Motor racing proper – as opposed to short-oval competition, that is – had been absent from London since the Crystal Palace circuit shut its doors almost exactly 50 years ago. It would take until 2015 to return when the maiden season of Formula E climaxed with a thrilling double-header in Battersea Park.
Yet to get to the first E-Prix in London, the net had been cast far and wide, and was again twice over: once when the Thames-side venue was in peril ahead of year two of the British FE fixture; and then after its enforced disappearance from the schedule after that second edition.
The trawl for potential venues went all the way to south London and Crystal Palace. The venue that held non-championship Formula 1 events and rounds of the European Formula 2 Championship in its post-war incarnation was on the initial long list. And it was definitely a long list. Oli McCrudden, who ran the Battersea races as FE’s senior event manager, reckons there have been as many 14 locations considered for the London fixture down the years.
The O2 Arena – formerly the Millennium Dome – in Greenwich, Alexandra Palace in north London, Wembley Stadium and a venue right in the heart of the city incorporating sections of the Mall were all on the initial list. That’s not to forget ExCeL, Crystal Palace, and, of course, Battersea.
Then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson had thrown his weight behind FE, which announced London as one of the first tranche of eight host cities in March 2013. The future prime minister described FE as a “scintillating prospect” for the city, pointing out that he was “hugely keen that London be involved in the birth of FE”.
Despite this political will at London City Hall, FE founder and now chairman Alejandro Agag always knew there would be significant hurdles to be cleared in London, probably more so than in other cities around the world.
Then Mayor of London Boris Johnson described FE as a “scintillating prospect” for the city
Photo by: FIA Formula E
“London was a primary objective from the beginning because we wanted to go to all the world’s major cities,” says Agag, who had launched his plans for FE in August 2012. “London and New York were right up there at the top of the list, and also the places where we looked at the most potential venues. London was the big prize, but it wasn’t easy.”
All the venues listed above initially fell behind another option. Heading the pecking order as FE began planning for its inaugural season in 2014/15 was a track laid out in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London. The problem was the park was in the process of being remodelled in the wake of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“There were going to be changes to the roads so it was a kind of moving target,” recalls Agag. “We didn’t really know where we could have the track, so we had to discard that option.”
Battersea emerged as plan B at this stage, though ExCeL and its indoors-and-out track layout was definitely in the mix to host the London FE round on the inaugural schedule. News that the 200-acre park in London was the venue being most hotly pursued by FE was broken by Autosport in March 2014. The site in the London Borough of Wandsworth was subsequently announced as the “chosen option” to take London’s place on the 2014/15 FE calendar at the official launch of season one that June.
“London was a primary objective from the beginning because we wanted to go to all the world’s major cities” Alejandro Agag
“I always had Battersea Park in my mind, because I used to run on that loop of roads,” explains Agag, a long-time resident of the capital who describes himself as very much a Londoner. “I always thought that if the cars could handle the camber — and I was sure they could — it would be the perfect circuit.”
A top-secret test by Lucas di Grassi in one of the first-generation FE racers in the small hours of an August morning in 2014 showed that it was feasible, the final sign-off by the local authority in February 2015 made it possible. And then the events of what had become a double-header in June 2015 proved Agag right again: the 1.818-mile layout on the park’s perimeter roads did make for a decent circuit.
Decent, but definitely not perfect: the inaugural London E-Prix wasn’t without its problems. The circuit was viewed by some as too tight and narrow, and Turn 1 was temporarily re-profiled for the first of the two races. Surface repairs to remove a bump allowed it to return to its original layout for day two of the meeting.
The Battersea venue undoubtedly played host to some exciting racing as Nelson Piquet Jr became the first FE champion with the China Racing/NEXTEV squad now known as NIO. It was the most dramatic championship finale on which this writer has ever had the joy to report.
Nelson Piquet Jr became the first FE champion with the China Racing/NEXTEV squad at the Battersea venue
Photo by: FIA Formula E
But there were bigger bumps in the road – metaphorical ones – looming for FE in London. A group of local residents set out to stop the second edition of the race under the banner of the Battersea Park Action Group.
They argued against the continuation of the event on the grounds that it was limiting access by the public to the park for an extended period, as well as damaging its fabric: “Car-racing in London should take place in an appropriate place, and not in a green public park,” insisted the group, who claimed that the council in Wandsworth had exceeded its powers in allowing the staging the event.
The activists forced a judicial review of the local council’s decision to give the go-ahead to the E-Prix. The problem for FE was that the hearing date fell just five weeks before the series was due to return to Battersea.
FE had its back to the wall, doubly so because there were problems brewing for the Moscow E-Prix, the penultimate weekend of the championship scheduled for the start of June. It would eventually be cancelled in early May.
Battersea’s problems sent FE in search of an alternative at the 11th hour. Crystal Palace re-entered the fray, albeit briefly, along with other potential stand-in venues as diverse as RAF Northolt and Brands Hatch. (Northolt lies within the M25 motorway, Brands outside, but the Kentish track did host the 2003 Champ Car fixture under the ‘London Trophy’ banner.)
“We went to Crystal Palace and had a good look at the place,” says McCrudden, whose late father Stuart had raced on the old 2.24-mile circuit. “My idea was to try to somehow to get back to that classic layout my father raced on — I have photos of him crashing a [Ford] Escort Mexico there. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to bring it back to life and create a kind of electric motorsport centre that brought in other electric stuff, too.”
The reasons why Crystal Palace never made it beyond the long list first time around also resulted in it being discarded as a viable fall-back option at the second time of asking. Much of the main straight has been grassed over, while the expansion of National Sports Centre, which incorporates an athletics track, in the mid-1970s had encroached upon the circuit layout.
Crystal Palace was a popular venue for Formula 2 races in which the likes of F1 ace Jochen Rindt turned out, before its closure in 1972
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“The problem was that the amount of work required was more than significant because of changes to the park and the development that has gone on since the 1970s,” says McCrudden. “There wasn’t the will at FE to invest the kind of money that would have been required.”
The lack of a credible alternative to Battersea forced FE, in Agag’s words, to “cut a deal” with the protesters: “We said, ‘let the event go ahead, let us race this year and we will part as friends’.
“The judicial review could have gone either way; we felt it was 50-50. It was a compromise but a good compromise because we wanted to keep the Battersea races on the schedule.”
The end of Battersea Park as an FE venue was the start of what turned out to be a four-season hiatus for the series from the city in which the FE organisation is based. But it wasn’t for want of trying. Post-Battersea, Agag targeted running a real street event, something that was made a realistic prospect by the Deregulation Act of 2015.
Agag talked openly at the time of his aspirations to host FE to a track including sections of the Mall, Horse Guards Parade and a link through St James’s Park
Previously the suspension of the Road Traffic Act — and the speed limits that come with it — for a particular venue required their own piece of legislation. That explained the long gestation period of the Birmingham SuperPrix of 1986-90, the only previous street event on the British mainland.
Agag had designs on a race in the heart of London, conceding in the summer of 2016 that ExCeL was “a bit too far out” for him as he hinted that he hadn’t given up on FE’s home city finding a place on the following season’s calendar. He talked openly at the time of his aspirations to host FE to a track including sections of the Mall, Horse Guards Parade and a link through St James’s Park.
Half a dozen years on Agag, whose focus these days has turned from FE to the Extreme E off-road electric series, admits that he “walked around the Mall again and again thinking how we could make a race possible there”. It wasn’t the only option considered: there was also a track schemed incorporating the Embankment on the north side of the Thames in the vicinity of the City of London.
ExCeL was announced in March 2019 as the second home of FE in London on a long-term deal
Photo by: Alastair Staley / Motorsport Images
There were, however, any number of problems with the Mall. One, which sounds prescient today, concerned the scenario to be enforced in the event of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“One of the reasons why we were told we couldn’t do it was that we would have to vacate the premises in the case of the passing of the Queen,” explains Agag. “That would be one of the restrictions on using the Mall and we couldn’t dismantle the walls in 24 hours. As much as I would have liked to have gone to the Mall, it was too difficult.”
ExCeL never disappeared as a potential venue, however, though it remained potential not only as a result of Agag’s desire for a city-centre venue. A visit to the proposed venue as early as July 2014 by the FIA, on the same day as the governing body took its first look at the Battersea site, highlighted the work and costs required to turn FE’s vision of a circuit that took the cars into and through ExCeL’s exhibition halls into a reality.
Agag insists today that it was a question of money that kept ExCeL out of the equation for so long. It is worth pointing out that the London FE fixture gets none of the public subsidies of other host cities.
“We realised it was going to be so expensive to race at the ExCeL,” he explains. “We basically didn’t have the money; when we came a bit more financially solid then we went there.”
One of the problems with ExCeL was the shiny low-grip concrete surface of the exhibition halls, which made it unsuitable for racing and left it outside of the FIA’s technical requirements. That forced FE to come up with an imaginative but permanent solution involving the removal of a shallow layer of the concrete and then bonding on a new polymer surface to create the required level of grip for the indoors section of a track that initially measured 1.398 miles.
“The truth was that the amount of science that was needed to make the track happen at ExCeL was going to be substantial,” explains McCrudden. “Certainly the idea of going around a building and into it – which is what we thought we wanted to do — was something we probably weren’t well placed to get the FIA to agree to initially.
“It took a lot of hard graft over long period of time on the part of people like our track designer Simon Gibbons to work out how we could do it, even before we could go back to the FIA.”
Brands Hatch was considered as a venue during the COVID pandemic in a bid to get racing restarted behind closed doors
Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images
ExCeL was announced in March 2019 as the second home of FE in London on a long-term deal, now known to be five years. It was due to close out the 2019/20 season in July 2020, but the ravages that COVID played on the international motorsport calendar meant the first edition of the London E-Prix in east London wouldn’t take place until July 2021. ExCeL had become a ‘Nightingale’ or temporary overflow hospital to deal with the pandemic and would remain as one until March 2021.
That created another twist in the ‘London’ story. As FE tried to come up with ideas on how to close out season six, Brands Hatch pinged back onto the radar. The Kentish venue — 22 miles down the A20 from central London — is owned by Motor Sport Vision, whose racing arm MSVR has run all four London FE races so far.
“During COVID we were looking at Brands Hatch as a way of doing things behind closed doors and to get things up and running,” says McCrudden, now cities development director at FE. “Brands Hatch was definitely looked at, but in the end we decided do do everything over those nine days in August at Berlin [on the site of Templehof Airport] on three different track configurations.”
“During COVID we were looking at Brands Hatch as a way of doing things behind closed doors and to get things up and running” Oli McCrudden
Crystal Palace hasn’t entirely disappeared from the agenda, either. Major works scheduled for the park announced in 2020 piqued McCrudden’s interest.
“I heard about a significant investment plan in the park,” he says McCrudden. “I was trying to get a bit more information of see what it could mean for us.
“We don’t have an indefinite contract with ExCeL, though there’s the desire to extend it. But you have to look at your options for the future.”
The first edition of the London E-Prix in east London took place in July 2021
Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images