Grand Prix returns to its roots
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After a long break — since 2008 — the good news story in Formula 1 at the moment, among a sea of acrimony after the Azerbaijan GP and normal paddock politics , is that the French Grand Prix is back on the calendar, at least for 2018.
As the oldest grand prix, dating back to 1906, it should be there almost by right.
If the German inventors Benz, Daimler and Maybach gave birth to the internal combustion engine, then France was the cradle of motor racing, pushing the boundaries in inventive horseless carriage manufacture.
During the late 1880s, small motorcar manufacturers suddenly appeared in almost every European country, as well as the US, and the “need for speed” saw the development over the next decades of untold numbers of the “stagecoach” style driven by steam, electricity and finally petrol.
Individual contests for motorcars soon proliferated but they were all in the endurance bracket.
France led the way with a 120km race from Paris to Rouen, and the first to complete the distance in a time of 6 hours and 48 minutes was the magnificently named “Count Jules-Albert de Dion”.
However, he was later disqualified as he had a “stoker” on board, against the rules, to maintain the steam pressure.
With the largest car industry in Europe at the time, French carmakers wanted to show their wares and along came the first “official” grand prix, held with help from the local mayor and businesses, at Le Mans.
In the fashion of the time, the race followed the endurance model and was run over two days and a total of 1238.16km, open to all comers, national or international.
In typical French pomp, a major Parisian newspaper of the time wrote: “If we (the French) win the grand prix, we shall let the whole world know that French motorcars are the best.
"If we lose, it shall merely be by accident, and our rivals should then be grateful to us for having been sufficiently sportsmanlike to allow them an appeal against the bad reputation of their cars”.
A Renault won the race.
The early French motor sport authorities founded many of the rules and regulations for motor racing.
Even today the governing authority for much of the world’s motor sport and motoring activities is based in the Place de la Concorde in the heart of Paris.
Since those days the French Grand Prix has found many homes.
In the modern era of Formula 1 Grands Prix, seven different courses have been used. Of those, Reims and Rouen have been public road tracks.
Last December the FIA announced the Grand Prix de France had a scheduled date during the 2018 F1 season.
Last week it confirmed the date as June 24, at the Circuit Paul Ricard near Marseille, a track that last hosted an F1 GP in 1990.
That track brings back many memories for me, good and bad.
The bad revolve around accidents on track, especially the death of Elio de Angelis, testing his Brabham in 1986.
The good include the track’s closeness to the Mediterranean, the region’s rose wine, race wins for McLaren with James Hunt and Alain Prost and simply that it is a good place to be.
The circuit is owned by a Bernie Ecclestone “family trust”. You really cannot keep a good man down.
In stark comparison is the Magny Cours track near Nevers that, in 1991, had striking French truck driver blockades, officious and overbearing officialdom and a track that was uninteresting for drivers and spectators.
With the final timing line just metres after the last corner, McLaren’s Ayrton Senna reckoned the way to get the fastest time would be to come around the corner as fast as possible — even though he may well have been out of control.
He did just that and went across the timing line backwards — still achieving his fastest qualifying time.
With Formula 1’s new owner Liberty Media saying it is important for the sport to concentrate on its roots, there can be no deeper roots than the French Grand Prix and the Circuit Paul Ricard.
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