x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A Grand Prix past Big Ben is already dividing Londoners

Will Formula 1 racing come to the centre of London? Bernie Ecclestone and Boris Johnson think it could happen – but would Queen Elizabeth approve?

The 2012 UK sporting calendar, described with unwitting irony by one journalist as reaching "saturation point", turns its focus this weekend to the British Grand Prix.

This year's domestic sporting schedule, due to climax in a mere three weeks with the Olympic Games, is coinciding with the wettest summer since records began.

Test cricket, Wimbledon tennis, and now Formula 1 have all been horribly disrupted by the rain that has fallen almost daily since April.

And with nearly a month's worth of the stuff due to descend on the motor racing circuit at Silverstone this weekend, and the public car parks already under water, the F1 mechanics preparing the various cars for today's race would be well advised to throw in a periscope and some high boots for the drivers.

Even before the weather chaos, Formula 1 in the UK was in a precarious state. British drivers may be among the best in the world, but the tatty infrastructure of many racing circuits has long been a cause for embarrassment and concern. Not long ago there was talk of giving Britain's spot on the Grand Prix calendar to another country.

The authorities at Silverstone have invested millions to improve facilities to preserve their status, yet with so many competing nations eager for F1, the long-term future of the British F1 race remains uncertain.

But hope was at hand this week after plans were unveiled to turn central London's streets into a circuit. The official launch of the London Grand Prix project, attended by Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and several TV celebrities whose names escape me, took place at the venerable RAC club in Pall Mall. Crucially, the initiative has already received cautious backing from both F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

No wonder. For F1 is the ultimate status symbol for any big city, bringing glamour, prestige and incalculable global publicity in its wake. True, the cost of turning the capital into a racetrack would be staggering - it would mean bringing parts of London to a standstill for two weeks while the circuit is created - but the economic benefit is incalculable: which is perhaps why Mr Ecclestone has already offered to waive the $50 million (Dh183.6mn) price tag that normally attends a successful bid.

Whatever else, a London race would not be short on culture, history or photo ops, with its proposed 5km course taking in sites including Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and Nelson's column. The pit lanes would be in St James's Park.

Londoners are already divided over the scheme, but I imagine there is one resident whose benediction will be essential. Quite what the Queen will make of jet-powered race cars screaming around the perimeter of her official residence at 290km/hr is anybody's guess.

Actually, after 60 glorious years of 21-gun salutes and massed brass bands parading up and down beneath her windows, a few motor cars roaring past will presumably hold few terrors for her.

Nonetheless, all are agreed that a London F1 event would be an immense undertaking. City streets tend to be notoriously difficult to transform into racecourses, as anyone who has ever watched the examples in Singapore or Monaco will testify.

Indeed, during a trip I took to watch the Singapore version last autumn, I witnessed for myself just what proponents are up against - narrow streets, buildings pressing in on very side, and hardly a passing point to be had. No wonder that many of the Grand Prix races held in city centres are decided virtually from the moment the cars leave the starting grid.

And while it's undoubtedly exciting to see a procession of high-tech cars running nose to tail around our streets for hours on end, Londoners feel that they can already sample that any day of the week, merely by standing in Piccadilly.

Still, with the London Grand Prix unlikely to come to fruition until 2026 at the earliest, Silverstone can rest easy for at least a decade - if only it would stop raining.

In the meantime, I've found a nifty way of beating the awful weather. Each afternoon I set up a deck chair in my living room, turn on all the lights, unwrap an ice cream, and settle down to watch the Tour de France cycle race, being transmitted daily on satellite television.

It may be merely a virtual summer, but it's the only one I'm likely to get.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London