There is a strong will to bring Formula E back to the UK… but not necessarily in London
For Superprix read E-Prix. Motor racing could make a return to the streets of Birmingham as early as 2019, with a round of the Formula E Championship almost 30 years after the demise of the city’s Formula 3000 fixture.
The new Conservative mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority, Andy Street, has announced that he is in the “advanced stages” of negotiation to bring the FIA’s electric vehicle series back to Britain three years on from the last Battersea Park E-Prix in London. The former boss of the John Lewis department store chain is following up on a manifesto pledge, made ahead of his election to the newly created post of a West Midlands mayor last year, to bring motor racing back to Britain’s second city.
“Over the past year, we have been in negotiations with the organisers of the FIA Formula E Championship about bringing a road race to Birmingham, effectively reviving the Superprix,” said Street. “We are now in the advanced stages of these negotiations.”
Street explained that there were two reasons why he wanted to bring back Birmingham’s street racing fixture, which ran for just five seasons from 1986 to 1990.
“First, it means we can showcase to the world the changing face of Birmingham city centre, which has seen unprecedented investment in recent years,” he said. “Like many Brummies, I remember the original Superprix fondly. Photos and footage from those events have become almost part of folklore and remind us of how those events thrust the city firmly into the spotlight.
“Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it showcases our region’s position as a world leader in next-generation automotive technologies. So much of the engineering that goes into the cars already used in Formula E racing comes from the West Midlands. It makes perfect sense we should be hosting such events.”
Street revealed that if the negotiations were successfully concluded and the necessary commercial sponsorship secured, the race would take place next summer “on a route similar to the one used in the original Superprix”. The F3000 fixture, which was the result of a 20-year crusade by local entrepreneur Martin Hone, ran on a 2.47-mile anti-clockwise circuit, located just south of the city centre, incorporating both sides of the A4540 Belgrave Middleway dual carriageway.
The Superprix, whose winners included Roberto Moreno, Stefano Modena and Jean Alesi, required parliamentary legislation to suspend the Road Traffic Act. Its revival in the form of an E-Prix would be able to take place by invoking an amendment made to the act last year. This allows for the Motor Sports Association and the Auto-Cycle Union to issue permits for car and motorcycle racing respectively.
A FE race in Birmingham was first mooted earlier in the year as a replacement for the cancelled Montréal city race. It appears it wasn’t seriously considered because the series promoter decided to cap the championship at 10 rounds.
Street’s announcement in May is understood to have caught the FE organisation by surprise after a period of stop-start negotiations. That explains a low-key response to his claims that a race could take place next year.
“The UK has a strong racing heritage and is an important market for FE, so it’s a priority to bring a race back to British soil,” read a statement from the series. “FE is based in the UK, as are a number of drivers, teams and manufacturers.
“Regarding an E-Prix in the UK, we want to find the right long-term venue. We are currently evaluating a number of options and Birmingham is one of them.”
A date in FE’s fifth season, when the practice of drivers swapping cars mid-race will disappear, might be too early for Birmingham. The calendar for the 2018/19 season, which is due to kick off this autumn, is due to be signed off after the next meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council on June 6 and was understood to be in the final throes of completion at press time.
Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council has, however, distanced itself from the Street’s plan. The council’s Labour leader Ian Ward described Street’s statement as a “premature announcement”, pointing out that the local authority had not been involved in any discussions with FE and nor had there been a consultation with the people of Birmingham.
AND THE BIG ONE
Bringing the series back to the UK is known to be among FE’s top priorities, along with finding a venue in mainland China as distinct from its Hong Kong fixture. A number of its partners, including private banking group Julius Baer, are believed to be pushing for the return of a British round.
FE boss Alejandro Agag has never made any secret of his desire for the series to return to London, a city in which he has made his home. He was the inspiration for the race around Battersea Park in Wandsworth, but after its two-year tenure on the calendar came to an end he stressed that he favoured a more central location for a future London race. A proposal from the ExCeL exhibition centre in Docklands, on a circuit which would have incorporated indoor and outdoor sections, didn’t find favour with FE.
Hopes of a race in St James’s Park, incorporating a section of track on Pall Mall, appear to have foundered. The Royal Parks authority is understood to have declined to give its approval in the wake of the chequered history of the event in Battersea Park, which also comes under its remit.
The Battersea fixture faced local opposition and was in the balance in the months leading up to its second edition in 2016, pending a legal challenge. FE eventually cut a deal with the lobby groups and Wandsworth Borough Council to allow the season finale to go ahead unchallenged while agreeing that the fixture would cease after that season.