grandstands positioned closer to the action.

It is the first part of a $60 million redevelopment, which will see a new pit and paddock complex ready for 2011.

Silverstone battles to stay in the race

Silverstone managing director Richard Phillips told CNN it has taken a lot of time and hard work to get the circuit ready for this weekend.

"It's been several years of work leading into this," Phillips said. "We had a lot of hiccups because one minute we had a Grand Prix and the next minute we didn't, so from a planning perspective it's been long.

"We've actually been through 15 versions of this track to perfect it. We even put it into planning and took it out because we weren't happy with it and resubmitted it again."

"Cars and bikes come and exercise themselves properly here, so that's the unique part of us. There's only two or three circuits like it."

World champion Jenson Button goes into the race in second place in the drivers' championship, six points behind McLaren teammate and fellow Brit Lewis Hamilton.

Button is looking forward to racing on the new-look Silverstone and is hoping to climb to the top of the standings with his first British Grand Prix win on Sunday.

If the 30-year-old does manage to win the race, he will become the 13th British driver to do so.

Formula One chiefs save British Grand Prix

"We've both driven it in the simulator and it works pretty well for our car," Button told CNN. "The circuit before was a very flowing circuit and it's changed a little bit.

"But I think it's going to add something to the racing. Hopefully we'll have more overtaking, and I've heard that the fans can get a lot closer to the action.

"Our aim is to always fight for a win, and the British Grand Prix is a very special one."

Silverstone's owner, the British Drivers' Racing Club, has now agreed a deal with Ecclestone for the next 17 years.

"It's very, very important," the club's president, 1996 world champion Damon Hill, told CNN. "Formula One can attract huge fees from countries elsewhere and there's a lot of competition to have a F1 race.

"The UK currently does not support Formula One with government funding, but it does support Silverstone as a venue for hosting Grands Prix. We've been very grateful for every bit of sport we get and we can develop Silverstone now into being a world-class facility that does Britain proud."

Silverstone, which has staged the British Grand Prix regularly since 1987, is one of only three circuits to have hosted the event along with Brands Hatch and Aintree.

David Coulthard, who like Hill is a British winner of the race, said that Silverstone is the only practical choice to continue hosting the historic event.

"Silverstone has a great history in running and operating the grand prix. It's central enough for the logistics of getting people in," he said.

"And with all of the extra road infrastructure that has been developed here over the last few years, it just makes it the only sensible place to bring over 100,000 people."