The FIA Formula 1 World Championship is heading yet again to the South of France for the French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard. The circuit, 25 miles east of Marseille, is often derided for its vast oceans of distinctively striped paved run-off areas and its multitude of alternate course layouts. Though, I would put Paul Ricard in the broad category of circuits that produces good racing for every type of vehicle except modern Formula 1 cars. Paul Ricard is all-in-all an okay circuit, but France could do better.
The Grand Prix de France is the oldest automobile race in the world. The first edition of the race was held in either 1906 or 1895, depending on if you’re asking the Automobile Club de France or not. Though, it doesn’t feel that the Grand Prix that spawned every other Grand Prix carries the same gravitas as motorsport’s other prestige events, like the Indianapolis 500 or the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That is partly due to a lack of a truly permanent home like its counterparts across Europe. Spa and the Belgian Grand Prix or Monza and the Italian Grand Prix are examples that immediately spring to mind. However, the French Grand Prix had a home.
Reims is an historically significant city in the famous wine-making region of Champagne. For a thousand years, the Kings of France were crowned in the Reims Cathedral. General Dwight D. Eisenhower and the western Allies received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in Reims. And on 14 occasions between 1938 and 1966, the French Grand Prix was held on the Circuit de Reims-Gueux, just six miles west of the cathedral.
Reims-Gueux is the spiritual home of the French Grand Prix. The last iteration of the circuit measured 5.15 miles long. The course featured three sweeping high-speed corners and two straights that were each over a mile long. The straight leading into the final corner utilized Route Nationale 31, a two-lane highway that stretches from Reims to Rouen in Normandy, the finish site of the first-ever automobile race in 1894. The venue is just steeped in history for both the country and the sport.
Mercedes-Benz made its return to Grand Prix racing after the Second World War at Reims mid-season in 1954. Juan Manuel Fangio, five-time world champion and winner of the 1954 French Grand Prix with Mercedes, included Reims at a part of his part-time final season. In 1958, Fangio took part in his home Argentine Grand Prix, attempted the Indianapolis 500 for the first time and raced the French Grand Prix. At the time, the French Grand Prix was still considered one of the most prestigious races in the world, only equal to Le Mans and Indianapolis.
Everything changed after the final Grand Prix at Reims in 1966, when the race moved to Le Mans. The first paragraph of the Motor Sport report on the 1967 French Grand Prix ends with this sentence: “This year the Grand Prix de l’ACF not only lapsed, it stumbled and fell.” I should specify that the race moved to the new Bugatti Circuit at Le Mans, still the home of MotoGP’s French Grand Prix today, not the Circuit de la Sarthe used for the 24 hour race.
The Circuit de Reims-Gueux and the Circuit de la Sarthe are just indescribably French. Their use of narrow, somewhat-rural public roads harkens back to the seemingly ancient days of city-to-city racing, like the 1894 Paris-Rouen. These circuits also produce a unique high-speed style of racing that rewards both daring feats of driver skill and technologically advanced machinery. The Bugatti Circuit just wasn’t that. Many referred to the 1967 race as “the Grand Prix of Car Parks” which you could probably call the race at Paul Ricard today.
The 1967 French Grand Prix would be the last organized by the Automobile Club de France (ACF), the vaunted body that created organized motorsport. The 1968 race would be arranged by controversial administrator Jean-Marie Balestre and his Fédération Française du Sport Automobile (FFSA), who still do today as well as administer all of French motorsport. Balestre figuratively gutted the race, stripping it of its traditional name, the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France. The FFSA dubbed its race simply as the Grand Prix de France.
While the old pit building still stands at Reims, Formula 1 and the FFSA don’t seem to have any intention to ever move the race back. As the world championship continues to move to more lucrative markets, it would be nice to go back and revive some of the spirit that originally captured the imaginations of the masses during Formula 1’s first and second decades.