The prospect of a London Grand Prix once again raised its head last week.
British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Williams factory and announced rules governing motorsport events on public roads would be relaxed.
Currently, each event requires specific approval via legislation—a bill being passed through Parliament, which can be a long and laborious task even if everyone agrees. Any form of motorsport activity on a public road without such approval is illegal.
Under the proposal made by Cameron, control over such things would be passed to local authorities. This would allow much easier, cheaper and quicker approval of events—something the prime minister seemed keen to encourage. He said in a speech (h/t Auto Express):
We have a great tradition of motorsport in this country and today we are bringing British motor racing back to British roads, to benefit local communities.
As part of our long-term economic plan, we are backing our world-leading motorsport industry to support jobs, enhance skills and help us to build a more resilient economy.
After hearing Cameron's comments, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone told the Press Association:
In the past we spoke to the old mayor and all sorts of people. It just depends on what we can come up with commercially because how are we going to fund it?
The news is good, but I don't know whether you'd have street racing because it's not cheap to put on something that's safe. Street racing is expensive. But if they ever get it together then we'll see what happens. At least it's a good sign, a step in the right direction.
But does it bring the London Grand Prix any closer to reality?
Ecclestone and his predecessors have long yearned for a race around the streets of central London. As reported by the BBC, he held talks in 2004 with then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone about bringing F1 to the U.K. capital. The story at the time fizzled out with barely a whimper, but in 2007 he told the London Evening Standard (h/t Autoracing1.com) the idea was "not dead in the water."
So it proved in 2012, when a simulation of a spectacular (if slightly unrealistic) layout was displayed by Santander at a "launch" event in central London attended by Ecclestone. At the time, the Daily Mail reported Ecclestone would even waive the hosting fee and pay for the construction cost for such an event to go ahead.
Again, nothing came of it, and the London Grand Prix dream remained dormant until Cameron's visit to Williams last week.
His announcement that control over motorsport events would pass to local councils does remove a small hurdle—the need for legislation to pass through Parliament.
But that was never really the problem. When I looked at this in an article back in 2012, it didn't even register as a blip on my radar.
Any race around the city streets would need to take place around the central tourist and business areas. Holding it elsewhere would nullify the entire point of the event.
If it doesn't look like it's in London—the London people around the world picture in their minds, with Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, the Thames, the Palace of Westminster, Big Ben and the London Eye—it might as well be on the moon.
A route crawling around an obscure suburb or the Olympic Park wouldn't be special. It has to be in the centre.
But the centre isn't a realistic location.
Setting up a modern F1-standard race track is an expensive and time-consuming activity. It takes a total of nine weeks to build and remove the barriers, kerbs and grandstands for the Monaco Grand Prix.
There is of course disruption, but Monaco has grown up around F1 and much of the race infrastructure remains in place year-round. It's small and densely populated, but the impact is minimal.
That wouldn't be the case in London.
The city is a massive global economical powerhouse. Were it a country, it would have the 20th-largest economy in the world (data from the Brookings Institution compared against IMF GDP figures). And London never sleeps—it's a 24-hour city.
Such a city needs its transport network functioning as well as possible; preparing for a grand prix would plunge it into chaos. Roads would need to be re-laid, barriers and tyre walls installed and dozens of huge temporary grandstands would have to be erected around the route.
Street furniture such as lighting, road signs, traffic islands and some kerbs would need to be removed. Manholes on the route would need to be sealed, and some road markings would have to go, too.
Closed roads over the race weekend and weeks of disruption on either side of the event would inconvenience and delay tens of thousands of people every day.
It wouldn't just be those working around the circuit site, either. Closures and delays would push heavier traffic into other parts of the city. This would increase travel times for a far greater number of people and cause disruption to many more businesses.
The impact on ordinary Londoners would be massive.
London is also one of the world's premier tourist destinations. Per the BBC, London is expected to attract over 18 million overseas visitors in 2014.
Only, tourists come to see the sights, not a building site and a sea of half-finished barriers. They want their bus to be able to take the proper tourist routes, not endure lengthy diversions. They want to shop on Oxford Street, not spend more time dodging tyre walls than looking in windows.
A London Grand Prix might attract a few hundred thousand fans over a single weekend, but it would repel far more, big-spending tourists over a much longer timescale.
But even if the economic and tourism problems could be solved, there remains a huge obstacle—safety.
The track put forward in the Santander video would work on a computer game, but in the real world it would never pass the necessary safety inspections. No route on existing central London roads would.
The roads are too narrow, the buildings are too big and too close and there's no free space in which to put adequate run-off in the necessary places.
Monaco gets away with these things because it's Monaco. Such exceptions could not and would not be made for a new circuit—even if it was in London.
Overall event security is another factor. An occasion of this magnitude in London would need a massive police and possibly even military presence. Anti-aircraft missiles were installed in six locations for the 2012 Olympic Games—would a London Grand Prix need similar anti-terror measures?
Even with thousands of personnel out on the streets, sealing off several square miles of one of the world's busiest cities may prove impossible.
A London Grand Prix would be an incredible sight and an unqualified success. The city has a global profile matched only by New York and perhaps Tokyo. A race around its streets, past all the world-famous tourist sights, could even replace Monaco as the jewel in F1's crown.
But despite Cameron's apparent removal of one stumbling back, there are still too many obstacles for it to ever happen.
The idea has been around since the 1960s, and it's unlikely to ever go away entirely. Like a dormant volcano it will sleep, occasionally giving out an ominous puff of smoke and perhaps scaring the odd local, but never quite getting round to erupting.
Whenever a sponsor wants a bit of publicity, or a politician a bit of exposure, the London Grand Prix will be dragged back out of hibernation for a couple of weeks.
But it will never become a reality.
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