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Crystal Palace circuit | Secret History

You'd be forgiven for missing it, but most of the track's layout is still visible 48 years after it closed

By Sam Sheehan / Sunday, May 10, 2020

It’s hard not to notice the historic significance of Crystal Palace park because it’s right there in your face. The broad palace steps, Egyptian sphinxes and lakeside dinosaurs are unavoidable reminders of a grandiose Victorian past, while a 728-feet transmitter speaks to a pioneering role in telecommunications. But there’s another key piece of history that most of the 200-acre park’s visitors unknowingly come into closer contact with, because it’s located beneath their feet. We’re talking about the Crystal Palace Circuit, over 90 per cent of which can still be traced. 

The concrete paths that meander through the trees by its northern perimeter and link to the present-day support roads don’t appear particularly special. To the average jogger or dog walker, they’re like those in any other large park. It’s the asphalt beneath which tell the stories of this once bustling south London racing complex, located only eight miles from the city centre. Tales which saw the likes of Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Sir Jackie Stewart going wheel-to-wheel in everything from Saloon Championship Lotus Cortinas to red-blooded Formula 1 machines.

Crystal Palace Circuit’s racing heyday was in the fifties and sixties, when those aforementioned racing stars drew in as many as 100,000 spectators for non-championship F1 races, full-blown F2 and touring car events, before the chequered flag finally fell for good in 1972. But the route of those wiggling concrete footpaths and the still-present back straight were first laid long before, at a time when the combustion engine had just cemented itself as the leading technology for private transport. Crystal Palace’s first races were held in 1899 on a banked layout, then nicknamed ‘London’s own circuit’, before the traceable modern circuit was laid in 1927.

The layout for this twenties-built course is visible today as the narrowest of footpaths through the park’s thin northern forest, where still standing are the trees which would have provided those brave racing stars – including royalty like Prince Bira of Siam – with furniture to avoid. The original two-mile track was around twice as wide – narrow by modern, Hermann Tilke-standards, but the norm back in Britain’s pre-war days – with marshals and spectators watching from scarily close. The challenge of navigating this technical course in early high-performance Vauxhalls, Bugattis and Rileys, to name a few, must have been immense. And fraught with danger.

Like many of Britain’s early circuits, Crystal Palace was reclaimed by the army during World War II, as it had been during WWI. The sound of racing engines wouldn’t echo across its greenery until the London Grand Prix in 1953, which kick-started its most brilliant era and saw the creation of the simpler, 1.4-mile layout that’s most visible today. While 21st century concrete covers much of it, there are sections of original, crumbling asphalt that look like outbreaks of acne. Its path traces the oval-like perimeter of the original course into the trees, before missing the old track’s tightest sections and straight lining down the hill onto the back straight. The post-war layout was less technical as a result, but speeds were tremendous. Over 100mph was the average in top formula races.

This was still an era of poor circuit safety, so while the spectators were pushed back behind sponsor boards, top-level cars were still sent bombing along the main straight – which ran parallel to the Victorian Crystal Palace landmarks – towards the trees at 150mph, with little more than shallow grass banking and a thin line of tyres to prevent the worst from happening. But the racing was fantastic, hard fought stuff, particularly in the Saloon Car Championship events, where enormous Ford Galaxies muscled their way around as daring Mini Coopers hounded them through the bends. The sweeping first few corners saw Cortinas lifting inside wheels – see Clark’s demonstration in the video below – and Formula 2 cars power sliding through the right-left-rights with inches between their wheels and the tree bark.

It’s these images that make walking (or in PH’s case, cycling) around the layout so fascinating. The slight kink up the hill to turn one must have caught out a few drivers on the brakes, with overly ambitious starters locking inside wheels on the approach to the fast right. During a post-lockdown visit, we’d recommend you ignore the odd looks from passer’s by and sit on the ground at turn one’s exit, so you can see from single seater eye-level just how much of a dance the following corners required. To get an open wheeler with 400hp through the narrow confines of a forest, as the speed builds, must have required a delicate juggling of throttle and steering inputs before cars burst out of the shade and poured down the hill.

This is easily the most recognisable section of track because anyone with even half an interest in motorsport will sense the theatre of it all. As the surface falls away at a not insubstantial 12.5 per cent decline, cars were sent hurtling down (what a feeling of acceleration that must have been) towards a right kink, lined on the outside with an unforgiving concrete wall that stands to this day, onto the back straight. There are scars and scratches visible beneath the modern wall artwork; the mind boggles at what machines and drivers put them there, and whether any managed to escape unscathed.

The original concrete bridge remains halfway down the straight, while the fast sweeping right – F1 cars must have approached at more than 150mph thanks to the preceding hill – and following inclined left-right must have been terrifying. Get it wrong there and it’s a very, very hard hit into the wall. Now, it’s all lined by car parking spaces. There are visible access roads, overgrown stairwells and even crumbling ticket gates that lead from the park’s Penge-side entrance to these sections. You can almost feel the buzz of approaching fans, talking of their excitement to see heroes racing in Tyrells, Ferraris and just about everything else, as the rumble of practice sessions pulsates from up ahead.

From that section cars would have raced around the final right turn and back onto the main straight, which is now a place for visitors to park their cars within easy access of the much more famous palace steps. Former renovations have pushed part of this main straight under grass, but the seemingly random patch of broken up asphalt that follows this new land confirms that cars did indeed race past the chequered flag along here. The drivers probably didn’t have much time to admire the Victorian architecture on their left with that daunting first turn approaching in such quick succession; spectators, too, no doubt found themselves distracted by the now legendary battles that regularly took place on track.

At its peak, Crystal Palace was also a favourite spot for TV and movie productions, with the exploding car scene of the Italian Job – “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” – taking place beside the straight, with the transmission tower in sight. Its close proximity to London film studios and the permanent on-sight ambulance base (the building which has since been used for crews supporting athletics and football events) made it an ideal spot for such activities. However, while plenty loved it, the council couldn’t ignore growing pressure for the circuit’s closure. After years of complaints from neighbours – some of which had houses barely a dozen metres from the track on its north side – and concerns for safety as cars got faster and faster, Crystal Palace’s last race was for a 1972 Formula 2 round. A fittingly illustrious way for it to bow out.

Motorsport has recently seen a small resurgence at Crystal Palace, with PH taking part in 2019’s Motorsport at the Palace event - organised by the Sevenoaks and District Motorclub and using a small portion of the old circuit’s northmost layout – in the sprint with our little KA. But outside of that spring weekend event (which has unfortunately been cancelled in 2020 due to coronavirus), and with no plaques or signs to signify the significance of the paths people walk on, the story of Crystal Palace’s heroic racing past will remain an unknown to most visitors. That's a shame, but all the more excuse for PHers to go to the park and find their own way to engage with the part concealed story. Post lockdown, it's well worth the trip.

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