London Grand Prix: Could It Really Happen?

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistJuly 2, 2012

London Grand Prix: Could It Really Happen?

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    The possibility of a Formula 1 race around the streets of London has once again been raised.

    A fantasy circuit created by banking giant (and sponsor of everything, it appears) Santander, created with input from McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, features a 5.1-kilometre blast around some of the city's most famous landmarks.

    Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square are all driven past or around on the central London track, a video of which is available on Santander's LGP2012 website.

    It probably wasn't supposed to be taken seriously—one would struggle to drive a Mini safely around the layout they came up with—but it's generated a lot of interest and prompted much debate.

    A second proposal, revealed earlier in the month, is for a street circuit around the Olympic Park in East London.

    Such a track wouldn't have the limitations imposed by historic landmarks, and could for the most part be built with F1 in mind. The question of safety could be better addressed at this venue, and though it's a short distance from the tourist areas, it's still in London.

    Local politicians and business groups are split on the idea of a race at one location or another, but it received support (of sorts) from the highest level. According to Peter Woodman of The Independent, London Mayor Boris Johnson said the financial side would need closer inspection, and added:

    The question of air quality and noise impact will have to be looked at. I am broadly positive providing we can satisfy the air quality and noise issues.

    And F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone—who has long held dreams of a race around London—even went so far as to indicate the sport would pay for the event, telling The Times:

    With the way things are, maybe we would front it and put the money up for it. If we got the OK and everything was fine, I think we could do that... It would be fantastic, good for London, good for England—a lot better than the Olympics.

    With Silverstone holding a contract to stage the British Grand Prix until 2027, any race in London would be a second race for the UK, and London Grand Prix would be the likely name.

    But could such a race become a reality?

The Olympic Park

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    The Olympic Park will need a new use after the 2012 Summer Olympics. The various structures such as the main stadium, aquatics centre and velodrome will be kept as sporting venues.

    Parkland will be retained, and new housing will be developed. The perplexing ArcelorMittal Orbit tower will also be kept, sadly.

    That still leaves some unused space and says nothing of the roads around the park. Could a semi-permanent track along the lines of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve or Albert Park be built?

    Looking at a map of the site, it's hard to say. They could certainly fit in a paddock area, and shaping any new roads to suit both normal and F1 traffic looks doable.

    So for the sake of the argument, we'll suppose a half-decent circuit could be built, without steamrolling a dozen other "legacy" projects (which is actually unlikely).

    But we're still left with a gigantic elephant in our race-planning room.

    What's the point?

    Yes, it would of course be in London. But it's a sufficient distance away from the internationally recognised part of the city—the palace, Big Ben and so on—that it might as well be in Lyon or Oslo.

    The park setting would not astound fans and produce breathtaking views. It might just be me, but the thought of a fast car driving past a large stadium doesn't exactly fill me with a tingling sense of anticipation.

    This year, it's the Olympic Park. Wow. Hooray. Next year, it's a stadium surrounded by grass and houses. Boo. Yawn.

    Even if someone came up with a route which passed through the Olympic Stadium, it would be nothing more than another street-road hybrid circuit.

    And on top of that, we have to factor in the inevitable large scale protests against such an event—from residents, environmental groups, political parties and so forth.

    Just can't see it happening.

The Santander Track

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    The idea of 24 of the world's finest machines speeding around the streets of central London is an attractive one. The Olympic Park track would be interesting, but this is the one Bernie and the sport would really want.

    Santander really went to town on this, spending what appears to be a large sum of money and a lot of time making their virtual vision of what a London Grand Prix circuit would look like. They even gave it an official launch.

    And those of you with a deep love for the Santander logo trophies will be delighted to learn the bank named a corner and a straight after itself.

    Visually, it's extremely impressive, and a virtual lap is a must. Only night time is available, but I think it'd look even better during the day.

    If the dream was turned into reality, the race would instantly become a fixture of great prestige and would generate vast interest from all around the world. In terms of sheer appeal, it would outshine even Monaco.

    But really?

    London is not just home to 7.5 million people. It's also one of the world's key economic and business centres, a motorist's worst nightmare and a tourist trap rivalled only by French capital Paris.

    The Santander plan uses much of the hub around which the city revolves.

    The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held on an artificial island miles away from the city itself. The Singapore Grand Prix circuit is tucked out of the way in Marina Bay, and the Valencia race is run on purpose-built roads around a largely industrial port with minimal disruption to anyone.

    They don't need the same preparation London would.

    Only Monaco could compare—but there, the city has grown up with the race. Many curbs remain in place year round. Many streets are designed around having F1 cars driven on them. The residents—all 36,000 of them—accept the race as a part of living there.

    Even after years of practice, it takes six weeks to prepare the Monaco circuit and three weeks to return the streets to normal.

    Even if the organisers of a London race could somehow halve the time taken, that level of disruption in the British capital would be catastrophic to the city.

    Throwing up unsightly Armco barriers next to Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square would destroy world-famous views and repel more visitors than a race could ever attract.

    Businesses would be severely disrupted and could lose millions. The already strained transport system would be thrown into chaos and road traffic diversions would inconvenience and delay hundreds of thousands of commuters every day.

    People would still have to get to work, remember.

    And that's before we even consider the track itself. The Santander design might be suitable for Forza Motorsport 5 (and could even end up on there, hint hint), but it would never pass the F1 safety test.

    Working with existing streets, it's unlikely any central London design would.

    Santander's idea is a beautiful dream—but unfortunately, it's also an impossible one.

That's a No Then?

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    Deep down, everyone involved in the sport knows a race around London will never happen.

    Using the central streets is a non-starter, and there seems little point building a hybrid circuit elsewhere in the city, miles away from the recognisable, "tourist" London.

    The Santander idea did what it was supposed to do—provided a little bit of positive exposure for the bank and got people talking about Formula 1. And, I suppose, several computer animators can now afford new cars.

    As for the Olympic Park proposal? East London has held a Grand Prix before—but that was East London, South Africa. The plan is as pointless as it is ambitious, and that one will probably turn out to be a publicity stunt too.

    The story and discussion of the London race will quietly fade away as the British Grand Prix comes and goes, but we haven't seen the last of it.

    Like the Halley's Comet of motorsport, this venerable old idea just keeps on coming back.