FIELD OF REIMS
On the 60th anniversary of Mercedes’ winning return to grand prix racing, we took a road trip to the remains of the circuit that hosted that era-defining victory
F1 Racing visits the remains of the former street circuit that hosted Mercedes’ memorable comeback victory in 1954
Sixty years ago this summer, Mercedes returned to top-fiight motor racing in the most emphatic possible way. As they rolled their stunning closed-bodied W196 ‘streamliners’ off the transporter, and Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling roared to a dominant one-two at the French Grand Prix, they served notice that Formula 1 was going to change. Technically and operationally they redefined the state of the art, from the engineering quality of the car to the neat perfectionism of the crew.
Mercedes keep an immaculately preserved and fully functioning ‘streamliner’ in their Stuttgart museum. But what of the circuit that provided the venue for this pivotal moment in F1 history? What of Reims?
F1 Racing last passed by this way in 2002, en route to Magny-Cours for the French Grand Prix, and found the remnants of the circuit in a tragically sorry state. Happily, local enthusiasts have since embarked on a restoration project to preserve the crumbling pit buildings and grandstands that ank what was the main straight and remains, as ever, a public road.
European grands prix make for great road-trips – why y when you can drive and take in some F1 history along the way? As F1 Racing wafted through champagne country in an AMG E-class, bicycles stowed in the boot for the commute twixt hotel and circuit at our ultimate destination, the sun was beating down with the same ferocity that caused the road to break up in the 1959 French Grand Prix, leaving second-placed Phil Hill with a bloody face caused by a stray stone.
We’re in big-sky country. From the main road – the N31, part of the circuit but now a dual carriageway – the grandstands are like matchboxes in the middle distance. The hairpin at Virage de Thillois is now a roundabout, but the restaurant nearby is recognisable from contemporary photos. Pick the right exit and you’re on the main straight, heat haze shimmering above the surface where so many tense slipstreaming battles were fought. It’s straight, but not quite at, dipping and bobbing through the cornfields. This is where Giancarlo Baghetti dived out from behind Dan Gurney to clinch victory by a fraction of a second on his championship debut for Ferrari in 1961. The grandstands – now fenced off – and pit boxes have been treated to a lick of paint. You pull over to the side of the road and consider what it must have been like to work in these cramped quarters with the mercury rising consistently, as it always did on grand prix weekends. Your mind turns to the danger of working on the cars by the roadside; in the photo on the right, taken not long after the start of the 1958 grand prix, Juan Manuel Fangio (34) is passing Harry Schell (16), with Stirling Moss (8) in pursuit, as pit signallers and mechanics stand just inches away.
There’s another roundabout before you reach Gueux, the is-it-or-isn’t-it-at-out right-hander that claimed the life of Luigi Musso in ’58. Now, as then, there are no barriers; just a grass verge and the ploughed eld where Musso’s wrecked Ferrari tumbled to a halt on the tenth lap. The crossroads where the original circuit crossed its later iteration forces you to jink left and right before taking up the route, and it comes to a ragged and inconsequential termination a few hundred metres short of what was a hairpin at Muizon, where it rejoined the N31 for the straight run to Thillois.
Now the road, like this grand but dangerous circuit’s tenure as host of the French Grand Prix, just runs out.
Reims then and now: The 1958 French Grand Prix (right); and the restored remains of the track (left) with pit boxes and fenced-off grandstands