A history of motorsport in London

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Formula E is returning to London this summer (coronavirus permitting). On the face of it, shutting down streets in the UK’s busiest city so that cars can race around seems a pretty unusual event, but the capital has a pretty storied history of motorsport. Tales of epic racing around the city date back decades, to the earliest days of the motor car.

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The early years

At the start of the 20th century, as motor vehicle development raced ahead (no pun intended), it soon became clear that the industry needed a purpose-built venue to show off their machines and what they could do.

So in 1906, work began on the world’s first purpose-built racing circuit. Brooklands sprang up on farmland in Weybridge, Surrey. (Sure, Londoners will tell you that’s not actually in London, but for everyone else, it’s inside the M25 motorway and therefore counts as London.)

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The circuit was a colossal undertaking. As it was the first racetrack in the world, there was no template for what it should look like, and the landowners, Hugh and Ethel Locke King, sank huge amounts of their own money into a grand banked design with more than three miles of track. It cost the equivalent of £16 million in today’s money and was built in just nine months, opening in 1907. During the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s it was one of the preeminent venues in the racing world, hosting speed records and races galore. But it closed at the outbreak of the Second World War, never to reopen as the costs for restoring it in cash-strapped post-war Britain were too high. Today, it’s a museum, and home to a huge Mercedes-Benz experience centre.

The top tier

Further north, and much more “actual London”, was the magnificent Crystal Palace, a huge glass edifice built in 1851 and set in sprawling parkland. In 1927 a one-mile track was built there and by the mid-’30s (when, coincidentally the actual Palace had been destroyed by fire), it was extended to two miles. The following year, the top tier of motorsport arrived at Crystal Palace for the first ever London Grand Prix. Another race, later in 1937, was the first ever to be televised.

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The war and subsequent recovery knocked racing at Crystal Palace on the head until 1953, when it returned, albeit at a slightly lower level. Complaints from locals meant racing was restricted, but it still held a variety of sportscar and single-seat races, including non-championship F1 races. The rising focus of driver safety in the 1970s meant that the necessary improvements were too expensive, and the circuit closed in 1974.

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The grass roots

At the other end of the glamour spectrum, Wimbledon Stadium was a Mecca for banger racing in the capital until 2017, when it was demolished to make way for flats. It was also one of a plethora of speedway motorcycle racing venues across the capital, dating back to before the Second World War, from New Cross to Walthamstow and Hackney to Chelsea. All are now closed.

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All that has meant that motorsport within the UK capital has been pretty thin on the ground in recent years. There was a spectacular demonstration event by Formula 1 in the centre of the city in 2017, but no sign of an actual race.

The future

But thanks for Formula E’s visit to Battersea Park in 2015 and 2016, and the forthcoming return – this time to the Excel and around the Royal Victoria Dock – competition is still alive and well in London town.

The Formula E circus rolls into town on July 25 and 26, with a unique track that includes indoor sections through the Excel exhibition centre. It'll also have the honour of being the first FIA-sanctioned championship event to take place in London.

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The 2.4km, 20-corner track will weave through and around the Excel, with 24 drivers battling it out in cars from independent teams and manufacturers like BMW, Nissan, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. As well as being a spectacular sight for fans, it also marks a high point in the continued regeneration of this part of London, which used to be purely industrial but has seen dramatic transformation in recent years. You can find out more about the race, and Formula E in general, here.

Could this be the start of a resurgence of motorsport in the UK capital? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

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