It might be one of the most beautiful locations on the whole of the Formula 1 calendar, but as the Circuit Paul Ricard gears up for the second edition of a new era of French Grand Prix competition there’s likely to be nothing pretty about the no-holds-barred battle to come this weekend.
Lewis Hamilton goes in search of a second consecutive win in Le Castellet to further extend his title lead, but following the drama in Canada last time out, Sebastian Vettel will be surely be seeking redemption at Ricard. And after tricky weekends in Monaco and Montreal, Valtteri Bottas will be looking to once again lay claim to being Mercedes team-mate Hamilton chief rival. And further back a resurgent Renault will be battling on home turf to overcome McLaren in an increasingly hard-fought midfield.
It’s the sort of tight tussle Eric Boullier is no stranger to from his time as an F1 competitor. But now, as a strategic advisor and race ambassador to the French Grand Prix he has an altogether different challenge on his hands – building the race into a destination event for fans from around the world. But, as he explains, it’s a task that’s bringing out the best in the race team and the local region…
Eric, you were instrumental in bringing the French Grand Prix back to the calendar and since February you’ve been working with the organisers. What needed to be done and how has your role developed over the past months?
The main thing for me to understand was where the team were at in terms of capability and development of this year’s race.
Despite a few glitches they had a successful first edition and for me it was about building on that and establishing the identity of the grand prix for the medium and long term – making sure we are building something Formula 1 view as a valuable Grand Prix for the future and also that fans value.
Last year was very successful in terms of attendance, but it was mainly French people and locals coming. We are now targeting a much wider audience across Europe and beyond.
Is that the key for the future success of the race – more consistent marketing and building a strong identity?
Absolutely. You need the product and you need to keep developing it but you also need to find the right partners to establish the right marketing and you need to deliver the right message.
Reaching people is good, but you need to make sure your message is understood, and for us that message is focused on our location. Our race date is just before the summer holidays, so what we want to do is to give people an experience of the French Riviera and I think we have really brought that experience to the track and to the paddock.
We want to maintain that French touch and the cultural experience. We want people coming to the race enjoy the Riviera experience, the food, the wine, the music. It’s a taste of summer before the holidays really kick into gear.
The event has to meet a great number of demands in terms of local employment, boosting tourism numbers, but also remaining economically viable. How difficult is it to balance all of those aspects?
I think the balance is between investing for the future and covering the costs of operating the Grand Prix itself, which are substantial.
We are lucky enough to be, in simple terms, a state company, which means that we are under no obligation to make a profit. Obviously, we can’t have any losses but we have the ability to spend what we have. It means that every cent we accrue in revenue can be put back into the race to make sure the experience is as great as it possibly can.
Is there any measure yet of the economic impact of the race on the region?
Yes, we commissioned a survey with Deloitte before and after last year’s Grand Prix and it generated detailed numbers. In terms of job creation, we have created around 600 full-time jobs and the economic impact amounts to €78 million into the “Region Sud”. So it is around €14m spent for a return of more than €70m. When you have government and public subsidies involved you need to be transparent and prove that the model works. So far we have shown that it is a good model and now we need to make sure that we keep that model sustainable over the long-term.
The major concern last year was, of course, the traffic. Are you happy with the solutions put in place for this year’s Grand Prix?
The plan we have is good. It has been dictated by data. We partnered with a company called Citec in Switzerland, which has world-class expertise in mobility plans for large events. They looked after the Ryder Cup in France last year, the 2016 UEFA European Championship and they are working with the Olympics for the 2024 Games in Paris.
They took all of the data we had from last year and with that knowledge of how the traffic flowed, and where and when it was at its heaviest, they built simulations and came back with a plan.
We have a new traffic management plan and we are working closely with the local authorities through a steering committee. We have additional access points to the circuit without crossing streams of traffic, we will have 170 shuttles available to the general public with 4,000 Parking & Ride places and we have partnered with traffic app Waze who will dedicate some engineers to the grand prix so that we have real-time traffic information that can be accessed by everyone.
We have to fix the issues we had last year – that’s a given. And if we solve those problems and if we pass the second edition without mobility issues it will be forgotten.
The first year of a race is always something of an easy sell, as there’s inevitably a buzz around a new or returning race. The second year can be a lot trickier. Are you happy with ticket sales this year and with the programmes you have put in place to drive numbers?
As mentioned, this year we embarked on an international advertising campaign, which we didn’t do last year, and that ties in with the establishment of a strong identity for the race.
We also hope that we deliver good value for money. We will have concerts every day with world-famous DJs and we will have two ‘village’ areas – the Village Sud which is a reconstruction of a typical village in the South of France – and the ‘Back to the Future’ Village, which will have vintage cars and simulators as well as future mobility demonstrations.
We’ll have more activity on track too. As well as Formula 1, 2 and 3 and the Porsche Supercup we are adding the Renault Clio Cup to the programme.
For sure, year one is relatively straightforward, as people are excited to see a new event, but in year two you need to offer an improved experience. You cannot imagine that the people who came last year will do the same again. Unless you develop they will choose another race or event. We need to target new customers and we need to create something different.
Those are our goals for the medium and long-term. We want to make the French Grand Prix one of the most attractive races on the calendar. We want it to be a destination event for F1 fans around the world.
That will then help us achieve the further goal of extending our contract with Formula 1, which I think we have always been clear is something we would like to see. And if we do that then it will help us convince the local authorities to invest more into the race and the region, into infrastructure and road works to make the traffic flow better again and to make the race even more attractive.