VIVE LA FRANCE!
We take a spin around the returning Paul Ricard circuit with Allan McNish
Sringtime in this beautiful part of the world: a big sky dappled with Simpsons’ cloud; a gentle breeze pattering in off the Med; semi-tropical trees clustering beyond the distant Armco barriers. Why did F1 ever leave Paul Ricard? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, to which the answer is ‘politics’: Mitterand-era cronyism sent the French Grand Prix north to Magny-Cours for 18 years before it fell off the calendar for 2009. A better question would be ‘Why did F1 ever leave France?’ We know the answer to that, too: the lurid allure of lthy lucre.
But now, after a nine-year abeyance, rumours of France’s comeback have coalesced into something solid. The money is there, the deal signed, and the race will happen in 2018. Everybody is delighted, not least Allan McNish, who’s hotfooted it down the coast to give us a tour. You would think, given the thousands of laps he’s completed in his capacity as a McLaren, Benetton and Toyota F1 test driver (and, in the case of the latter team, a race driver), not to mention over a decade as part of Audi’s sportscar programme, that he’d be a little Ricard-weary.
“Not a bit of it,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what this place is like with an F1 crowd. I brought the kids here a few years ago for an FIA GT round and the atmosphere was great. You could walk around and sit where you wanted. After all those years in a car by myself here, to sit with my children on the banking overlooking the iconic Signes corner on a sunny day, enjoying the race, was fantastic. The circuit came alive.”
He’s not the only person salivating at the prospect of the French GP’s return. Last night the elderly owner of F1 Racing’s hotel in the hilltop village of La Cadière-d’Azur ushered us into the bar to show off a wall of signed photos from temps perdu. Ken Tyrrell and Colin Chapman stayed here every year, and Elio de Angelis tickled the ivories of the piano; memories the owner dusts down with palpable delight.
Paul Ricard is a busy circuit but the morning has been blocked out and the Audi R8 course car warmed up for McNish and F1 Racing to explore its nuances. In the late 1990s it was bought by a company called Excelis (tug the thread of ownership and a bell rings somewhere in Liechtenstein, in the ofces of the family trust now under the control of the former Mrs Ecclestone), and redeveloped into a cuttingedge test facility with various layouts, asphalt run-offs, and a sprinkler system to simulate wet conditions. The surface has matured with age, like one of this region’s ne Côtes du Rhône.
At Turn 1 the track now opens up like the petals on a ower. As originally laid down, it was a fast left-right sweep that McNish describes as “stonking at-out, in both a sportscar and an F1 car”. It’s here that Elio de Angelis went into the barrier during a test in 1986 and died in the burning wreck of his Brabham. In a different conguration used in later French GPs, the cars braked sharply before reaching this point and turned 90° right, cutting out the entire rst section, and emerging onto the Mistral Straight. Besides emasculating the track, this routing didn’t eliminate shunts, as evinced by Mauricio Gugelmin’s famous ip on lap 1 of the 1989 race.
Although the layout for the French GP for 2018 and beyond is yet to be conrmed, it’s likely that Turn 1 will be a low-speed left-right ick with changing camber and gradient, a section of asphalt added during Paul Ricard’s millennial makeover. The Virage de l’Hôtel ‘chicane’ presents itself after you crest a slight hump, and it’s here that Alex Wurz suffered what McNish describes as “the fastest ever F1 accident” when a tyre blew in a McLaren test, causing him to miss one corner and skip the next before hitting the barrier: a distance of 100 metres. “He covered that a lot faster than Usain Bolt, I can tell you…”
This could be one of the prime overtaking points and, as a plus, there’s enough run-off (bordered by the bands of abrasive, coloured asphalt) to gather things up if a passing attempt goes wrong. A succession of slow corners follow, ending with one that spitefully keeps you waiting before the at-out blast along the back straight.
“This is one of the most horrible corners,” says McNish, “because you turn in, you’re going slowly so there’s no downforce, and then after that you sort of sit in to the left-rear. Then that corner loses grip and begins to push, but you need to get the car over to the right to come clean and at-out through the kink that leads on to the Mistral Straight. It’s called that because of the Mistral wind that blows off the sea, and that’s a crucial element of this circuit. Given that it’s the south of France, you’d think it would always be warm and sunny, but we’re high up and the wind can be strong, you’ve got the humidity from the sea, and the mountains behind. It can change very quickly. We’ve had to abandon tests here
“THE MISTRAL STRAIGHT IS CALLED THAT BECAUSE OF THE MISTRAL WIND THAT BLOWS OFF THE SEA. WE’VE HAD TO ABANDON TESTS HERE BECAUSE OF 60MPH WINDS”
Hopes that the French GP would return have been dashed so often that when this bid, fronted by racerturned politician Christian Estrosi, was announced as a done deal, still we sighed. Yet against expectation, Estrosi and his colleagues – including McLaren’s Eric Boullier, who acted as a go-between with Bernie Ecclestone – came away with a five-year deal.
“Estrosi is a racer,” says Boullier. “When he met Bernie it took 20 minutes to agree. They shook hands – done. Because he is a racer, he is straightforward. He’s got a vision; Everything has been backed up. I was just being the negotiator with Bernie, trying to make things go through. But before you go to Bernie, you have to do a huge amount of work to make sure your project is sustainable.”
Summoning the finance and the political will from on high was the main obstacle, since the last attempt to restart the French GP foundered after Nicolas Sarkozy lost the 2012 election. But it was the next round of elections that prompted politicians to look again at this means of boosting the economy in this part of the world.
“For every £1 invested from the public fund, £600 comes back into the region’s economy,” says Boullier. “And because it’s a five-year project, there are now companies who want to relocate or have a presence in the district because it makes sense for them, so it will also be creating jobs.”
The comeback of the French GP certainly chimes with the ambitions of the sport’s new owners, Liberty Media, to focus on F1’s European heartland and the classic races therein. How ironic that they had so little to do with bringing it back.