VIVE LA FRANCE!

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -

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 ofces 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 congu­ra­tion 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 conrmed, 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.

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