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.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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