Organisers behind the international Formula E electric car racing series have visited Crystal Palace Park to consider its track as an alternative venue for their London race.
Formula E uses specially adapted cars which look very much like the Formula 1 cars raced by world champion Lewis Hamilton. The electric cars have been developed by the Renault, McLaren and Williams teams best known for F1, and are capable of racing at 140mph, and accelerating from 0 to 60mph in 3sec. Because the cars are electric-powered, the races see tactical “pit stops” happen, with drivers pulling into the pits literally to re-charge their batteries.
The first London Formula E Grand Prix – or E Prix – was staged on the roads in Battersea Park last summer, but it encountered a number of technical problems and has also met with strong local opposition, with residents unhappy that their park is effectively on lock-down for nearly a week, during set-up, race day and de-rigging.
Wandsworth Council last week agreed to stage Formula E races in 2016 and 2017 in Battersea Park, for which they will receive around £400,000, plus other unspecified sums on top of the £200,000 facility fee the organisers paid this year.
But mindful of the problems with Battersea, motor racing chiefs were at Crystal Palace last month to conduct a feasibility visit.
Crystal Palace’s race circuit pre-dates the now better-known National Sports Centre by around 40 years. The NSC’s sports hall, pool and running track were built in the centre of the existing circuit. The original race track was built in 1927 and updated over the decades, but it has not staged full-circuit motor racing for many years.
It was the track used for the first London Grand Prix in 1937, with spectators packing the terraces of the old Crystal Palace. In the 1950s and 1960s it would stage a handful of Formula 2 races each season, featuring many of the world’s best-known drivers. The recent Ron Howard movie, Rush, about the rivalry of Nikki Lauda and James Hunt, included some scenes filmed on the circuit at Crystal Palace, recreating the races which Hunt and Lauda did in south London in the early 1970s.
Increasing awareness of safety issues, ever-faster cars and the narrow track has seen the Crystal Palace circuit fall into disuse since then, apart from occasional cycle and running races, and an annual hill-climbing event and motorsport festival.
Formula E would provide a spark – sorry – to revive the track, and the organisers’ fees would be a welcome addition to the funds which parks groups are accumulating for some much-needed renovation works in the park, undertaken with Bromley Council.
The Formula E organisers are mindful of the local opposition in Battersea, and are known to have also shown an interest in a possible east London venue. They seem certain to return to the Thames-side park at least for 2016.
But on their visit, they appeared to be impressed by the potential of Crystal Palace’s track, with the banking created by the terracing providing better views for bigger crowds of spectators, while the rest of the park would not need to be shut-down, as is the case at Battersea, while the track is prepared or the racing is underway.
And as well as the near-century-old heritage of the Crystal Palace track, the hills and gradients around the circuit offer a very modern advantage for the electric cars: the slopes allow the cars to re-charge while racing, something not possible on flat tracks like Battersea’s.
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