French Grand Prix

2020 French Grand Prix

The French Grand Prix is an auto race held as part of the FIA’s annual Formula One World Championship. This is definitely the oldest Grand Prix as it is the world’s first Grand Prix. However, due to unfavourable financial circumstances and venues, the race ceased after its centenary in 2008 with 86 races having been held. It was just in 2018 when the race returned to the Formula One calendar with Circuit Paul Ricard hosting the race.

The location of the Grand Prix has moved frequently with 16 different venues having been used over its life, a number only eclipsed by the 23 venues used for the Australian Grand Prix since its 1928 start. Just like the other races – Belgian, Italian and Spanish Grand Prix – French Grand Prix is also one of the three distinctive Grand Prix tournaments: The World Manufacturers’ Championship around the end of 1920s, European Championship in the 1930s and Formula One World Championship since 1950.

During its early years, the Grand Prix de l’ACF, with its tremendous influence, has lead the establishment of the rules and regulations of racing and it has become a trend setter in the world of racing. The Automobile Club de France, the original organizer, established France as the home of motor racing organization.

When was the first French Grand Prix?

France was one of the earliest countries to conduct motor racing tournaments. In July 22, 1894, the Automobile Club de France organized the first competitive motor race which is the Paris to Rouen Horseless Carriages Contest. Count Jules-Albert de Dion, in his De Dion Bouton steam powered car, won the race by finishing the 126 km (78 mi) in just under 7 hours. This race was followed by races starting in Paris to various towns and cities around France such as Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon and Dieppe, and also to various other European cities such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Innsbruck and Vienna. The Paris to Berlin race in 1901 was indeed remarkable as Henri Fouriner, the winner, averaged a stunning 57 mph (93 km/h) in his Mors. Accidents were common those days. A competitor driving a 40H.P. Panhard suddenly found the road blocked by a tram in the village of Metternich, and he intentionally drove into the vehicle to avoid the crowd of spectators. The tram was knocked off the rails and his car was hardly damaged. Also, in Reims, one of the upcoming venues of future French GP races, one competitor caused fatality to a child who walked into the road with his Mors.

These long-ago races were held on public dirt roads. In 1903, all dirt road races that were not closed in public came to a halt. The Paris-Madrid race, a 1,307 km (812 mi) long competition from the French capital to the Spanish capital held in May of that year had over 300 competitors. Some of the cars were already hitting 140 km/h (87 mph)- an astonishingly fast speed for the time- not even rail locomotives can compete with these speeds. It was not known at the time how safe these races would be or how these cars- made mostly of wood would perform, and development of the car had improved significantly over 9 years. As gruesome as it may seem, the race was a disaster, with 8 people killed and over 15 injured in multiple accidents. All this happened before any of the competitors reached the Spanish border. Crowds of onlookers would stand right on the edge of the track, and children were wandering into the roads which became very dusty and visibility was limited at best. Perhaps Marcel Renault, one of the founders of Renault Cars, marks the most noteworthy and memorable casualty of this race. When Renault reached the village of Payré just south of Grand Poitiers he lost control of his 16HP Renault in poor visibility caused by excess dust. The car went into a gutter and crashed into a tree, and Renault sustained a horrific wound in the side of his head and dislocated his shoulder. Unfortunately, Renault passed away from his injuries two days later. Accidents continued throughout the day; cars hit trees and disintegrated, they overturned and caught fire, axles broke and inexperienced drivers crashed on the rough roads. The race was eventually called off by the French government and there was no declared winner. The cars were impounded by the French authorities, towed to the nearest rail stations by horses and transported back to Paris by train. The race has created a political dispute in the country, and a certain French magazine investigated for further information into the race. Speed, dust created by the cars, poor organization and lack of crowd control were to blame for these tragedies and even French Prime Minister Émile Combes was held somehow responsible for allowing the race to proceed under his auhtority.

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Other races were organized by American newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett called the Gordon Bennett Cup, 4 of which were in France. 3 city-to-city races in 1900, 1901 and 1902, all starting in Paris were organized by Bennett and they attracted top racers from the United States and Western Europe. But after the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, the French government banned point-to-point car races, so Bennett moved the 1903 race to Ireland on a closed circuit 2 months after Paris-Madrid, the first of its kind. A Mercedes has lead the race driven by Belgian Camille Jenatzy. The 1904 race was held in western Germany while the last Gordon Bennett Cup race was held in a 137 km (85 mi) circuit in Auvergne in south-central France. The race started in Clermont-Ferrand, and was run over 4 laps, and was won by Leon Théry in a Brasier.

How did the French Grand Prix come to Circuit Paul Ricard?

Early Circuits

The earliest French Grand Prix were held on circuits consisting of public roads near towns through northern and central France, and they usually were held at different towns each year, such as Le Mans, Dieppe, Amiens, Lyon, Strasbourg, and Tours. The 1906 (June 26) race was the first ever race named “Grand Prix” (Great Prize) – referred to the prize of 45,000 French francs to the race winner. That time, Dieppe in particular was an extremely dangerous circuit – 9 lives (5 drivers, 2 riding mechanics, and 2 spectators) in total were claimed at the three French Grand Prix held at the 79 km (49-mile) circuit.

Reims: (1950-1951, 1953-1954, 1956, 1958-1961, 1963, 1966)

Reims is located in the middle of Champagne and it hosted the first world championship French Grand Prix in 1950. The road course wends its way through the countryside to the west of Reims, using the D27 as its start/finish line. In fact, you can still see the pit buildings there today.

The track’s layout featured 2 two expansive straights and made its design high-speed and dangerous. It also features quick and challenging curves.

Rouen: (1952, 1957, 1962, 1964, 1968)

Carved into the hillside to the south-west of Rouen, the fearsomely fast four-mile Rouen-les-Essarts track is something of a lost classic. Five French GP took place at the road course close to Orival town. This was regarded as one of the best tracks in Europe by a lot of drivers. 

A tour of the circuit was a lap of two halves, with the first part plunging downhill and ending up at the track’s famous, cobbled Noveau Monde hairpin (now sadly tarmacked over). From there, the road climbs almost 100 metres in altitude, cutting through the forest and back around to the start.

Unfortunately, in common with the Nurburgring, Rouen’s extreme combination of high speeds and undulation proved a deadly cocktail as Formula 1 cars’ downforce-assisted speeds increased throughout the 1960s, with Honda driver Jo Schlesser’s death in 1968 signaling the end of the circuit’s time as an F1-hosting venue.

Clermont-Ferrand: (1965, 1969-1970, 1972)

This one is noted as one of the best circuits!

Winding its way around a pair of extinct volcanos in central France, the Clermont-Ferrand track – or the Circuit de Charade – was another fast and thrilling road course in the place of Rouen. 1958 saw its first race since Le Mans winner Louis Rosier began the project in 1950 as its co-designer. Sadly, rosier died and never saw the circuit’s success. Then in 1965, the Formula one took place on the circuit which was won by a Lotus 25 driven by a British driver Jim Clark.

The track was a full 5 miles long and, with its lack of straights and assortment of over 50 corners, resembled a tarmac rally stage more than a Grand Prix circuit. It was so wavy in curves in fact, that 1967 world champion Denny Hulme reckoned that drivers continued to wear open-face helmets at Clermont-Ferrand so that they could throw up more easily!

The track was astonishing for the competitors, however, with Stirling Moss once remarking: “I don’t know a more wonderful track than Charade.” Constant problems with rocks falling onto the circuit – which ended up costing current Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko an eye back in 1972 – and a lack of space to put in run-off areas sadly put paid to Charade’s spot on the F1 calendar.

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Le Mans (1967)

There was little enthusiasm for its layout as it was dubbed ‘The Grand Prix of the Car Parks’ by detractors before the start of the race. As famously described by Graham Hill ‘a real Mickey Mouse type of circuit’ – which used the beginning of the Le Mans 24 Hour course before looping back on itself before the Tertre Rouge corner, with the cars then negotiating a track used by the circuit’s racing school and which had once been a car park.

Le Mans was so enormous that its pit areas that can actually hold 55 cars were dwarfed. The crowds were thin on the ground too, with only 20,000 turning up to watch the Grand Prix, compared to the 200,000 who’d watched that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours three weeks earlier. Then there was the reality that the design of the track intended that the F1 cars weren’t going as fast down the start-finish straight as the Le Mans racers. “Grand Prix cars tended to look slower and rather lost on this large circuit,” said by Graham Hill.

Circuit Paul Ricard (1971, 1973, 1975-1976, 1978, 1980, 1982-1983, 1985-1990)

Circuit Paul Ricard, a circuit named of course by its creator in 1969, lies between the cities of Marseille and Toulon in the south of France. The most remarkable feature of the first track was the Mistral back straight, which in 1985, Swiss driver Marc Surer reached a top speed of 210mph in his 1,000bhp Brabham-BMW. That more than a mile straight, which has since been broken up with a chicane, ends with the classic Signes corner, a dauntingly fast right-hand sweeper that’s still in use today.

Serious accidents for both Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell during the 1985 Grand Prix weekend, coupled with the fatal crash of Elio de Angelis during testing in 1986, caused the track to be reworked, with the overall length reduced from 3.6 to 2.4 miles, a move which slashed lap times by around 30 seconds.

During the gap between the last French GP at Paul Ricard in 1990 and its return to the F1 calendar last 2018 the circuit has developed its distinctive blue and red run-off areas. This time the track has grown back to a 3.6-mile design. This ‘Blue Zone’ feature is designed to reduce cars’ speed without the need for gravel traps, while still punishing drivers who make a mistake in a corner by making them travel over the abrasive surface.

Dijon-Prenois: 5 French Grand Prix (1974, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984) and one Swiss Grand Prix (1982)

In 1972, Francois Chambelland’s launched Dijon-Prenois circuit in eastern France after three years of work and having relied on the consultation expertise of French drivers Francois Cevert and Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

With funds tight and no government money to play with, Chambelland and his team could only afford to build an unusually small track initially that caused Ferrari driver Niki Lauda’s pole time for the 1974 Grand Prix to be just under a minute. Regardless, Formula one went back to its longer version in 1977, with the track now scooting out into the forest to the Parabolique hairpin before going back to the original circuit.  Satellite images online displayed the indistinct outline of an even longer track that Chambelland had planned to build.

To describe, Dijon-Prenois includes sweepingly fast, off-camber corners, and also its steep topography, with the slope as steep as 11% in several zones. After Formula One’s comeback in 1977, Paul Ricard agreed to host the Grand Prix for a number of years although both tracks were on the calendar in 1982. Thereafter in 1984, Dijon-Prenois hosted the Swiss Grand Prix before having its final Formula one race.

Magny-Cours: (1991-2008), 18 races

1960 saw the establishment of Magny Cours, also known as the Circuit de Nevers. Renowned as the base for the Winfield Racing School, it stood as a significant avenue for fresh talents, welcoming key racers such as Francois Cevert, Alain Prost, Damon Hill, Jacques Laffite and Jean Alesi. After falling into disrepair in the 1980s, the track was bought and refurbished by the Regional Conseil de la Nievre and, in 1991, hosted its first of 18 Formula 1 Grand Prix. Among the 18 races, Michael Schumacher won 8 of them; he appeared to have a connection with the undeniably very smooth track in central France. The circuit’s distinguishing feature is its parts are identical to other parts of other tracks.

Aaaaand… Finally, after a decade silence of the French Grand Prix, the 2018 race was held at Circuit Paul Ricard.

What does the Circuit Paul Ricard look like?

The track is known by its long Mistral straight (1.8 km, 1.1 mi) and elongated track design. The track is also unusual in that it is built on a plateau which means to say it is very flat. In 1986, the track was improved to make the circuit shorter placing a shortcut through to the middle of the Mistral Straight. This shorter circuit is named as the GP short circuit that stretches to only 3.813 km (2.369 mi) long. There are 167 potential track configurations starting 0.826 km (0.513 mi) to the bursting 5.861 km (3.642 mi). The track’s elevation ranges from 408 to 441 m (1,339 to 1,447 ft.) above sea level.

The track is recognized for its unique black and blue run-off zones called Blue Zone. The runoff surface is made up of a mixture of asphalt and tungsten, used instead of gravel traps, as common at other circuits. Another one is the deeper run-off area named the Red Zone. It features a rougher surface purposed to maximize tire grip and hence minimize braking distance, although at the cost of extreme tire wear. The final safety feature consists of Tecpro barriers, a modern substitute on tire barriers.

In 2019 the pitlane entry was moved after safety concerns was raised. The admission, formerly accessed through the main straight, is now located in the middle of the last two corners turns 14 and 15.

How to get to the French Grand Prix (Circuit Paul Ricard)?

A latest traffic management plan by the organizing bodies was put in place for 2019 grand prix that was focused on four main areas: Ensuring the match between the number of vehicles going to the GP with road capacity, reconditioning the organization and management of trackside parking, Utilization and modification of new and existing roads to improve road capacity and finally, to enhance their public relations capability for announcements during and after the event. In addition to dedicated lanes for public buses and vehicles with five or more passengers, the biggest new project for 2019 is a “park and ride” facility in nearby La Ciotat with capacity for 4000 cars and free onward buses to the circuit. A paid bus service also connects Paul Ricard each day with the larger regional centers of Nice, Toulon, Marseille and Aix-en-Provence.

  • Taking a plane to the French Grand Prix

The Paul Ricard circuit is just about 40km east of, France’s second biggest city – Marseilles, in the direction of Toulon. Owning a private jet or plane will put you into a greater advantage. The private Le Castellet Airport is also a part of the Paul Ricard circuit complex. The rest of us need to fly into one of the larger airports nearby catered by international airlines:

The best airport to fly into is Marseille Provence (MRS) which is around 65km from the GP circuit. This developing hub work for many European and several international itineraries. Airlines such as Ryanair, Easyjet and Volotea offer a discount. Moreover, seasonal airline stations at a distant consist of Istanbul, Tel Aviv and Montreal.

The closest airport from Paul Ricard is Toulon Hyères (TLN), but this only serves a few number of routes, some of the routes are with Orly or CDG) in Paris, Air France/HOP in Lyon, Flybe at Southampton in the UK and Scandinavian Airlines in Copenhagen.

Lastly, Nice Côte d’Azur (NCE) is 176 km from Paul Ricard and is larger than Marseille Provence. And it serves as a hub for Air France and Easyjet, and also has more strait flights, including New York, Doha and Dubai.

  • Trains & Driving to Circuit Paul Ricard

Booking French trains in advance will save you from its expensive fare. Paris and Marseilles are linked by a high-speed TGV train that travels 750km+ in less than 4 hours. Tickets cost from €10 one way on SNCF. Other stations near the circuit are Bandol, Toulon and Aix-en-Provence.

Subject on where you will come from, it’s preferable to drive to Le Castellet. The metropolitan serves exceptional motorway systems and the travel includes a great sight-seeing experience. However, common considerations such as toll costs, traffic and parking should be kept in mind.

  • Drive yourself

Known as a fairly secluded site, the finest mode to reach the circuit is by car or keep yourself near the area, e.g. trackside camping. With normal traffic on the weekend, it will take about almost an hour drive to the circuit via the A50 auto route (use exit 11) from Marseilles. It’s undeniably a joy to announce that from 2019, trackside parking is FREE for ticketholders. Please be advised that special carpooling lanes and parking areas are intended for those who drive with more than 5 people in 1 vehicle.

  • Park & Ride

La Ciotat (Zone d’Activité Athélia de La Ciotat), located around 20km from the circuit offer 4000 free parking spaces. From there, free buses take about 45 minutes to reach the circuit via traffic lane.

  • Shuttle Buses

Regular shuttle buses to Circuit Paul Ricard from Marseille, Toulon, Aix-en-Provence and Nice are usually available. Organizers offer them at the rate of around €40-60 return per day. Please come early because buses leave between 6am and 7:30am from the abovementioned cities.

  • Taxis / shuttles / ride sharing

It’s quite expensive at French Riviera. You need to prepare about €100 each way to get to Paul Ricard from Marseilles, but you can probably save money if you’re sharing a ride with fellow fans.

Where are the best spots at Circuit Paul Ricard to watch the French Grand Prix?

Of course we would always want to be in the best spot during every GP. Planning where to seat ahead of time is as important choosing a cinema seat to have an enjoyable experience while watching. Grandstands are centered around Saint Baume; the chicane which breaks up the long Mistral straight; the double right turns at Le Beausset and the final tight Virage du Pont. Several general admission areas can be found everywhere round the circuit.

Best Grandstands at the French Grand Prix

  • Virage du Pont 1-4 grandstands

Most of the best spots to witness the race can be found at the Paul Ricard’s gold standard, the grandstands at Virage du Pont.

You can follow the cars around the final two corners – the medium speed left and then slowing right down for the tight right hand corner that leads onto the start / finish straight. This final slow corner, taken in 2nd gear at about 80kmph gives a perfect photo opportunity with grandstands 2 and 3 offering the best vantage points.

Grandstands here are too distant and have inadequate views of the grid but there are a number of large screens contrary the grandstands to keep you on track of the race.

  • Saint Baume 1-4 grandstands

Known and tagged as one of the best grandstands to watch the action at the Circuit Paul Riccard – A silver option. Here, the viewers at Saint Baume grandstand sections 1-4 can keep an eye on the action from where the cars make a right turn into the Virage de le’Hotel, passing around the low speed Virage du Camp and Virage de la Saint Baume just in front of this grandstand. It’s a good multiple corner view at varying cornering speeds.

Of this group of grandstands, 2 and 3 offers proximity advantage to the track, a giant screen positioning and an unobscured views of the mentioned corner.

  • Saint Baume 5-6 grandstands

Saint Baume’s Bronze option is located alongside a straight section of track following Virage de la Saint Baume. The focal points in this acceleration zone are not the best but you can appreciate the view of cars running afield around before the entrance to and around Virage de la Saint Baume.

  • Chicane 3-6 grandstands

The chicane 3-6 grandstand is the silver option grandstand at the chicane and the superior of the two. It is closer to the apex of the chicane at 3 and 4 in particular and from 5 and 6 is further away but has a more direct vantage point as the cars approach straight.

  • Chicane 1-2 grandstands

Chicane 1-2 grandstand, a bronze option, starts at the beginning of the breaking point and you can view the cars dealing with the chicane on the side and rear. It’s a great viewing point to see the astonishing breaking ability of an F1 car.

  • Le Beausset grandstands

The sweeping double apex of right turns of Le Beausset, unfortunately, does not offer a great view for wheel to wheel action and the location of the grandstands are quite a long way from the track and this makes the spot the weaker viewpoints at the circuit in this list.

  • General Admission place at Paul Ricard

There’s enough time to go around and check the general admission areas and secure a good spot for Sunday – that is if you’re coming for the weekend.

One of the better places to go is on the grassy bank between Le Beausset and Virage du Pont. From this point you’ll be offered to see at a distance cars speeding in to the double right-hander, dealing a number of medium speed turns before disappearing out of view before the final tight, right-hander.