REVISITING THE BIRMINGHAM SUPERPRIX
Would you like to take a trip around mainland Britain’s only open wheel street circuit? Well you can in Birmingham, where the UK’s answer to Monaco Grand Prix was held for 5 consecutive years between 1986 and 1990. The circuit hosted international racing series including, Formula 3000, Formula Ford and also British Touring Cars. They featured some well known drivers including Jean Alesi, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, Eddie Irvine and Mark Blundell on their way up the racing ladder towards Formula 1. The initial optimism surrounding the event hoped it was a stepping stone to Grand Prix racing (Formula 1), and even Bernie Ecclestone said, “It would be nice to see it happen”.
Eventual winner Stefano Modena leads down Bristol Street in 1987 with the pits to the right (Bristol Street Motors)
My brief childhood memory of the race was when my father took me around the circuit as all the armco and grandstands were being dismantled. It was amazing to think that the cars were racing around the circuit hours before, and it has always left me wanting to find out more about how the second city came to host the spectacle and the circuit winded around the city streets.
The race was the brainchild of Martin Hone, who met with the city council looking for a way to take Birmingham forward. There were many obstacles to overcome, not least the law that cars could not exceed the speed limit on UK streets. Hone managed to get the council on board by first helping organise the Birmingham Motoring Festival in 1970, featuring numerous black tie dinners and balls and culminating in a parade of grand prix cars around the streets of the city. This was a great success and gave Birmingham the appetite for racing, initially showing the council what a great event a full street race would be. In 1975, 1978 and 1980 there were further events, with the ‘On The Streets’ event watched by 120,000 spectators alongside the international motor show at the NEC. A formal proposal was eventually put forward in 1984 and it’s quite amazing to think how long it took for the idea to become a reality.
Looking down Belgrave Middleway towards Birmingham Central Mosque, 1987
The first proposal for the circuit was controversial, running through the Lee Bank Council Estate. It was subsequently scrapped and the final circuit layout was drafted, which was much wider for racing, avoided racing past a large proportion of people’s houses and allowed room for grandstands. The circuit was purposely designed in the opposite direction to the one way traffic flow to prevent the public from trying out the 2.5 mile race route (See reversed video at the end of the post). A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ postal referendum based on the proposals was set up for local businesses and residents, with a remarkable 93% voting for the event.
The last pieces in the jigsaw were when the city hosted the 1984 ‘Chequer Bitter Classic’, which attracted 200,000 spectators around the proposed Superprix circuit, alongside the ‘Road Race Bill’, which allowed cars legally to exceed the speed limit. Subsequently the first full race, the Formula 3000 European Championship event, was set to take place in 1986, over the August bank holiday weekend. Sponsorship was provided by Halfords and the city council promised it would not cost the taxpayer a penny.
The roads used for the circuit are still in use and I’m going to guide you through a few of the hidden spaces left on the streets of Birmingham. If you look closely you will be surprised at what still remains to this day. The route was based primarily along Belgrave Middleway, and then through into the back streets of Digbeth. The overlay below shows the circuit on the map as it is seen today.
Map of Birmingham 2015 with outline of the Superprix circuit
The pits, race control and start finish line were situated on Bristol Street and the complex that housed the pits was the Ford garage, Bristol Street Motors. Next time you drive past notice the pits and circuit entrance & exit in front of the main cars displayed outside. Next to this, is the aptly named ‘Monaco House’, which was used for press offices during the race weekends and is still in use as offices today.
Tony Trimmer flies down Bristol Street, 1986 (© Jim Lamb)
The circuit then turns left into Belgrave Middleway, the point on the circuit where Formula 3000 cars reached up to 185mph. There is a small chicane on this stretch around an island and then the route continues past Birmingham Central mosque and up Peter Barwell Hill towards a hair-pin at the island (Haden Circus) next to Joseph Chamberlain College. This corner was named the ‘Halfords Corner’ in 1986, after the main sponsor, and it was hoped that this would become a well known term for the island alongside the famous corners on circuits all around the world. Today, you will notice the fact the hair pin corner is still there, with the island only formed by concrete barriers, which have been in their ‘temporary’ state since the summer of 1986.
Mark Blundell, in the Cadbury sponsored Middlebridge Racing Reynard heading up Peter Barwell Hill, 1989
Two Camel Eddie Jordan Racing cars of Heinz-Harold Frentzen and Eddie Irvine turn into the Halfords Corner, 1990. Note the ‘temporary’ concrete barriers for island.
Turning out of Halfords Corner at the highest point on the track, a long straight heads back down the hill. There is a then right turn onto Sherlock Street, another straight where the cars could reach their maximum speed taking the drivers up towards the entrance to the Birmingham Markets. This was the scene of a major accident for David Hunt (Brother of F1 1976 World Champion James Hunt) in 1988, where his car was punched a hole in a wall above the tyre barrier. If you look closely at the wall to the left of the market entrance there are large black patches where it had to be totally repaired after the impact. Luckily David walked away with only minor concussion from the incident.
The circuit continued up to what is now the back of the Arcadian, past Pershore Street multi storey car park. The car park was a popular temporary terrace for spectators, as it also offered views of the straight along the narrowest part of the track, Bromsgrove Street. The final corner was the left turn at the junction onto Bristol Street. The safety run off area for the cars was cut into the central reservation, and this part of the road still remains.
Cars line up behind pole sitter Luis Perez Sala on Bristol Street, 1986
I am no videographer, but I have cut together a video of the circuit as it stands today starting from the pits. A lot of this is filmed in reverse on the opposite side of the road because, as I had mentioned previously, the circuit was designed so the general public could not race around it. If you see any cars driving backwards don’t be alarmed, and I have also had to speed it up to give an idea of how quickly the cars would have been going. Bear in mind the circuit record was 1 minute 22 seconds and my video is about 2 minutes long!
The Birmingham Superprix Circuit 2015:
The final Formula 3000 race around Birmingham took place in 1990. The event had a growing reputation in the motorsport community, with Martin Brundle (Formula 1 driver) adding to the support for further races and expansion into Jaguar and Mercedes racing series. But ultimately the Superprix was stopped to to funding issues. There were claims of ‘creative’ accounting from previous years running, and the 1990 race was said to have made a loss £500,000, which would ultimately fall to the taxpayer to foot the bill. The fall in attendance in 1990 and the lack of national media coverage also contributed to it’s cancellation, although a survey by BCC at the time showed that 67% of Birmingham residents and business representatives were still in favour of the race meeting. Overall, it is said that the staging of all the races cost the tax payer £5,000,000.
There have been recent calls for a revival of the Superprix and it would be great for Birmingham to take those calls seriously. The logistics of such a task would be huge as current safety standards have been raised, there are no obvious places for location of facilities and there would need to be significant investment from the private sector to make it happen. I would imagine that if it were to go ahead it may not take the same form of the previous circuit. It would be nice to think that the circuit could take in a few of the city landmarks, perhaps with a loop to Selfridges and back over to Eastside or even feature a trip through the famous tunnels under the city?
Stefano Modena leads into the chicane on Belgrave Middleway, 1987
A good way to sum up the experience of the events is to end on a quote from one of the drivers who raced around the streets of Birmingham. It was a circuit the drivers loved, as noted by Stefano Modena while stepping into the cockpit of his Formula 3000 racer, “The place is magic, better than Monaco… Birmingham is a wonderful race”.
Do you have any memories of the Birmingham Superprix? Please share them below.
If you would like to find out more about the Superprix, I would recommend reading Davd Page’s excellent book, ‘Superprix, The Story of Birmingham’s Motor Race’, by Veloce Publishing (2009), to which many of the figures for this article are referenced. I would also recommend you take a look at these websites;
Aftermath of David Hunt’s Crash – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtTv9cNUfC8
© Tim Cornbill, 2015