Kevin Garside: London Grand Prix is likely to remain a harmless fantasy
What sets the British Grand Prix apart is the devotion of the crowd
The weather forecast is grim. Fantastic. For the devotee, the sun always shines on the British Grand Prix. There is something comforting about a brisk sou'wester, spreading over the Rose of the Shires a rolling roof of grey cloud and carrying with it the ever-present threat of rain. In this business falling water is gold. Pirelli have gone to extraordinary lengths this year to produce a tyre that turns to pulp in 20 minutes, introducing a variable that nature offers for free. Aside from the interest stirred by climatic change, there is a restorative quality to a Silverstone weekend that comes from mopping out the tent and digging the motor out of a field.
For all the impressive swagger and grandeur at the top end of the Formula One food chain, it is good to be reminded of the core values that brought us to an old airfield in the first place. I know there are plenty out there who don't get it, for whom the love of screaming machinery is anathema on a lazy, Sunday afternoon, but for those admitted to the grand prix priesthood, Silverstone is a pilgrimage like few others.
Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone was a prime mover in the elevation of the viewing experience for those spending the corporate pound, and with it dragged the bottom end into a comfort zone now taken for granted. Anyone who has wandered the paddock clubs of the world, sipped at the high table of commercial largesse, will recognise how the bar has shifted upwards. The paddock club motif has been adopted across the sporting landscape. At Wimbledon, Wembley, Twickenham, Old Trafford, Lord's, the Emirates, at any Open golf venue you care to mention, the high-net-worth fan can eat like a lord.
But none of that matters without the patronage of the rank and file crashing through the turnstiles. Magnificent as Formula One's eastern parade rings might be, there is nothing like the exotica of racing's traditional heartlands to fire the soul. Silverstone's nod to the grand palazzos of China and Abu Dhabi, Malaysia and Bahrain is the new pit and paddock complex called the Silverstone Wing, a silver-grey tribute to the circuit's flying past. Necessary it was, too, but the one component offered next week that sets the British Grand Prix and, to be fair, a handful of other traditional circuits apart is the devotion of the crowd.
It can be a deflating experience walking into an empty circuit in Malaysia, Bahrain, China, etc on a Thursday and Friday. On Saturday numbers might pick up with expat interest, but nothing like the exuberance of Silverstone, which is banged out on even Thursday. Simply Red's lead singer, Mick Hucknell, who has been known to wander the Formula One precincts, was once asked to explain the enduring popularity of the band. "You have to stay relevant in your culture," he said. He might have been talking about Formula One. The first World Championship was held at Silverstone 62 years ago. It means something to those coming through the gates. They care about the winners and losers.
Ecclestone secretly understands this, though it would never do to weaken a bargaining position by acknowledging that detail in public, which brings us to the glorious madness of the London Grand Prix. Before Blue Boris it was Red Ken presiding over capital affairs. Instead of the offices of the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, a reception of sorts was held at Hamley's, the children's emporium on Regent Street. It was 2004, days before the British Grand Prix. Ecclestone was at war with the British Racing Drivers Club, owners of Silverstone, over their reluctance to upgrade the old airfield to bring it into line with the circuits rising in the East. London would do very nicely as a stick with which to beat the old duffers at the BRDC.
So there we gathered, much like last week's "unveiling", to test the notion of a grand prix on the streets of London. Mayor Livingstone talked enthusiastically about route feasibility studies, economic imperatives and a possible launch date of 2007. The cars would thunder, he said, around the same London landmarks outlined in the Santander plan. For Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton on a simulator read Eddie Irvine thrashing around Pall Mall and Regent Street in a Jaguar Formula One car, watched by a crowd estimated at half a million.
It was a plausible wheeze, substantiated by the involvement of Livingstone. Bernie would love to pull it off. If there were the slightest encouragement from the state apparatus we'd all be heading down the Mall this week with our paddock passes. The point is this harmless fantasy pushed Formula One, the sport he transformed into a global empire, to the forefront of media coverage with one of the biggest races on the calendar approaching. Speculate all you like about the reasons why Ecclestone might want to do that; deflecting attention from an incarcerated German banker was probably a happy coincidence. Ecclestone was simply going about his business, as he is every second of every day. Start those engines.
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