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Creating the London Grand Prix

28 June 2012

Feature provided by Santander

It's pouring with rain outside the Roca Gallery London in fashionable Chelsea Harbour.

Inside, behind a blackout curtain, Jenson Button is sitting in a Vodafone McLaren Mercedes race simulator. He's staring intently at a bank of three video screens and twirling a steering wheel as the room echoes to the roar of synthesised engines. The circuit unfolding in front of him is rendered in grey but the landmarks, popping up in red, are unmistakable: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square. This is the London Grand Prix by Santander.

With a flick of the wrist, Jenson turns sharply left at Charing Cross. Nelson's Column looms ahead. Jenson brakes at the last second… too late. The car ploughs straight on, into the crash barrier. Admiral Nelson and the lions are unmoved. Jenson sucks air through his teeth. Lewis Hamilton, standing over him, chuckles and says, “Come on, are you going to finish a lap?”

Racing drivers rarely get a chance to help design circuits, but for the London Grand Prix by Santander, both Lewis and Jenson worked with architects Populous whose previous credits include the revamped Silverstone, home of the Santander British Grand Prix, as well as the O2 Arena and the Olympic Stadium in Stratford. They're delighted with the results.

“I've driven around London before and found myself imagining what a Grand Prix here would be like,” says Lewis. “Racing up The Mall, along Piccadilly – how many fans would be there? How cool would the atmosphere be? Would the Queen be watching? I'd give her a wave on the way past. That'd be pretty neat…”

To bring that vision to life, Lewis and Jenson are starring in an innovative CGI concept movie that blends live action visuals with cutting-edge digital imagery. After taking it in turns on the simulator to refresh their memories, they'll describe on camera the experience of what the circuit would be like to drive. The Roca Gallery London provides a suitably hi-tech backdrop for the live action, which calls for Jenson and Lewis to interact with a 3D virtual London that will be added in post-production.

Renown director Guy Nisbett shows Lewis and Jenson a rough-cut sequence shot with stand-ins.

“It'll look great once the visual effects guys have done their jobs,” says Lewis.

“So the map comes up out of this table here,” says Jenson, rehearsing his moves in front of the bare table. “Kind of like Minority Report. It'll look really cool.”

“See Hyde Park Corner here?” He prods a finger into empty space. “The map says second gear but having done it on the simulator, I reckon it's probably third.”

“Trafalgar Square, that's going to be crazily tight,” says Lewis. “It'll be quite special to race through there. Through Admiralty Arch – there's nothing like that in Formula 1. Turn left at the Ritz – have you ever stayed there?”

“No – don't they make you wear a tie?”

Time is money and with the location specially closed for filming, every second is accounted for on the call sheet. Director Guy has a specific list of exactly what shots he wants to accomplish, storyboarded with how they will fit into the finished film.

“Acting is completely different from what we normally do,” says Lewis, “But you get into it. When the cameras are rolling it's almost like driving your race car – you hit your marks and it's all about timing.”

“The only thing I found tricky with this one,” says Jenson after completing his shots, “Is that when you're talking to the camera through an invisible screen, you find yourself wondering if you're cross-eyed!”

Having arrived at 11.30am, Jenson and Lewis have worked through their shot list by 3pm. And while the London Grand Prix by Santander is a fantasy – a vision of what a Formula One race in the capital would look like – both the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes drivers would race here tomorrow if they could.

“We all love street circuits like Monaco,” says Jenson. “This is obviously very different because it's more open. It's stop-start in places, like Singapore, but as a driver you can still have a lot of fun on circuits like this, as well as the ones that are more fast and rolling. Overtaking can be difficult, like in Singapore, but it's still a real buzz to drive on the streets, especially in London and its been a great project to work with Santander and make this vision real.”

“I'm really impressed with the detail that's gone into planning the circuit. They've taken everything into account, even down to fitting the garages and hospitality around the trees. Working it out in the simulator was a blast, you really felt like you were going over 190mph down the Santander straight. This circuit is utterly epic,” says Lewis.

Although the live action portion is in the can, the special effects technicians have had nearly three months of intensive post-production work befitting of a Hollywood blockbuster to bring the vision of the London Grand Prix by Santander alive.

There are voiceovers to add, too, courtesy of Sky Sports F1's commentary team of Martin Brundle and David Croft.

“Delivering an event within an existing city is a lot more sophisticated than just sitting down with a copy of the A-Z,” says Populous architect John Rhodes. “We mapped out some of London's most recognised places and landmarks and then worked out how we would integrate them within the layout. The design process was driven by the twin requirements of creating an exciting circuit and giving the best view of the iconic places associated with it.”

“We surveyed the site very carefully so that the plan would be achievable for real. You wouldn't have to remove a single tree,” he adds.

Despite being a mere 240 seconds in all its finished glory, the London Grand Prix by Santander represents the skill and experience of some of the UK's leading talent, fused from the worlds of Formula 1 to CGI movie-making, to bring alive the fantasy of a London Megarace.

Feature provided by Santander


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