The Formula One London Grand Prix: Why it could, and should be done
We drive the mooted street circuit, taking in London's biggest sights.
Next year will see a bigger shakeup in Formula One than we've seen for many years. Not only are the beloved shrieking V8s to be replaced with Turbo V6s, but also the calendar itself is set to be the biggest in the history of the sport. Subject to final approval, 22 races in all will be run, compared with this year's 19.
This includes a record six street circuits, with the addition of New Jersey (battling in the piercing shadows of New York's striking skyline) and Russia joining the likes of Melbourne, Singapore, Montreal, and, of course, the iconic Monaco. Some purists are not the biggest fans of street circuits, as they argue it makes for a dull procession of a race, but F1 overlord Bernie Ecclestone has long been an advocate of them. No doubt he understands the attraction from a non-F1 fan's point of view. After all, watching an F1 car scythe through tight twists and turns at 180 mph along public roads is visually more arresting than on a distant old airfield 10 metres wide.
One circuit, however, that Ecclestone has tried for years to organise has never quite made it through to completion despite various successful demonstrations and simulations: the London City Grand Prix. Sir Stirling Moss remarked it has been a dream discussed since the 1960s. The most recent attention given to the thought was in 2012, when Ecclestone revealed a CGI simulation of a 3.46-mile circuit. He also offered to waive the millions it would cost to make this dream become reality.
Ecclestone argued that the event itself would be bigger than the London 2012 Olympics; though this seems a little ambitious, it's difficult to deny the vast amount of interest out there. The last time F1 cars hared through London's streets was back in 2004 when some eight cars zoomed through Piccadilly Circus and Regents Street with 500,000 turning out to watch.
Despite two successive mayors displaying a firm interest in holding such an event, the resistance and bureaucracy against it implies that it will never happen. Nevertheless, looking at this particular circuit, Alex and I felt this was an opportunity we couldn't pass up, so on the eve of this year's British Grand Prix in the midst of the summer solstice, we woke at 3 a.m. to see what racing in London might feel like. We may have had to obey speed limits and traffic lights, but it certainly beat a simulator.
In terms of the vehicle, we went with the most appropriate road-legal car we could think of: a Caterham Supersport. It may be closer to the Grand Prix cars of the 1960s than those of today, but Caterham Cars were founded closer to London than any of the other manufacturers, and zooming along the Mall in near darkness flanked either side by a row of Union Jacks, I couldn't help but feel just a little bit patriotic.
It has to be said, I'm a bit of an F1 anorak. I started the circuit with thoughts firmly routed in my childhood adulation of Silverstone, thinking of all the legendary heroes who have battled through Maggotts and Becketts since 1948. Indeed when the Formula One World Championship was introduced in 1950, Silverstone hosted the first-ever F1 race. It has been there ever since, despite numerous threats and Ecclesotne's slight yet obvious distaste for the event.
With so many new circuits looking ever similar thanks to the often carbon-copied designs of Herman Tilke (including the dullification of one of the most unique and exciting circuits, Hockenheim), I felt a strong urge to defend some of the sport's heritage and history. With more new additions in exotic locations being added to the calendar every year (bringing new audiences and a worldwide feel to the championship that the sport cannot shy away from), circuits like Monza, Spa, Silverstone, and Monaco become ever more important and should remain as the backbone of modern Grand Prix racing.
Alex, on the other hand, saw the beauty of such a circuit and the attraction and attention it would gravitate from people all over the world, not just motorsport fans, and despite fervent bickering in the Caterham, it was difficult to disagree with him. The thought of those piercing sounds bouncing off the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, space-age technology interacting with buildings hundreds of years old is a perfect metaphor for London itself. The helicopter footage of side-by-side battles conducted along Embankment as the camera pulls back to reveal the Thames, Big Ben, and the London Eye, is too tempting to resist. The sheer unbelievable thought of Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso, and the rest brushing under Admiralty Arch in single-file over 100 mph -- it cannot be denied that the iconography of London would surely top Monaco in the glamour stakes, and seeing these cars battle it out at 180 mph on these streets is worth 10 days of road closures.
Having been myself stuck in unmoving traffic among these beautiful surroundings for, cumulatively, days on end, it occurred to me how wonderful it would be to live vicariously through these drivers paying no attention to the endless bus lane restrictions and speed cameras that litter the route. In rush hour, a lap would take approximately an hour, in an F1 car just 1 minute, 46 seconds.
It may be unlikely, unfeasible, and even unpopular, but it's fun to dream, and Alex and I loved every second of this infectious course. It won me over totally, the idea filled me with excitement and pride. The Olympics showed what could happen when Londoners shun cynicism and apathy in favour of powerfully concentrated optimism. It might not be quite as big, but it would certainly come close.
Could we do it? I don't see why not. Should we? Definitely. With 22 races on the calendar at the moment, there is hardly a need for it, but I've found a compromise that keeps Silverstone there. Two British Grand Prix. After all, 90 percent of F1 teams are based in the UK; why not have another home Grand Prix? It's greedy, but trust me, it'll be worth it. One thing's for certain: I'll never drive down the Mall without childishly screaming an engine note/supplying Murray Walker-style commentary of my progress ever again.
With more new exotic locations being added to the calendar every year (bringing new audiences and a worldwide feel to the championship that the sport cannot shy away from), circuits like Monza, Spa, Silverstone, and Monaco become ever more important and should remain as the backbone of modern Grand Prix racing.