VIVE LA FRANCE!
The French Grand Prix will return after a ten-year absence
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