Holding a Formula One race on the streets of London isn’t a new idea. For the past two decades, it’s been dredged up as many times as the Thames, but it’s curious that a day after the owners of Silverstone decided to announce their intentions to break their current contract in 2019 the city held a large fan gathering the likes of which hasn’t been seen for a while. It’s a classic bait-and-switch that politicians pull all the time – cover up the bad news of the eventual loss of Silverstone with the hope that London has the capacity to take its place on the calendar.
F1 seems to have a small obsession with racing on the streets on the English capital and has put on demonstrations in the past to showcase the sport. One of the last larger ones was the 2004 event, which saw the likes of Martin Brundle and Nigel Mansell drive Jaguars and Jordans respectively.
Yet that was 13 years ago and, despite 500,000 fans lining Regents Street to see their heroes, still no race has materialised. Instead, it’s been the scene of promotional stunts more than anything else, like Mark Webber’s pit stop on Parliament Square in 2010, and Santander’s attempt to cash in on the London Olympics by designing a track around most of the city’s landmarks and have Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton describe each and ever corner.
The tangible proposal of a London Grand Prix has been mooted since 2011, with Bernie Ecclestone known to have backed the idea and having offered to cover the cost of staging the event as late as last summer.
The romanticism of Formula One cars on the streets of London holds weight. The category’s roots are based in Britain yet events over the past 67 years have traditionally been held at purpose-built race circuits of Brooklands, Silverstone, Brands Hatch and Donington Park, so the switch to a street circuit would see a change in tradition. Yet to take it to a hub of tourism that sees 30m visits annually, anyone would find it hard to justify closing the roads around major attractions for a week’s setup, let alone a three-day weekend. Add in the increased security that would be required to police everything and the romanticism is slowly replaced by a logistical headache.
It could use a solution other proposed venues in recent years went with, like New York, in the fact that it instead of being held in the heart of the city or moved to the outskirts to save face. The Grand Prix of America was planned to be held in New Jersey, with Manhattan being part of the skyline instead of the actual venue; it sat in development hell for three years as plans for funding came and went before disappearing from sight and mind. The Olympic Park could be a possible place for a makeshift track to be built around, following suit of the Russian Grand Prix’s location in Sochi.
With Las Vegas, a return to Sin City was mentioned in passing by Bernie in March last year – leading to this thorough investigation from Badger – but the interest has cooled now Ecclestone isn’t pulling the promotional strings.
Motorsport has appeared in London in recent years; pioneering electrical series Formula E held race weekends in 2015 and 2016 at Battersea Park and saw attendances of over 60,000, but attracted some criticism from local residents who pointed out that setting up and staging the races had used considerable numbers of traditional fossil-fuelled vehicles that did little to support the environmentally-friendly message the events were trying to push.
However, the real stumbling block facing Liberty, quite apart from the logistics of setting up the race and making it safe, would be financial. Even with covering staging costs – something that they could quite easily do – the race fee would have to be met by the city itself, or, more importantly, the elected London Assembly. As with other countries in a climate of austerity, a use of public funds would attract considerable opposition, and the whole topic would be a political hot potato that no one would want to be caught holding for too long; endorse it and you alienate you non-F1 constituents who care for the environment, condemn it and you disappoint the tourism boards and stifle business opportunities.
London could, would and should be a fantastic venue for a Formula One race, a spectacle that the sport thrives on and a city that would add more prestige to its calendar. However, the planning is still a long way off from what Bernie would have expected, let alone F1’s new ringleaders Liberty.
Don’t’ be confused by the hype that surrounded F1 London Live; enjoy it, yes, but remember it was a marketing event designed to get more people to attend races and buy merchandise for the health of the sport. For now, London is stuck in a state of limbo that no potential venue wants to be in; too complicated and controversial to actually take place, but simple enough to arrange fleeting demonstrations that create a false sense of hope. If it becomes nothing more than a traditional fanzone to help connect with F1’s audience, the rumours will always be ripe for discussion.