French Grand Prix: Adding to the history of F1's oldest race
It might have only returned to the schedule in 2018 after a decade-long break, but the French Grand Prix is in fact the oldest race on the Formula 1 calendar. First run in 1906, it was the first race to carry the ‘grand prix' name in its title. Since then, the race has been staged at no fewer than 16 different venues. Many of these were formed from closed public roads, especially in the early years.
In the history of the Formula 1 world championship that began in 1950, a total of seven different circuits have been used for the French GP. Through the first two decades, the race rotated mostly between Reims, Rouen and Clermont Ferrand: three fast and demanding public road courses.
Then there was Le Mans: the most famous racing venue in all of France. It was on the public roads around the town of the same name where the very first grand prix took place back in 1906. But the world championship's first visit to Le Mans in 1967 would be to the much smaller Bugatti circuit. The mainly slow-speed turns laid out around an area previously used as a car park proved unpopular with drivers and spectators, and Formula 1 has never been back to Le Mans since.
However, there were problems with the other tracks of the time too, mainly safety. Jo Schlesser lost his life in what would be the final race to be held at Rouen in 1968. The 1972 race at Clermont-Ferrand was the last French Grand Prix to be held on a road course – after Helmut Marko, the Austrian who today oversees Red Bull's Formula 1 teams, had his driving career ended when a rock was thrown up by Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus and pierced his helmet visor, blinding him in one eye.
A PLACE IN THE SUN
One year earlier, in 1971, another solution had been found with the construction of a new permanent circuit at Le Castellet near Marseille in the south of France, financed by drinks magnate Paul Ricard. From 1973 onwards it shared the hosting of the French GP with another new track, Dijon-Prenois: Scene of the legendary wheel-banging duel between Gilles Villeneuve and Réné Arnoux in 1979.
Paul Ricard had the race to itself from 1985 to 1990, just as France entered a new era of Formula 1 success thanks to Alain Prost – a product of the Winfield Racing School based at the circuit. Prost has more Formula 1 wins than anyone else at Paul Ricard, having won there in 1983 for Renault before a further trio of victories across 1988 (with McLaren), 1989 (McLaren again) and 1990 (Ferrari).
From 1991 onwards, the French Grand Prix moved to Magny-Cours for an uninterrupted run of 18 years. Its remote location wasn't to everybody's liking but Michael Schumacher seemed to be a fan: his eight victories there is a record for the most wins at a single grand prix (matched by Lewis Hamilton in Hungary in 2020). But, after nine seasons without a French Grand Prix, it was Paul Ricard that successfully brought Formula 1 back to the country in 2018.
SIGNES OF THE TIMES
After the death of Paul Ricard himself in 1997, the circuit was sold to then-Formula 1 chief Bernie Ecclestone. It was repurposed to become a state-of-the-art test track and remains a popular testing venue today – most recently hosting a two-day test of Pirelli's 18-inch intermediate and wet tyres for 2022, making use of the circuit's built-in sprinkler system to artificially water the track.
The redevelopment work also included the installation of the brightly-coloured run-off areas that give the track its distinctive look. This isn't just for show: the blue and red zones are made of more abrasive surfaces to slow down errant cars.
The safety upgrades have allowed the circuit to maintain many of its original features: in particular the 1.8-kilometre long Mistral Straight and the subsequent Signes right-hander. Even with the installation of a chicane in the middle of the straight – which serves as one of the best overtaking spots during the lap – the Signes bend is the fastest corner on the track, taken at upwards of 290kph. It's a circuit that's definitely harder than it looks, even if it's a world away from the old-school road courses that formed the French GP's past.