Next weekend’s Silverstone Grand Prix marks 20 years since the race was interrupted in bizarre circumstances. Possibly the most bizarre circumstances.
The FIA normally deploys the safety car because of an accident or inclement weather that makes driving extremely dangerously. However, in 2003 they had to act when on lap 11, and with Jarno Trulli about to exit Becketts and thunder down the Hangar Straight, a stray Irish, placard-wielding, kilt-wearing priest wandered onto the track.
Neil Horan was the name of the gent in question and the placard read, “Read the Bible. The Bible is always right.”
Luckily, Trulli and the drivers who followed were able to swerve around the Roman Catholic priest, who had eluded safety marshals before making his way across the track in front of cars travelling at nearly 200mph. Unsurprisingly, he was apprehended and arrested.
Luckily, the gods – Christian or otherwise – were smiling down on those at Silverstone that day and no harm came to anyone despite the clear risk to life and limb caused by Father Horan’s ridiculous stunt.
His antics ended with him feeling the full force of the law after being charged and then pleading guilty to aggravated trespass. In mitigation, Horan claimed he saw an open gate as sign from God, albeit this was dismissed by the court on the grounds of him having taken a prepared sign to the circuit with him.
He was sentenced to two months in prison, which proved to be no deterrent whatsoever as one year later he reappeared at the marathon of the 2004 Athens Olympics.
This time he physically intervened when appearing out of the crowd to grapple with race leader, Vanderlei de Lima who, at the time, had built up a 25-second lead. The intervention was to cost the Brazilian around 10 seconds of time and he eventually finished third – a result the Brazilian Athletics Federation unsuccessfully appealed.
For that particular misdemeanour, Horan was fined €3,000 by a Greek court and given a 12-month suspended sentence, but worse was to follow for him in January of 2005 when, as a result of his increasingly bizarre behaviour, he was defrocked by the Roman Catholic Church.
In a statement Horan said: “I completely reject this decision. I appeal to the much higher court of heaven and the court of Jesus Christ ... I now cannot preach, I cannot give out communion – I am little more than a pagan.”
In addition to his ‘successful’ attempts at Silverstone and in Athens, he also attempted unsuccessfully to make his mark on the 2004 Epsom Derby – where he was spotted in the crowd by police before he could make it onto the track – and the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where he was arrested by German police before he could stage a planned protest in the form of a ‘peace jig’ outside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
Further unexpected appearances were to follow, firstly when in 2006 he appeared outside St Mary’s Hospital Lindo Wing in London upon the birth of Prince William’s first child, Prince George, and then, doubly bizarrely, when popping up in 2009 on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent to perform an Irish jig in traditional dress.
Then, for over a decade, either by design or otherwise, he kept a remarkably low profile, aside from the odd appearance in central London, armed with the obligatory placards and dressed in the customary green.
All of that changed however when, last October, he appeared in Downing Street as the incoming Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, was about to address the nation for the first time.
Luckily for Sunak, the police recognised Horan and were able to intervene before the Grand Prix Priest, as he has become known, was able to offer his thoughts on the UK’s new PM.
Only time will tell whether Silverstone 2023 is graced with his presence.