Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The 'Monaco of the Midlands' and other Tales of the Streets

It's perhaps a trend which has already reached its peak and is beginning to blow over, but for a while recently, there appeared to be something of a revival of the idea that street races are the future of Formula One. We have the Singapore night race, the rather underwhelming race around Valencia's principal container port (sorry, I mean, harbour) and Bernie Ecclestone has long pushed for a Grand Prix in downtown New York, though I would be more than happy to bet the farm that this will never come to pass. At the height of his protracted battle with the owners of Silverstone, the BRDC, and before the Donington folly came on the scene, there was even talk of a race around the streets of London.

To be honest, I've never been a great fan of street races. It's true that there's little that quite matches the spectacle of final qualifying at Monaco, with the world's best drivers playing dare with the walls in the search for the perfect lap but the very reason that qualifying is so important at Monaco - the fact that it's all but impossible to overtake around the Principality, means that it's produced very few genuinely exciting races and an awful lot of follow-my-leader processions. As one of 19 races, it might be a glorious, unique anachronism, but hardly a template to be followed. Singapore and Valencia, both the work of Hermann Tilke, are supposed to offer more in the way of overtaking opportunities, but in reality have produced fairly processional races on each of the occasions that the F1 circus has visited.

It begs an obvious question: Given the current vogue for 'improving the show', what is behind the drive for these events? As ever, it comes down to that old adage, "follow the money". FOM wants to extract as much hard cash as it can from race promoters, and in justifying the increasingly exorbitant fees being charged, they now seek to sell a Grand Prix as being - like the World Cup or the Olympic Games - not just a mere sporting event, but an opportunity to put your city, or your country, on the map, a big event to promote tourism, a 'marketing opportunity'. The trouble is, if the race is taking place on some waste ground out in the sticks that happens to provide the space for a purpose-built circuit, as is the case with two of Tilke's better works, Sepang in Malaysia, and the deceptively named Otodrom Istanbul in Turkey, it's not clear that the event really does much to promote its alleged 'host city'. The Turkish race, in particular, despite being hosted on a race track that ranks alongside the best on the calendar, has signally failed to attract any sort of a crowd and does the square root of nothing to promote Istanbul (which, I'm told, is actually well worth a visit).

From the promoter's point of view, particularly when the promoter is a country's Minister of Tourism, or a city administration, it makes far more sense to bring the race to the city centre. People are more likely to visit, and when they do, they will spend their money in your city, take a proper look around, maybe stay on a few days, and if they enjoy themselves, go home and tell all their friends what a great time they had in Singapore, or Valencia, or wherever it is (a side-note - I've never been to either place and have little idea whether they have anything to offer, but the point stands). It's something which is worth paying a little more money for than the chance to bring a few tens of thousands of race fans to some place thirty or forty miles from the city centre, where they might well camp, or hide away in distant hotels, never venturing out except to go to the circuit. As I say, it makes sense for everyone, apart, unfortunately, from us poor sods who end up watching the resulting processions on television.

A question sprung to my mind: Could Britain do the same? I'm not thinking of a London race - the problem with that is that London, like Paris or New York, is a world famous city with no need of such promotional events (although it hasn't stopped them from bidding for and winning the Olympics (London) or the World cup (France, but effectively, Paris)). But what about one of the country's other major cities? A part of me thinks that, with this country seemingly seeking to become more like Brazil (the Terry Gilliam film, not the South American country) with every passing year, it would never get past the bureaucrats, the lawyers, the not-in-my-backyard brigade and the Health and Safety Executive. But then I remembered, we've already done it, and I was there...

As an eight year old, I spent a rain-lashed Sunday (the tailend of Hurricane Charly) sat on a grass embankment above a roundabout, watching the first motor race on public roads on the UK mainland Britain. Yes, there were bureaucratic hurdles, it required an Act of Parliament, the Birmingham Road Race Act, which took nearly a year to make its way through the Commons, but these were overcome and on the August Bank Holiday of 1986, the first Birmingham Superprix was held, a round of the Formula 3000 Championship. Unfortunately, the weather turned out to be so horrendous that there was relatively little on-track action on race day. The F3000 race was won by Spaniard Luis Perez Sala from Pierluigi Martini, but it ran for just 24 of its scheduled 52 laps, after Andrew Gilbert Scott collided with Alain Ferte's stationary car, blocking the circuit. Those of us who were there were treated to a Thundersports support race in the morning and, if memory serves me correctly, a rather processional race for Metro 6R4s in the wet in the afternoon, but all in all, I doubt there was more than an hour or so's track action in return for a whole day spent being battered by hurricane winds and heavy rain.

It was not the most successful race weekend I've ever been to, to put it mildly. Future events ran more smoothly, though the event was never a huge success. It probably didn't help that Formula 3000 had very little resonance with the wider public. It wasn't Formula 1, which people (especially in Birmingham, the home city of Britain's star of the time, Nigel Mansell) and neither was it British Touring Car racing, which might have lacked the star names and the glamour of Grand Prix racing, but provided entertaining racing and was regularly on the telly back in the 1980s (a time when, thanks to the relative paucity of terrestrial channels, that meant rather more).

The circuit, too, needed work, consisting as it did of a series of 90 degree and 45 degree left handers (with a single right-hander thrown in) and the only real challenge coming from the proximity of the barriers. Then there is the problem that, no matter what way you dress the place up, Birmingham is no Monaco, and come to that, it's not even any kind of a rival to Macau, Pau or Valencia. It may be host to some great cultural events, but it's genuinely difficult to think of a major European city that is less conducive to sight-seeing. Though if you think Bladerunner is a touchstone for architects, you ought to check out the new Bullring. If Birmingham City Council thought that the Superprix was going to turn Birmingham city centre into the Monaco of the Midlands, they were sorely mistaken....

All that said, I'd love to see someone give a city centre street race in the UK another crack. Formula 1 is probably not realistic, Silverstone has a 17 year deal in place with FOM, and in any case, it's a much better race circuit than any lovechild of British town planners and Hermann Tilke is ever likely to be. But a touring car race around the streets of Glasgow or Newcastle? That would work, I'm sure. And I still think there was a spark of genius underlying the Scotsman newspaper's April fool about a race around Holyrood Park in Edinburgh....

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