The reality of a London Grand Prix


Fifteen or so years ago I attended a London auction, which included items from the estate of Robert McGregor Innes Ireland, one or two of which were a reminder of the perilous days in which Innes competed. Lot 296, for example, was a pair of his overalls, and in the catalogue they were described thus: ‘The blue cotton two-piece racing suit worn by Innes Ireland during practice for the Monaco Grand Prix of 1961, both trousers and top with accident damage and cuts made by first-aiders’.

Ireland described the accident thus: “We had this new wrong-way-round gearbox on the Lotus, and in the heat of the moment I got second instead of fourth, locked the back wheels solid, and that was that. Came out of the tunnel without the car…”

One of the first on the scene was Stirling Moss, who parked his own Lotus, and ran back to help his friend. “He’d been thrown out on to the road, and was pretty badly knocked about,” Stirling remembers, “bleeding badly from a gash on his leg. He had only two questions, though: ‘Is my wedding tackle OK?’ and ‘Can someone give me a cigarette?’ Typical Innes…”

The accident landed Ireland in St Thomas Hospital for a couple of weeks, and in one way he rather enjoyed the experience, for visitors were plentiful, and there was time enough to chat for hours. On one occasion Colin Chapman – then Innes’ boss – was there, and so also were a couple of racing writers, one of whom taped the conversation. It became a chapter in an Ireland book, published later that year, and illustrates a philosophy of motor racing rather different from that of today.

“Are the circuits safe enough?” one of the journalists asked. “Do safety regulations need bringing up to date in any way?”

Innes, keep in mind, was lying in a hospital bed at the time. “I don’t go in for this business of improving the safety of the circuit itself,” he said. “If a circuit is there to be raced on, it’s there to be raced on, and if it includes something the driver doesn’t like, then he must learn to drive around it. I think one must put up with whatever hazards a circuit presents, and drive accordingly. In any case, danger is part of the game.”

It’s the same answer you would get, even now, from S Moss, and I don’t doubt that Stirling would also strongly agree with something else Innes came up with during the chat. “If you were Minister of Sport,” he was asked, “what improvements could you inaugurate to help motor sport generally?”

“Let’s have a Grand Prix in Hyde Park!” came the immediate reply. “I’m serious – I think it would be a terrific thing. It would make a fabulous circuit. You could get so many spectators into it that it would make a real pile for the sport.

“All the roundabouts and bollards are removable,” Ireland went on, warming to his task. “They pick them up for Royal processions so no doubt they could pick them up for motor racing. Grandstands could be erected in no time. A fair amount of work would be involved in diverting traffic, but it could be done, as it is in other countries. Then, of course, if we’re going to run a Grand Prix in the centre of London we should need permission to race on Sunday. Practice could be on Friday and Saturday, and the event itself on the day when traffic is comparatively thin on the ground…”

I was in my early teens when I read the book, and that particular chunk of it has always stayed in my mind, for it was the first time I ever heard of a suggestion that there should be a Grand Prix in London.

In recent years the notion has resurfaced occasionally: only last month a company called Intelligent Transport Solutions Ltd, one of several bidding for use of the Olympic Stadium once the Games are out of the way, proposed using it – in some way – as the venue for a Grand Prix. The company says it has already had some discussion with Bernie Ecclestone on the subject.

A week later Ecclestone himself made a statement about the possibility of a London Grand Prix. So strongly did Bernie feel that it made financial sense, he said, that he would be willing to fund the project himself. “With the way things are,” he went on, “maybe we would front it, and put the money up for it. If we got the OK, and everything was fine, I think we could do that. Think what it would do for tourism: it would be good for London, good for England – a lot better than the Olympics…”

The story made a big splash in the papers, and they were surely horrid cynics who pointed out that this was the very day after Gerhard Gribkowsky, who man negotiated the sale of (German bank) BayernLB’s stake in F1 to CVC, had been sentenced in Munich to eight and a half years in prison for tax evasion, bribery and breach of fiduciary trust. In the course of his trial, Gribkowsky claimed that he had been paid 45m Euros by Ecclestone as a bribe to ensure that CVC got the deal at an advantageous price. Ecclestone strenuously denies this was the motive, insisting that the payment had been made because Gribkowsky was attempting to blackmail him.

I don’t know about you, but I still struggle with the thought of anyone owning Formula 1. That’s what comes of growing up – admittedly a long time ago – in the belief that it was a sport: people put races on, and other people competed in them, and others still paid to watch them. End of story. Well, it was true at one time.

Back to London as a potential Grand Prix venue. The day after Bernie had said his piece, McLaren sponsor Santander announced its vision – by means of computer-generated video – of a circuit through the streets of the city. Somewhat different from the Olympic Stadium idea, this took in various London landmarks, with the pits and main straight on the Mall.

Will a London Grand Prix ever happen? Eight years ago, in July 2004, there was a parade – conducted with some vigour – of Grand Prix cars on Regent Street, featuring such as David Coulthard, Martin Brundle and Juan Pablo Montoya. Another to take part was Jenson Button, who not surprisingly is strongly in favour of a race: “When we did that demonstration, half a million people came out to watch – I remember thousands of people on rooftops and balconies along the route…”

No question, it would indeed make a fantastic spectacle, although one quakes at the thought of the logistics involved in ‘closing’ a chunk of the nation’s capital for several days. Not long before the F1 demonstration Ecclestone said, “There’s a very good chance that a race will happen – we’re working on it…”

Cynics – God, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? – suggested that this was merely a ploy, a means of putting pressure on Silverstone, with whom Bernie was then at financial loggerheads. He insisted, though, that it was serious, that he had discussed it with Ken Livingstone, whom one had not previously regarded as a bastion of capitalism, but who nevertheless came out with his own endorsement of the project: “We would need to negotiate about (sic) routes and costs” – the work of a moment, surely – “but I’m definitely backing a Grand Prix for London.”

One would have thought Boris Johnson rather more likely to be in favour of such a thing, but at this point I’m not inclined to take the proposition too seriously. I hope I’m wrong, because it’s something I would love to see, but…in 2007 Ecclestone said that plans for a London Grand Prix had been canned: “I spoke to the mayor about it a couple of years ago, and he was very supportive – but we came to the conclusion that it would be too expensive…”

Was it, he was asked, an idea he might return to one day? “No,” said Bernie, “I’ve got too many other things to think about.”

You never know, maybe there is something in it, after all…

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