VIVE LA FRANCE!

The French Grand Prix will return af­ter a ten-year ab­sence

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -

Out of the blue, the old­est grand prix of them all is set to return. The an­nounce­ment early last De­cem­ber that the French Grand Prix will be back on the F1 cal­en­dar for 2018 of­fered a wel­come bit of off-sea­son cheer, es­pe­cially since so few had seen it com­ing. In an era in which the Ger­man GP has bit­ten the dust and the Bri­tish con­tin­ues to ex­ist in a state of con­stant peril, here is a Euro­pean ‘grandee’ – ar­guably the most il­lus­tri­ous of them all – en­joy­ing a sur­prise re­vival af­ter a decade spent miss­ing in ac­tion. The politi­cian and ex-racer be­hind its return al­most burst with Gal­lic pride at the an­nounce­ment, when he de­scribed why this mat­ters: “Be­cause we love France.”

But does For­mula 1 love France? Have we re­ally missed the orig­i­nal home of mo­tor rac­ing since Magny-Cours sunk from the sched­ule af­ter 2008, to the fa­mil­iar gur­gling burp of a fi­nan­cial whirlpool? There was lit­tle to love about that par­tic­u­lar cir­cuit, and for all the ob­vi­ous charms of the sur­round­ing Bur­gundy re­gion it was re­mote from ma­jor towns and al­ways strug­gled to con­jure much of an at­mos­phere. Tra­di­tion­al­ists who care that grand prix rac­ing be­gan in France – at Le Mans, back in 1906 – oc­ca­sion­ally lament its loss, but F1’s once-pas­sion­ate love af­fair with this coun­try has wilted. Yes, there’s Re­nault, but the race team is based in the UK, and the last French­man to win a grand prix was Olivier Pa­nis – in 1996.

So is the French Grand Prix re­ally such a big deal? Chris­tian Estrosi, 61, the man be­hind the plan, clearly thumps the tub in the af­fir­ma­tive. He might be a politi­cian, but don’t hold that against him. He’s also a former mo­tor­cy­cle racer who nished fourth in the 1978 500cc French Grand Prix. More re­cently he served as a min­is­ter in Ni­co­las Sarkozy’s gov­ern­ment and is now pres­i­dent of the re­gional coun­cil of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

“Estrosi is a very straight­for­ward guy,” says French mo­tor­sport jour­nal­ist Pas­cal Dro. “You need a dic­ta­tor to be able to get some­thing like this to­gether, and as the pres­i­dent of the re­gion, that’s what he’s been.”

Nice-born Estrosi set the wheels in mo­tion for this re­vival. He pro­posed the idea to Stéphane Clair, gen­eral man­ager of Paul Ri­card, the re­gion’s ob­vi­ous choice for a race venue and the host of 14 French GPs be­tween 1971 and 1990. Sup­ported by the weight of re­gional back­ing and France’s mo­tor­sport au­thor­ity, they ap­proached Bernie Ec­cle­stone with help from McLaren’s rac­ing di­rec­tor Eric Boul­lier. As usual, the re­sponse was clear: if you have the money, a date can be found – es­pe­cially at a time when so many venues are feel­ing the pinch of For­mula 1’s eye-wa­ter­ing host­ing fees. The an­nounce­ment of a ve-year deal to re­vive the race at Ri­card in the balmy heat of a late July date was the cul­mi­na­tion of Estrosi’s hard work, car­ried out un­der a veil of im­pres­sive se­crecy. So who cares? Re­nault? You bet. “It’s ex­tremely im­por­tant,” ex­plains Cyril Abite­boul, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Re­nault Sport F1. “Of course, we are not rac­ing in F1 just for the French or Euro­pean mar­ket, we are look­ing to those that are away from our his­toric base, such as Asia, South Amer­ica and so on. But we still need to be strong at home. We also look for­ward to be­ing in a stronger po­si­tion in per­for­mance when the race comes round in 2018. It will be a fan­tas­tic mo­ment for ev­ery­one at Re­nault. It’s a great place, a great venue, at a great time of year.”

The en­thu­si­asm spreads be­yond those with an ob­vi­ous na­tional in­ter­est. Zak Brown, ace F1 mar­ke­teer and McLaren’s new ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, says the sig­nif­i­cance of the French GP can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated – es­pe­cially since it will mark a return to French free-to-air F1 TV cov­er­age.

“Any time there’s a new grand prix ev­ery­one gets ex­cited,” he points out. “But the return of such a his­toric one doesn’t hap­pen of­ten in such a big mar­ket. The coun­try is im­por­tant, but you could ar­gue the tele­vi­sion au­di­ence it gen­er­ates is equally if not more im­por­tant. From an over­all global view­er­ship it’ll be mas­sive.

“We keep be­ing told we need to go to emerg­ing mar­kets for the growth of the sport, but let’s not for­get where we grew up: it’s the Ital­ian GP, the Bri­tish, the French – and the Ger­man, which un­for­tu­nately we have lost, at least for the time be­ing. France is one of those core races. By all means the US and Sin­ga­pore are crit­i­cally im­por­tant for F1 to be a global cham­pi­onship. But yes, France mat­ters, 100 per cent.”

What about the driv­ers? Will they care about the French GP or will it be just another race, come 2018? Cer­tainly not for new Force In­dia sign­ing, French­man Este­ban Ocon, 20. Pleas­ingly, Ocon has even watched a French GP rst-hand de­spite his tender years. He was a nine-year-old Michael Schu­macher fan at Magny-Cours in 2006. “The cars were so quick in the cor­ners, it was crazy back then,” he en­thuses. “And the sound was amaz­ing.”

Ocon was as sur­prised as any­one when the return was an­nounced. “I heard talks about it but I was not ex­pect­ing it to hap­pen,” he says. “I thought: ‘Oh, it’s not go­ing to be true.’ But when I heard, I was like: ‘Oh my god, it’s hap­pen­ing!’”

Paul Ri­card has a special place in Ocon’s heart. He scored his rst podium and then his rst win there, in For­mula Re­nault. He of­fers some in­sight into its chal­lenge: “Ev­ery­one says it’s no prob­lem to go off track be­cause of the large runoff ar­eas, but it’s not true. If you go off, you break the mono­coque straight away, the kerbs and

Pa­triot games: (l-r) Chris­tian Estrosi, the man be­hind the French GP’s re­vival; Re­nault F1 boss Cyril Abite­boul; and 20-year-old French F1 racer, Este­ban Ocon

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