F1 cars drove up and down Whitehall and around Trafalgar Square yesterday
F1’s new owner has promised better fan engagement; bringing the whole F1 circus to the streets of London was a big success
Much has been made of Liberty Media’s takeover of Formula 1, and it has been almost entirely positive, mostly because the elements of the sport the American company is focusing on are those so stubbornly and inexplicably shunned by its predecessor, Bernie Ecclestone.
‘Improving the show’ is a term that has been at the forefront, and this was put into action almost immediately at the beginning of the season with the lifting of the social media video ban imposed by Ecclestone. Fan engagement, then, is improving, and yesterday afternoon it was made further tangible with a public demonstration of racing machinery through the streets of London on a larger scale than ever before.
The last time such an event was held was in 2004, at a time when Formula 1 was at a bit of a low point, yet it still attracted half a million people.
Whitehall was packed out again on Wednesday, although the number of attendees was not to that extent. Still, the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm, just not one particularly electric in its variety.
The promise of a demonstration run from all bar one of the current Formula 1 teams (Haas was present, but does not have a car old enough to run given F1’s complex testing restrictions) brought out dedicated F1 fans, petrolheads and tourists, all yearning for the smell of petrol and burnt Pirelli and the sound of 15,000rpm.
Whitehall was lined with barriers, with fans three or four deep along its length. At one end was a wide circle in which cars could turn, and at the other a loop around Trafalgar Square. In the Square itself was a large fan area, which contained cars on display, merchandise, Scalextric racing and the like in the shadow of a large stage. Drivers were interviewed, Grand Prix videos were played on two large screens, and after the cars had finished their runs, pop musicians played to the crowds.
It seemed, therefore, a poor show from world champion and fan favourite Lewis Hamilton to decide now was the perfect time for a holiday, especially in light of the situation surrounding Silverstone, leaving a sea of silver star, AMG and Petronas-clad onlookers feeling pretty miffed. A Dutch family stood nearby me stood testament to the appeal of a home hero with their huge excitement at the appearance of Max Verstappen.
Nevertheless, the crowds lit up when nearly all of F1’s current drivers, including stars such as Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo, plus now-retired British favourite Jenson Button, strolled up Whitehall. Even more so when they got behind the wheel.
The event kicked off with the surprise appearance of Jolyon Palmer driving the gorgeous turbocharged V6-powered 1979 Renault RS01, followed by Stoffel Vandoorne in a 1991 McLaren MP4/6.
The aural emissions of both sounded epic echoing around the historic architecture lining the makeshift track, but they were soon overshadowed by the emergence of 2014-spec V6 hybrid racers, all driven by current pilots.
When you say ‘hybrid’, many people immediately turn off, conjuring up miserable images of a Toyota Prius. Not a bit of it in grand prix circles; the modern-day cars sound absolutely fantastic, with a growl to contrast the 2013 car’s high-pitched V8 scream.
The drivers all put on a fantastic show, with Ricciardo, in particular, receiving a huge round of applause for his rev limiter-bouncing, sideways sliding and constantly-donutting performance – contrasted by Williams’ Lance Stroll, who didn’t quite make it round at the same point no less than three times. It’s good to see that the most fan love still goes to those who get sideways the most.
This kind of event is fantastic promotion for the sport, and Liberty Media should be congratulated for their impetus to put such events on. Hopefully, the warm reception of the London crowds will further signify to Chase Carey et al just how vital it is to negotiate a deal to keep the British Grand Prix alive.