Racing back into the heart of London

It’s been more than 40 years since high-powered single-seaters raced within London’s city limits, but all that will change this weekend when the Visa London ePrix hits town.

Back in the days of lambchop sidies, glam rock and Ford Cortinas, it was the beautiful Victorian park at Crystal Palace that played host to the racing, now in the era of bushy hipster beards, electronic dance music and hybrid electric cars it’s the beautiful Victorian park in Battersea where the race action is taking place.

Given that both parks were built in the 1850s, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the racing tracks created by their perimeter roads should bear more than a passing resemblance, although the elevation change at Crystal Palace ensures that away from a piece of paper the two look completely different.

Motor racing at the Crystal Palace circuit started in 1927 with a motorbike race. The track was increased in length in 1936, and when it was fully tarmacked in 1937 it was able to stage the very first London Grand Prix. But when the park was taken over by the Minister of Defence following the outbreak of World War II, racing was put on hold.

The track reopened in 1953. The infield loop, which had been part of the original layout, was gone, meaning the track was now 1.39 miles (2.2km) in length. Although narrow, it mainly consisted of very high-speed bends, and in 1970 future Formula 1 world champion Jochen Rindt recorded the first ever 100mph average speed lap during the London Trophy Formula 2 race.

The 1970s was an era of extreme development in motor racing as aerodynamic understanding pushed technology onwards and upwards, and lap times ever downwards. During the last international meeting to be held at Crystal Palace, the 1972 London Trophy, Mike Hailwood set a new lap record of 103.39mph (166.39kmh).

Given the narrowness of the roads, the lack of run-off available and the proximity of the trees, it was inevitable that Crystal Palace was no longer a suitable home for a race track. Club racing continued for another two years, but on September 23, 1974, circuit racing in London came to a close.

Over the years, Crystal Palace had held all manner of races, including non-championship Formula 1 events, British touring cars and club racing, but it was the Formula 2 race that captured the imagination, attracting crowds of 40,000.

A lot of the track still remains, although the start/finish straight has long disappeared. The North Tower section of the track – a glorious collection of downhill sweeps, remains almost wholly intact, and it was on this part of the track that the Sevenoaks and District Motorclub organised a series of sprints in 1997.

After three successful years, these events were cancelled in 2000, but the tireless work of the club succeeded in bringing them back in 2010, with two-day events taking place in May each year since.

The wonderful backdrop has also resulted in Crystal Palace being used in a number of films and TV shows, not least Ron Howard’s entertaining dramatisation of the Hunt v Lauda battle ‘Rush’ and the classic ‘Italian Job’.

As well as those sprints, there has been motorsport in London since then. The banger racing at Wimbledon ought to be a guilty pleasure for any self-respecting petrolhead, while short oval racing took place at Layhams Farm near Croydon until 2009. The Race of Champions visited Wembley Stadium for a couple of occasions and is set to return in November this year.

Of course, Formula 1 has been linked with a street race in London for many years. In 2004 a demonstration of F1 cars in Regent Street drew an enormous crowd. But over a decade later and there’s still no sign of a race actually taking place.

Instead it is Formula E, a brand-new championship that has brought racing back to London with a new track. Unlike the previous race in Moscow, the circuit isn’t made up of public highways, but given the logistics in closing major roads in London that wasn’t an option.

Instead Formula E has looked back to the past to inspire the future. As Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag said: “Whoever designed this beautiful park all those years ago did it with a race in mind. We looked at many venues for a London race and Battersea provided the best solution. It’s in the heart of the city, it has great transport links and because it takes place inside of the park, we don’t have to shut any roads.”

With a double-header meeting bringing the inaugural Formula E season to a close, the Visa London ePrix is one of the championship’s blue-riband events. And for every one of the 20 drivers racing this weekend, victory in the first race in London for more than two generations will be something they are itching to get on their CV.