Formula One kicked off its inaugural F1 Live programme in London on Wednesday, with fans and drivers alike excited by the sport’s newfound enthusiasm for engaging with its fans.
For three hours in the early evening Formula One commandeered central London, from Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall, in a demonstration of old and new machinery, driver parades and musical performances.
The short notice of the event — revealed just 24 hours in advance as a security measure — didn’t appear to affect crowd turn-out, which reached 100,000 people, and Formula One thanked the City of London for its help in setting up the spectacle in such a short time frame.
“Formula One would like to thank London’s authorities for helping and collaborating in putting on a great show celebrating the capital and our sport on Wednesday,” said a short statement published on the F1 website.
“The day was a great success for London and F1, and we could not have done this without the help of all the London authorities, the mayor’s office, Westminster City Council, the Metropolitan Police and other emergency services.
“But our biggest thanks is to Londoners, those who turned up, those who followed events via social media and those who showed great patience if delayed on their way home.”
Barring the odd teething problem, the first-run event ran smoothly — even if supposedly drivers were told not to do doughnuts, a rule they duly broke — though notable for his absence was Lewis Hamilton, the only current Formula One driver not to consent to appearing.
The Briton shunned London in favour of a brief holiday on the Greek island of Mykonos, a decision for which he was almost universally criticised, not least by some of the fans at the event itself who booed references to his non-appearance.
This is holiday😉 pic.twitter.com/EW9LH91kUh
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) July 11, 2017
Grilled in Thursday’s pre-race press conference, however, and Hamilton stood firm by his decision not to meet some of the ardent supporters from who he so often claims to draw strength.
“Everyone had the right to make the decision for themselves,” he said, adding, “I don’t know why I was the only one [missing].”
“I felt that it had been a pretty intense season so far and I needed to prepare the best way I could this weekend.
“The season is the most important thing for me, and that is really it. People can have opinions about it.”
To my loving fans, I can't wait to see you in Silverstone. Until then, I'm away on a two day break. God Bless you all. Love, Lewis🙏🏾
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) July 11, 2017
Despite furious backlash from the English press, most drivers refused to criticise Hamilton.
“From Lewis’s side, if he wants a holiday, he needs to take a holiday,” said Max Verstappen. “If it makes him faster, then he should do that.
“But of course I think the English fans would’ve liked to see him there — I think if I did that in Holland they would’ve shot me!”
Sergio Perez added that running the event between back-to-back weekends, in particular during the week of the British Grand Prix, which is typically the busiest race of the year, did add strain to the team workload.
“it’s very tough to fit in with our schedules that are extremely tight, and it always depends which weekend you pick,” he said.
“For example this weekend for us is our home race for the team, so as you can imagine we are extremely busy — we hardly have time for the engineers — but definitely it’s a great initiative to engage more with the fans.”
Regardless of the modest controversy, the 19 drivers who attended were united in their support of the event and the opportunity to engage with fans in a way they are often unable to during a grand prix weekend.
“Normally when we do something with Formula One it’s not only for the fans — there’s something to win, there’s something compete,” said Kevin Magnussen. “This time it was purely for the fans. I think they appreciated it.”
The Dane added that he would like to see future events present more opportunity to stretch the legs of the cars, with the short and narrow Whitehall strip offering limited opportunity for drivers to be let off the leash.
“I think it’s great to see Formula One cars doing doughnuts and making smoke and going crazy. I think some more extreme handling of the cars would be cool and fun for us, and I think that’s what the spectators want to see.
“They want to see the cars. They want to see us as well, but mostly they want to see the cars and hear the noise.”
Fernando Alonso said his highlight was seeing eight Formula One cars, old and new, circulating around Whitehall.
“Obviously it did help the noise of the V8 and the old cars to make a better show!” Alonso added.
“I think it’s good. For many people there yesterday it was the first time they watched Formula One.
“I read some of the comments and some of the fans wrote to me on social media and definitely they want to come now to a grand prix, so that’s probably the main purpose of the event — to engage new people and to show what Formula One is to a new generation and new people there.”
The Spaniard considered the possibility of hosting F1 Live in cities and countries without access to a grand prix to grow the sport’s audience.
“Maybe 20 per cent, maybe 30 per cent, it was the first time they saw Formula One live, and because of that show they want to come to one grand prix, so that will be even more interesting in countries where they don’t have that possibility,” he said. “So I think it’s a good idea.
“Hopefully this is the first of many of these events. It’s nice always in the big cities to run with F1 in this historic place.”