Conflict over street cars of dubious desire

Detractors point to pollution and safety issues as drivers back the push for a London grand prix
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Ken Livingstone's former deputy has launched a furious attack over the London mayor's plans to host a Formula One grand prix in the heart of the capital. Jenny Jones, who is a senior figure in the Green Party, believes that the idea is "hypocritical and undemocratic".

Hypocritical because Livingstone has built much of his mayoral career and reputation on the introduction of the congestion charge. "I thought the idea was to keep cars out of central London to fight pollution," Jones says. "How does allowing loud and dirty engines on our streets help clean up the atmosphere? This idea smacks of being a bit bread and circuses. I get the impression Ken is trying to please everyone."

Jones also feels Livingstone is being undemocratic because the decision process is being taken away from the electorate. "Ken seems to have suddenly decided that a London GP is right for the city without asking anyone," Jones says. "That's not acceptable."

Apart from the environmental issues, Jones is worried about the safety implications of a high-speed race being held in and around a residential area. "How do you make an event like this danger-proof?" asks Jones, who is currently London's Road Safety Ambassador. "I doubt it is possible."

While Jones is not alone in condemning the proposal, she may be in a minority. The 500,000 people who lined the streets of London on Tuesday to watch eight of the 10 teams hold a demonstration run along Regent Street suggest that a grand prix is viable.

Most drivers, too, are excited at the prospect of racing down Pall Mall without having to keep their speed in check. The six-time world champion Michael Schumacher backs the concept. "It would be great to have a race in London," he says. "The atmosphere in London is good, it would be another Monte Carlo but hopefully more safe because the roads are wider."

His view is shared by the former world champion, Nigel Mansell, who took part in the mock race. "They have the infrastructure," he says. "It could be absolutely sensational. Look how quickly the demonstration was put together. I reckon a circuit could be ready within one year."

The big question following the unexpected success of Tuesday's trial run is where all this leaves the current British GP, which is staged at Silverstone today.

Pressure is mounting on the existing race, which is still battling to secure its place in the calendar beyond this year. The Formula One ring master, Bernie Ecclestone, insists that Silverstone has no deal after 2004, and has set a deadline of October for the issue to be resolved.

Having made substantial efforts to tackle the problems of access and parking in the last four years, the organisers now need to find a race sponsor in the next three months to secure their right to stage the race.

"I think there is room for both," Mansell says. "Other countries have two GPs [Italy and Germany host their own race as well as the San Marino and European Grands Prix respectively], so why not Britain? One thing's for sure, London would be a great addition to the schedule."

Perhaps not surprisingly, the British drivers and team owners are supporters of the project. Even Sir Frank Williams, a member of the British Racing Drivers' Club, who own Silverstone, is enthusiastic. "If ever Mr Ecclestone intends to run a grand prix in London," the Williams team boss says, "this is going to be a major step up the ladder for him. Monaco is the most fantastic of the major motoring events. A Grand Prix of London could become the same. I'm a strong supporter, otherwise we wouldn't have sent a car. I think it would work."

Williams' star driver, Juan Pablo Montoya, seconds the notion: "It would be awesome. I've raced in a lot of street circuits in America and they test the teams and drivers more. To bring Formula One to people would be a really good thing."

The two biggest British hopes for today's race, Jenson Button and David Coulthard, also back the idea. "It would be great to see a race in London in the future," Button says. "I think that everybody was pleasantly surprised how many people turned up. It was quite scary actually, seeing people hanging off buildings and all the rest of it. But it was pretty impressive that Formula One, with a relatively small amount of promotion, can attract that many people."

He adds: "I think it was a fantastic event, even though the circuit wasn't very wide so we couldn't really play too much, but it was a fantastic turn-out. Hearing the sounds of the engines within the buildings was fantastic. The crowd seemed to be really into it as well which is great."

Button's views receive nods of approval from Coulthard. "Well, I think that in many ways you would have more scope to produce a good street circuit than you have in Monaco," he says. "And if you can do it in Monaco every year, then there's absolutely no reason why you can't do it in London. It might just be a dream, but nonetheless, if they can actually get the cars out there doing a demo, then why not? It would just be a question of getting everyone to agree. In Monaco, it's just Prince Rainier who says, 'This will happen'."

In London, it would seem there is now King Ken.