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The London street circuit with a big F2 history that still exists today

by Ida Wood

Photo: Ida Wood

The idea of a Formula 1 race in London holds appeal to many, but no modern proposals have seen reality. But for Formula 2, racing in the city used to be a regular part of the calendar at Crystal Palace

Last weekend, Formula 2 teams had to work from a makeshift paddock as they raced at a temporary circuit known for its tight confines and elevation changes. And they were doing the same exactly 50 years previous, except the last weekend of May in 1972 wasn’t spent in Monaco but in Crystal Palace, South London.

Round five of the European F2 championship (which would be succeeded by two series before today’s F2) was the 20th edition of the London Trophy and it took place on Bank Holiday Monday on the roads of Crystal Palace Park. The track had eight named corners, but it was more accurate to say it had 11 direction changes and changes in elevation that rivalled Macau, Monaco and even Spa-Francorchamps. In the 1930s there had been an additional loop to the track that added even more challenges, but post-war the layout used focused on being a high-speed challenge between the trees and grandstands.

The pit straight was initially on the east side of the circuit, but by 1960 it had moved to the higher ground of the west which was also a safer option given the tightness of the roads on the other side.

In its most commonly used configuration (and the one you can find on the rFactor 2 game), the track started on the not entirely straight Terrace Straight before straying left in a corner that would be flatout before drivers hit the brakes for North Tower Corner. While not technically a hairpin, the tight bend turned drivers right to almost head back in the direction they’d come but while twisting around the topography of the park to actually head downhill and into a blisteringly quick section.

The Glade was a left-hander that continued the descent and was quite brief so to actually go through without lifting was risky with the slip angle of cars on skinny tyres, and Formula 3 still had wing-free cars light on dowforce by its final visit.

After the sharp turn that isn’t, the next corner is Park Curve. Like many corners, it doesn’t look too intimidating on a track walk but has several key features that posed huge challenges. One, at least in the 2020s, is that the track surface is not super smooth asphalt but a rougher textured surface with a top layer that would definitely be prone to break-up with regular racing. The smaller stones that could be pulled out of the surface by cars sliding through what is effectively a mini esses would then make it utterly critical for drivers to then have all four wheels gripping and a very slow slip angle (so the car is travelling in the same direction as the tyres) to actually make Park Curve without hurtling into the trees on the outside.

So to enter the corner is tough enough, and with the continued descent the rear end would still want to stick out, but you then have to have the car absolutely straight on exit because of two key factors:

1) It will decompress as the road drops down again and you definitely need to be heading in a straight line for the descent of New Link.

2) It could decompress to the point, if enough speed is carried, that it could go airborne over the crest and therefore you really don’t want to be landing heading in any direction other than that of the track.

There is a car’s width of grass on the outside all the way through from Park Curve down the hill, but that’s such a low-grip surface that allowing the rear-left wheel to stray out to there could spell immediate trouble and particularly in the wet.

You can check out the below Twitter thread for some modern-day images of the corner, but cameras really do not do the sudden drop justice. And suffice to say that a low ride-height may be better for downforce and grip through the first sector but the compression at the bottom of the New Link hill could quite easily break a chassis that is running too low or too lightly-sprung on suspension as the floor crashes into the ground.

The consideration of mechanical sympathy versus the importance of laptime is an issue here because everything from New Link to the Stadium Curve at the bottom and then to the end of the Stadium Straight is under acceleration so plenty of time can be won or lost depending on the speed drivers arrive at.

In the low-downforce machinery of yesteryear, would lifting (and even a light dab of the brakes) to get a more precise turn in and therefore a higher chance of a straighter exit at Park Curve be better or would carrying more speed by staying on the throttle take less time from the top to the bottom without having to apply some steering on the run down the hill?

The short but fast Stadium Straight gets narrower as you go along it in its present-day form, and the speed only builds up so you have to hit the brakes on the approach to the twin-apex Ramp Bend right-hander that heads uphill. A wide entry means that the radius of the corner could be approached as if it was just one corner, but means going in harder on the brakes so the entry speed is low enough to then return the throttle as you go through the corner, or a tighter line requires a gradual turn-in and deceleration before the car scrubs further speed with more steering input just before the second apex so the inside kerb can almost be scrubbed and the exit of the corner can be straight-lined.

Interestingly the corner has always been banked, but its use outside of racing and re-paving in the last 50 years has left it with a severe crowning that means it is unevenly banked. The steeper banking on the inside will help with turn-in, but cars would still have to drift to the less banked left-hand side of the track exiting the second apex to have a better entry for Anerley Ramp and the aggressive surface changes between the two corners.

There is a crest at the top of Anerley, as well as another surface change, and the track goes left through the mostly straight Maxim Rise which starts slightly downhill but then heads up in the form of esses towards South Tower Corner, the final named corner of the lap. The direction changes could all be mostly straight-lined, but old races showed that drivers tended to do a fair bit of turning to hit all the apexes on their way back up the hill.

South Tower Corner today, with the original layout in orange

South Tower Corner back in the 1960s and ’70s was another banked right-hander that brought the cars onto the pit straight. Now the road that was the track extends a little further uphill into a T junction where ‘South Tower’ would a tight turn that heads back downhill slightly but also onto another corner, a sweeping left-hander, to get in the direction of the pit straight.

Mike Hailwood’s lap record, set in 1972 on European F2’s final visit, was a 48.4s and had an average speed of 103.39mph. Given F2 is 3.8s faster around Imola now than it was on the Italian track’s chicane-free 1972 layout, it’s crazy to think what laptimes would be like at Crystal Palace if downforce-laden junior single-seaters visited today.

But racing there had ceased by 1974 as it had become too dangerous for cars, even for the safety standards of the day.

Before its closure there were some iconic battles, including James Hunt and Dave Morgan’s infamous fight for second place in the 1970 Daily Express Trophy. The BRSCC British F3 round was comfortably won by Lotus’s David Walker, while the five-car fight for second ended at South Tower Corner on the last lap as Hunt and Morgan collided.

Hunt’s car came to rest in the middle of the pit straight and he then went over to Morgan and pushed him over, with marshals and others hanging near the pitwall preventing their altercation from going further before Hunt walked away. A year later Hunt won the Chris Moore Memorial Trophy at the circuit in an evening race held on a Friday. While it wasn’t quite Singapore, punters at the time did call it a night-time street race.

In 1954 the Crystal Palace Trophy ran as a non-championship F1 race, won by Scuderia Ambrosiana’s Ferrari-driving Reg Parnell, and in support was 500cc F3 which entertained over 20,000 fans with a thrilling fight for second place in its first race.

F1 cars disputed the trophy again in 1962 – when the BARC’s Formula Junior championship ran in support and despite a measly entry list (although RAC regulations often capped grid sizes) held three thrilling races – and prior to the creation of the world championship there was grand prix racing in the park in 1937, when Thai prince B. Bira won the London Grand Prix in his ERA in July and then had over 25,000 watch him win in a handicap final for the Imperial Trophy later that year.

Photo: McLaren Racing

The little-known Jochen Rindt made his first impact on the international racing scene in 1964 when he held off F1 world champion Graham Hill to win the London Trophy – then a round of the British F2 championship – in a Brabham BT20, and four years later the ‘F2 King’ won it again once it was part of the European F2 calendar as a packed one-day meeting where he dominated his heat after a mid-race rain shower came and then lapped all but one driver in the final.

He wasn’t the only F1 world champion to become ‘King of the Palace’, as Emerson Fittipaldi emerged victorious in the 1971 edition which had an entry list of 57 cars and required several sessions to decide who would actually race.

Fittipaldi had tested at Snetterton beforehand to prepare for the event, while many of his rivals had hopped off to contest the Nurburgring 1000km sportscar race over the weekend before F2’s Monday race.

Ronnie Peterson and Henri Pescarolo had the better of him in their heat, but had a broken fuel pipe and exhaust manifold respectively that contributed to them not finishing and handed the Brazilian victory.

From pole in the points-scoring final he was beaten into North Tower Corner by Tim Schenken, and somehow Peterson came from the penultimate row of the grid to end the first lap in fourth. Fittipaldi took the lead back on lap four, and Peterson was waved into third by fellow March driver Jean-Pierre Jarier. Once there he hunted down Schenken, and his flamboyant attempts to pass the Australian allowed Fittipaldi to break away up front.

Peterson eventually passed Schenken but didn’t eat into Fittipaldi’s lead as the battle for second actually continued. Even when Fittipaldi’s car started sounding odd with a fault in the ignition system, there was enough of a gap to the two behind, particularly with lapped traffic playing a part, that meant he held on to win by 4.4 seconds.

The winners’ list at Crystal Palace (in full below) reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the top names of several different eras of single-seater racing, from pre-war all the way through to the era of television superstars such as Fittipaldi, Hunt and Jody Scheckter (pictured above in 1972), all three F1 champions.

Street circuit racing returned to England in 1986 with the creation of the Birmingham Superprix, a round of European F2’s successor International Formula 3000, but there were only five editions of the event, and Formula E’s Battersea Park circuit only saw use in 2015 and 2016 before local political pressure and failed promises in terms of event clean-up meant it was retired too. The London E-Prix did return last year though, with a track running around and inside Exhibition Centre London.

And for the last decade, motorsport has returned to Crystal Palace. Sprint events were held through the final years of the 1990s and then again in the 2010s, on two occasions with 500cc F3 cars. What Formula Scout would love to see is a modern single-seater car to tackle the track, whether that be Formula Ford 1600 (as illustrated at the top of this article), F3 or even F2.

Crystal Palace’s junior single-seater event winners
Series Event Year Driver
(F2) Coronation Trophy 1953 Tony Rolt (R.R.C Walker Racing Team)
(F3) 1953 Stirling Moss (Cooper)
(F2) Crystal Palace Trophy 1953 Tony Rolt (R.R.C Walker Racing Team)
(F3) Elizabethan Trophy 1953 Stuart Lewis-Evans
(FJunior) Petit Prix 1953 Harold Daniell
(F3) 1953 Les Leston
(F2) London Trophy 1953 Stirling Moss (Cooper)
(F3) Redex Trophy 1953 Stuart Lewis-Evans
(F3) 1954 R1: Reg Bicknell, R2: Keith Hall
British F3 Redex Trophy 1954 Ivor Bueb (Ecurie Demi-Litre)
British F3 Redex Trophy 1955 Ivor Bueb (Cooper)
(F3) Petit Prix 1955 Ian Raby
British F3 1955 Senior: Jim Russell, Junior (NC): Ian Raby
British F3 Redex Trophy 1956 Ivor Bueb (Ecurie Demi-Litre)
(F3) Petit Prix 1956 Phillip Green
British F2 London Trophy 1957 Jack Brabham (Cooper)
British F3 Redex Trophy 1957 Stuart Lewis-Evans
British F3 1957 Tommy Bridger
British F2 Crystal Palace Trophy 1958 Ian Burgess (Cooper)
British F2 Anerley Trophy 1958 Syd Jensen (Kiwi Equipe)
British F3 1958 Tommy Bridger
British F3 Redex Trophy 1958 Trevor Taylor (Baert Cooper)
British F2 London Trophy 1959 Roy Salvadori (High Efficiency Motors)
BRSCC F3 Redex Trophy 1959 Tommy Bridger
BRSCC F3 1959 Don Parker
British F2 Crystal Palace Trophy 1960 Trevor Taylor (Lotus)
British FJunior Anerley Trophy 1960 Trevor Taylor (Lotus)
(FJunior) Anerley Trophy 1961 Winner unknown
BARC FJunior Anerley Trophy 1962 Alan Rees (Lotus)
(FJunior) September Trophy 1962 Trevor Taylor (Lotus)
BARC FJunior Anerley Trophy 1963 Denny Hulme (Brabham)
BARC FJunior London Trophy 1963 Roy Pike (George Henrotte Team)
British F2 London Trophy 1964 Jochen Rindt (Ford Austria)
BRSCC F3 Norbury Trophy 1964 Chris Irwin (Merlyn Racing)
British F2 London Trophy 1965 Jim Clark (Ron Harris Team Lotus)
(F3) Presidents Trophy 1965 Charles Crichton-Stuart (S.M.A.R.T)
(F3) Bromley Bowl 1965 Winner unknown
British F2 London Trophy 1966 Jack Brabham (Brabham)
(F3) Bromley Bowl 1966 Chris Irwin (The Chequered Flag)
(F3) Holts Trophy 1966 Peter Gethin (Sports Motors Manchester)
(F3) Peter Sellers Trophy 1966 Chris Irwin (The Chequered Flag)
British F2 London Trophy 1967 Jacky Ickx (Tyrrell)
BARC F3 1967 R1: Roy Pike (Titan), R2: Charles Lucas (Titan)
(F3) Holts Trophy 1967 Harry Stiller (Geoff Oliver)
European F2 London Trophy 1968 Jochen Rindt (Roy Winkelmann Racing)
(F3) Anerley Trophy 1968 Roy Pike (Titan)
(F3) London Trophy 1969 Tim Schenken (Sports Motors Manchester)
(F3) Daily Express Trophy 1969 Reine Wisell (Chevron)
(F3) Reg Parnell Trophy 1969 Emerson Fittipaldi (JRRDS)
European F2 London Trophy 1970 Jackie Stewart (John Coombs)
BARC British F3 1970 Carlos Pace (JRRDS)
BRSCC British F3 Daily Express Trophy 1970 David Walker (Team Lotus)
European F2 London Trophy 1971 Emerson Fittipaldi (Team Bardahl)
(F3) Chris Moore Memorial Trophy 1971 James Hunt (Rose Bearings March)
(F3) Daily Express Trophy 1971 Roger Williamson (Wheatcroft Racing)
BRSCC/BARC F3 Iberia Airlines Trophy 1971 Roger Williamson (Wheatcroft Racing)
European F2 London Trophy 1972 Jody Scheckter (McLaren)
BARC British F3 Hexagon Trophy 1972 Mike Walker (Team Ensign)