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

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