O Opinions & Commentary

COMMENTARY: The French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard – be careful what you wish for

(GRW): The French Grand Prix has returned to the F1 calendar this year after a ten-year hiatus – it returned to the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France. I have long been an advocate of the concept that the heart of Grand Prix racing lies in Europe in the form of the classic Grands Prix – and, as such, these classic European GPs must be the foundation of any Formula One calendar. And this year, for the first time in many years, there is an F1 Grand Prix in all the six traditional countries/principalities.

For me, there are six classic Grande Épreuves including France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Monaco, and Britain, The French GP, as the original GP with a history going back to 1906 at Le Mans, more than any other. It’s like Toronto and Montreal are part of the NHL’s original six teams. Can any hockey fan imagine the NHL without any one of the six classic teams?

So, here’s my problem. The Paul Ricard circuit was never a great circuit – a long skinny circuit characterized by its long back straight. Now, after years of development primarily as a test facility, the F1 cars have returned there and we have a characterless slot-car track with wide, wide expanses of tarmac where the racing surface runs down the middle surrounded by many wide blue lines in the runoff areas. At its best this location is basically a treeless desert but the sterile track layout only adds to the feeling of watching autocross at a parking lot. Even the unlamented Meadowlands CART circuit, which was built in a parking lot, had more character. I’m sure that it meets the FIA’s safety standards to a ‘T’ but surely there’s more to Grand Prix racing than this.

It is too bad that the French Grand Prix has ended up at this desolate venue. However, there was really no better alterative. The most recent venue for the French GP was Nevers-Magny-Cours in the wine country south of Paris. It too was a technical track with few scenic aspects – and, like Paul Ricard, the traffic for those trying to get there was a nightmare. The race was held at Dijon-Prenois off-and-on from 1974 to 1984 but – the 1979 Villeneuve-Arnoux battle aside – it is a boring track, basically a road-course oval with a little side extension. It was never more than a poor choice when there was no other choice available.

The French GP ran at Reims and Rouen in earlier years. These tracks ran over public roads closed for the weekend – and that added to their glory – but as safety expectations grew, I’m sure that those tracks were unable to convert their public roads into the kind of barrier-bounded, runoff-area tracks the new protocols required. Today, there’s no going back to either one of them. They used to run at Clermont-Ferrand, an 8-km, twisty mini-Nürburgring based on public roads – most recently in 1972. Since then, it has been rebuilt as a 4-km closed circuit built on part of the original public road layout.

Most of these former F1 venues are no longer suitable for the modern F1 standards. I imagine that they could race at Magny-Cours again but that is not much of an improvement over Paul Ricard. The simplistic 3.8-km (2.4-mile) Dijon was never really a very suitable choice – I would not be happy if it returned there again.

COTA 10 resizeThe COTA circuit near Austin, TX, another featureless cookie-cutter modern circuit
So France is left with the same dilemma as the United States. They’ve got a modern, approved COTA circuit at Austin, Texas, but it is another one of those characterless expanses of asphalt with the track lost between wide stretches of runoff area. There are many nostalgic traditionalists who decry this track and who call for a return to Watkins Glen. WGI could never host a modern GP – it would have to be totally rebuilt to modern F1 safety standards (and where would that money come from – even if the track owners wanted to do that) – and there’s very limited accommodation in that basically rustic region of upstate New York.

Looking for an alternate venue for the French GP is somewhat similar. There really is no obvious better choice. I understand that some people suggested that a new circuit should be built near Paris. An interesting idea but where would the money cone from? And would a new, modern-standards track, be any better than the soulless Paul Ricard?

When they talk of building a new circuit near Paris, I think of the old Montlhéry track (a combination of a (2.5-km high-banked oval and a 10-km road-course section) which is located about 20 km south of Paris. The French GP was run there between 1925 and 1937. The original circuit, or what remains of it, would not be suitable for a modern GP or any modern race series, but this location would be close to ideal – and it would have an emotional link to the historic French GPs of old. Of course, it will never happen, so we must be reconciled to the idea of French GP at Paul Ricard into the indefinite future – better than no French GP.

And, while I’m at it, perhaps the other classic European Grand Prix venues have strayed far from the original idea of racing cars running along closed public roads through scenic countryside. Spa in Belgium comes closest to that traditional road course ideal and the view up from the old pit straight into Eau Rouge/Raidillon is a recognized classic. Monza still runs on the old circuit – the remains of the high-banked oval section are still very apparent – and the tifosi make a race there electric. Even if the German GP were to return to the Nürburgring, it would run on that modern plain vanilla replacement for the old Nordschleife. Silverstone began as a converted aerodrome and, despite the recent upgrades still has that look-and-feel – but I liked it better when it was the old, traditional layout.

So some of the classic European GP are run on venues that are a bit short of ‘classic’ – but the tradition is there and these five GPs are the heart and soul of Grand Prix racing. Everything else is an add-on that comes after these five races. There seems to be hope that the new Liberty regime understands this and that they are working to ensure that these five classic GPs remain on the Formula One calendar. I may pine for the old, less-safe circuits, but we all need to accept that these updated race tracks are the best are going to get in this modern age. Better that than nothing!

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