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.