The French Grand Prix, which returned to the Formula 1 calendar in 2018 after a 10-year absence, is the oldest grand prix in the world.
How can we be so sure? Simple: it hosted the first-ever motor race, way back in 1906, the first international event ever to be labelled a grand prix. Pretty conclusive, huh?
1906: ‘The first-ever grand prix’
That 1906 race was held over two days, following public dirt roads that formed a huge, triangular 65-mile circuit that threaded three towns around Le Mans together.
Even at such a formative stage, that first-ever grand prix contained similarities to the sport we know today: pictures from the event show trackside advertising hoardings, spectators safely penned behind fencing and watching from grandstands, and even mid-race refuelling and tyre-changing in the pits.
Hungarian driver Ferenc Szisz, driving a Renault, won the inaugural event, completing more than 12 hours behind the wheel, and setting a top speed of 96mph.
Between the wars
The long, solitary nature of that first-ever race prompted a re-think from the organisers, leading to the introduction of shorter (albeit still extensive 19- and 24-mile) courses as the race hopped around the country.
The race alighted at Montlhery in 1925, the first permanent, purpose-built racetrack in France. The track resembled the banked, oval layout popularised in both the United States and across the Channel at Brooklands. That first race was also notable for the death of Antonio Ascari, father of 1952 and ’53 world champion Alberto.
The championship begins
But it was the advent of the Formula 1 world championship which saw the French Grand Prix establish itself as a perennial on the calendar. Let’s take a look at the itinerant home of the race, which has been held at seven different venues:
(11 races, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1958 - 1961, 1963, 1966)
Like that very first race back in 1906, the Reims track was a fast, triangular road course that threaded between the towns of Thillois, Gueux and the main road into Reims itself.
Make the pilgrimage today, and you can still see the old concrete pits and start-line grandstands located on the D27 autoroute. They are a fantastic evocation of motor racing’s past…
Most memorable race: Choose from either 1961, won by Giancarlo Baghetti, the only person in F1 history (so far) to win his first-ever grand prix; or 1951, won by a 53-year-old Luigi Fagioli, the oldest person to win a race in F1 history
(5 races, 1952, 1957, 1962, 1964, 1968)
Beautiful, fast, deadly. Let F2 (and sometime F1) racer David Purley explain it most succinctly: “When we did bayonet training in the army, we were taught to scream as we lunged forward to help take our minds off what we were doing, I suppose.
“At Rouen, we’d come past the pits at about 160mph, and then that incredible sequence of downhill sweepers would begin. For the last couple of hundred yards before them, I’d scream into my helmet, to give me more courage; to keep my foot from lifting. Helped a lot, I found…”
Most memorable race: 1968, for all the wrong reasons: it saw Jo Schlesser fatally wounded after his car crashed and exploded into a fireball on the race’s second lap. It was the Frenchman’s first – and last – grand prix…
(4 races, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972)
Dubbed the ‘mini-Nurburgring’ for its tortuous, winding layout, this beautifully sculpted track weaved its way around a rocky hill on the outskirts of the town deep in central France.
Dangerous, and with limited run-off, another unexpected problem for competitors was the volcanic rock that laced the perimeter of the track. It caused problems in the races: no fewer than 10 cars suffered punctures during the 1972 grand prix, and Red Bull supremo Helmut Marko, driving for BRM, was blinded in one eye after a stone thrown up by another car pierced his visor during the race.
Most memorable race: the sinuous nature of the track meant this wasn’t the most dramatic of venues, but the 1970 race was led by Jacky Ickx and Jean-Pierre Beltoise before Jochen Rindt took victory in his Lotus 72.
(1 race, 1967)
No, not the 8.5-mile La Sarthe classic, the archetypal Mickey Mouse 2.7-mile Bugatti Circuit, which used the start-line and first corner of the enduro track before noodling around a couple of slow hairpin turns and short straights. Even race winner Graham Hill conceded that it didn’t do much to showcase the strengths of modern grand prix racing. File under ‘forgettable’…
Most memorable race: 1967, although only by default…
(5 races, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984 – and 1982, as the ‘Swiss’ Grand Prix)
Distinctly old-school, Dijon featured a smattering of mid-speed corners and an uneventful hairpin, but almost every corner was contoured or cambered, making it a unique and challenging venue for the French Grand Prix.
Memorably, this was the venue for Keke Rosberg’s sole victory in his world championship-winning 1982 campaign.
Most memorable race: 1979, without a doubt. It heralded the first-ever victory in F1 for a turbo-charged car (Jabouille, in a sensational home win for Renault). Incredibly, this was overshadowed by an utterly sensational wheel-banging closing-laps tussle between Arnoux and Villeneuve for second place, which has gone down in folklore as possibly the greatest scrap in the history of F1…
(16 races, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1985 - 1990, 2018, 2019)
When it joined the calendar in 1971, the Circuit Paul Ricard was a brand-new state-of-the-art facility, featuring expansive run-off areas, a sequence of challenging ess bends, and, in the Mistral, a mighty 1.2-mile straight.
The track was cut in two just weeks before the 1986 race after Elio de Angelis tragically lost his life after crashing in the high-speed esses during pre-race testing. The new circuit may have lacked for grandeur, but was still punchy and effective. In 1988, it was the venue for Alain Prost’s sublime pass on Ayrton Senna – not a man you overtake easily, or often – when the Frenchman mugged the Brazilian under braking for Beausset as Senna struggled to pass a backmarker.
For 2018, it returned in its full glory, albeit emasculated by a mid-straight chicane.
Most memorable race: probably 1989, when Mauricio Gugelmin spectacularly rolled his March after running out of road in a first-corner melee.
(18 races, 1991 - 2008)
The French Grand Prix’s most frequent home, which is strange as the track always feels a little like a stop-gap between venues, such was the itinerant nature of the race. Still, the Magny-Cours track was liked by drivers (the fast corners were properly fast and the Sector Three sweepers were genuinely thrilling), and journalists (who, despite being in the middle of nowhere, enjoyed long, balmy summer evenings drinking red wine in the courtyards of local chateaux).
Most memorable race: 1999, when a downpour and an edgy fuel strategy allowed Jordan’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen to take an unexpected but entirely deserved win.
The return to Paul Ricard, nearly 30 years after it last hosted a grand prix, gave Formula 1 the perfect opportunity to merge its past with the present. The new-look venue, which has served as a Formula 1 test track, is a fantastic facility and a true driver’s circuit.
Vive la France!
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