A London Grand Prix is less likely than it seems

Mika Hakkinen drives the two seater F1 car during F1 Live London at Trafalgar Square in July this year. Image: Getty.

The owners of Britain’s only Formula 1 race course, Silverstone, are to activate the break clause in their contract. In 2019, the track will host the British Grand Prix for the last time.

The news has prompted renewed calls for a London Grand Prix, to ensure the sport retains a UK presence. After all, the sight of race cars flying past Trafalgar Square for the F1 Live London event in July was a source of great excitement for motor racing fans.

At first glance, the capital appears to be in an ideal position to step in, enjoying apparent support from senior figures in government and in motorsport. “We have talked about destination cities and the ultimate definition of that is London,” said Formula 1 CEO Chase Carey, who replaced Bernie Ecclestone earlier this year.

What’s more, a legal change in April means local authorities no longer require an act of parliament to suspend the Road Traffic Act for certain events. Transport minister Andrew Jones has said that a grand prix “with the backdrop of London” would be “spectacular”.

But where would it be held, and who would pay for it? Docklands, the Olympic Park and Westminster have all been mooted, and those behind the Stratford bid claim the event could happen without a penny of public money being spent. All but two of the races on the F1 calendar enjoy government funding, however – and it seems hard to believe the London GP could take place without.

Monaco, the best-known example of a street circuit, has paid a reduced fee to host races in Monte Carlo for years, given what the principality “brings to Formula 1”. London could argue that a backdrop of Nelson’s Column, Buckingham Palace and Big Ben – bells or no bells – would help F1 and warrant subsidisation from it as Ecclestone suggested might be possible in 2012.

But, though Carey has claimed the sport “said ‘no’ too much and we have to start saying ‘yes’”, he has not come as close to promising to help with staging costs. Even in the unlikely event F1 were to waive the race fee or covered staging costs, it seems probable that London would still face a large bill it may struggle to recoup.


The annual operating cost of an F1 street race is estimated to be more than £45m, in addition to a hosting fee typically above £20m. Cities are expected to sign contracts committing to several years at once, bringing overall costs into the hundreds of millions.

Over the last decade, the capital’s streets have entertained three Tour de France stages, four Olympic road races, several marathons and F1 Live London. But a grand prix requires planning and finance on a different scale. Despite regularly selling out, Silverstone’s owners have described the cost of holding the British Grand Prix as “ruinous”.

Transport for London (TfL) has already pulled out of hosting a 2017 Tour de France stage. “To ensure value for money we must make difficult choices. We have always said that the return of the Tour was subject to funding,” its managing director of surface transport Leon Daniels said in September 2015.

And that was before the election of Sadiq Khan, who appears to have less appetite for costly, high-risk events and projects than his predecessor, the man who backed the Garden Bridge and the ‘Boris Island’ airport project. While Khan has been cautious in his support for a London GP, Boris Johnson was “broadly positive providing we can satisfy the air quality and noise issues”. Let’s face it: he would have loved the opportunity to stand in Hyde Park once more and make a speech like the one on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, with people shouting his name.

But times have changed. It could prove hugely controversial to spend so much public money on a race track post-Grenfell, with the capital facing a housing crisis. Few could blame Khan for avoiding the symbolism of being associated with a massive project unlikely to be of any practical use to Londoners. There are environmental concerns, too.

Today’s business case for western European countries investing in race tracks appears weak. Recent street circuits in Valencia (F1) and Battersea (Formula E) were short-lived, and the Welsh Government recently withdrew its support for the so-called Circuit of Wales in Ebbw Vale, which had been earmarked for Moto GP. F1 in London seems even less likely to provide long-term employment opportunities.

Countries prepared to cough up for new races tend to be those keen to put themselves on the map after struggling to attract tourism and investment. London doesn’t lack either. If it’s hard to argue Azerbaijan ‘needs’ F1, it’s harder still to argue that London does.

It took the Welsh Government years to decide whether to underwrite the Circuit of Wales. With what might well be Silverstone’s last grand prix under two years away, time is running out.

For supporters, it may be a case of right place, wrong time. Had Silverstone activated a break clause five years ago, with the Olympics fresh in the memory, Ecclestone running F1 and Johnson in City Hall, a London GP might have stood a better chance. But, as it is, proponents of the race need to act quickly to keep the show on the road – or, quite possibly, to keep the show on British roads at all.

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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