Though the UK remains the spiritual home to the motorsport industry, London has somehow been unable to contribute to this narrative. That is not for lack of trying.
Britain has since long been considered the home of motorsport, and rightly so: the British Grand Prix has featured in every single edition of the Formula One World Championship through circuits like Silverstone or Brands Hatch, and the UK has provided ten different F1 world champions such as six-time winner Lewis Hamilton. Other than F1, Britain is vital to rallying, motorcycle racing as well as touring car championships and yet, London fails to be a major player in the current world of motorsport.
It would seem impossible to include a whole racetrack in London, but until the 1970s London actually had a circuit that hosted non-championship F1 races. During the mid-twentieth century, south London would often be visited by roaring engines in the Crystal Palace Park. Due to security reasons, the circuit was not allowed to host races from 1974 onwards as the death toll in motorsport was getting very worrying (and as a circuit in a park full of trees and ditches is not the safest thing out there). It did stay relevant to the motorsport industry by developing into a useful location to film racing scenes – blockbuster racing movie Rush notably used the track to film crashes. However, it failed to find a successor as meaningful London circuit.
Santander had famously drafted ideas of a street circuit in London, back in 2012. Street circuits have become a staple of the F1 calendar through classics such as the Monaco Grand Prix but also thanks to newer additions with the races in Singapore and Baku. In 2012, the Spanish bank and title sponsor of the British GP used the attention from the London Olympics to suggest the idea of a spectacular and breathtaking circuit in the center of the capital. The logistics of the event had also been taken into account by McLaren, with pit garages located in St James’s Park and more than a thousand projectors enabling the race to be hosted at night. Hamilton and fellow F1 British world champion Jenson Button had even made clear their approval for the ambitious project. While the actual project fell through, it generated some interesting ideas.
Why is this topic relevant? Well, there are constant talks on whether Silverstone should be dropped in favour of a London GP. However, Silverstone is British racing heritage and has historical significance whereas London as a venue would be more about the commercial aspect of things. A race here would attract a massive – probably unprecedented – crowd to the event but would require enormous logistical considerations and preparations which would effectively close a whole area of the city for at least four days. This was noticed when Formula E organised races (ePrix) in London in 2015 and 2016 at Battersea Park but underwent serious controversy as it led to a three-week disruption period in the area. It eventually got the worked-up local community to oppose any further races at the venue which showed that Santander and McLaren had perhaps not taken into account the impact such logistics would have on the residents. If an ePrix could not be hosted, then a GP would be out of question. The attempt seemed to embody the failure to accommodate racing events in London – the obstacles had been highlighted.
Obviously, this did not discourage the officials. In a few months, ExceL will be hosting the 2020 London ePrix in a further attempt to bring the motorsport industry to the capital. Ads for the ePrix have started to flood social media and they will soon be taking over the billboards on the Strand and at Waterloo as well. A lot of weight has been put on the event’s shoulders. Attracting the prospective and eco-friendly Formula E rather than the loud and gigantic-carbon-footprint Formula 1 is perhaps a last chance for London to get a regular yearly major race within its sphere of influence. Otherwise, the home of motorsport shall remain without capital.