France and F1: A relationship resurrected?

By on Friday, September 2, 2011

As France moves ever closer to a return to the Formula One calendar, we take a look back at the nation’s involvement in motor racing and how a dwindling interest could about to be resurrected.

The weekend of June 26th/27th of 1906 was a significant one in the history of motor racing. Around the area of Le Mans, a race between cars took place. Races had taken place previously, but this was the first one to be given the title of a ‘Grand Prix’. After twelve hours of competition over two days, the race was won by Ferenc Szisz, a Hungarian in a Renault (a statue of Szisz sits at the entrance to the Hungaroring). It boosted Renault’s sales, despite the fact that it didn’t prove the superiority of French machinery (only 7 of the 23 French cars finished). No British or American manufacturers entered, believing that the race was simply French propaganda. British magazine The Motor quoted French daily newspaper Le Petit Parisien in saying that “If we 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.”

And so the French Grand Prix was created after the inaugural 1906 event. The race wasn’t held for three years from 1909, nor was it held during the First or Second World Wars or in 1955.

Held in a number of towns, cities and then eventually structured tracks. Northern cities such as Le Mans and Amiens, and then further across France, such as Strasbourg and Lyons. In 1950, the French Grand Prix joined the F1 calendar and remained a prominent fixture: firstly at the famous Reims and Rouen-Les Essarts circuits, then the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans, Clermont Ferrand, Paul Ricard, Dijon and then Magny Cours, home for over a decade and a half.

1979 and the famous fight between Villeneuve and Arnoux

The French Grand Prix has played host to some famous moments in Formula One history. For example, the 1979 running of the event in Dijon. No-one remembers that it marked the first victory of a turbocharged car in Formula One, with Renault overcoming the reliability problems that had initially plagued their car. Nor that it was Jean-Pierre Jabouille who took  a victory on home soil, driving a French car (Renault), on French tyres (Michelin), powered by a French engine (Renault), burning French fuel (Elf). What is remembered is the epic battle between Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve, in the days before DRS and overtaking boosts.

In 1990, the race took place at Paul Ricard with Leyton House running 1-2 in the race, before Ivan Capelli encountered an engine problem and dropped to second three laps from home. This was astonishing from the same team whose car had failed to qualify at the previous round in Mexico. Imagine HRT dominating at Monza – that’s how much of a turnaround it was.

The move to Magny Cours was met with mixed response but the overwhelming view was that a Formula One race was being held in the middle of nowhere, with little convenient access. The circuit wasn’t hugely popular either, with regular complaints focusing around the limited overtaking. Nevertheless, it had its moments: Schumacher feeling the wrath of Senna in 1992, Coulthard showing Schumacher his feelings in 2000 and Schumacher (yes, him again) claiming the 2002 title at the track despite the fact the race was held as early as July. In fact, out of the 18 races held at Magny Cours, Schumacher was victorious in eight of them – including that amazing four stop strategy in 2004 – despite not being present in 1991, 2007 or 2008.

Despite the French Grand Prix’s prominence on the calendar, its place was never secure. You only have to look at the fate of the British Grand Prix for much of the 2000s to see that history plays little role in securing a Grand Prix. The middle of the decade saw an increasing demand for races, particularly from the Asian market, and races had to be lost. Austria and San Marino were dropped in 2003 and 2006 respectively, but France hung on by a thread. For years, former president Francois Mitterand provided the support to the event, held in his home constituency of Nievre.

Three times, in 2004, 2005 and 2008, the event was put in doubt through financial issues, whilst further French involvement was lost at the end of 2006 when Michelin pulled out following the debacle in Indianapolis 2005. Eventually, in October 2008, the FFSA cancelled the 2009 French Grand Prix and planned a major upgrade of the Magny Cours circuit, which was eventually cancelled (although a major highway linking the circuit with other trunk roads was opened earlier this year). You can argue that the FFSA had only themselves to blame, but it simply couldn’t compete with the money being put on the table from other countries as the calendar boomed. Since 2004, Bahrain, China, Turkey (now dropped), Valencia, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Korea and India have joined the calendar with the USA returning next year and Russia joining in 2014.

Plans for a new track fell through

There had been some plans to resurrect the event, but a lot were unsubstantiated and unlikely to ever succeed, with a track near Disneyland rumoured and then a sports complex near the Renault factory at Flins-Les Mureaux in the pipeline. Neither showed much intention of progressing and plans for the latter were scrapped in December 2009.

It seems odd not to have a race in the country where the FIA is based and where said organisation’s president comes from. France is surrounded by countries heavily involved in Formula One: to the North there’s the United Kingdom, with three drivers, where eight teams are based and where 300,000 people flock to Silverstone each season. To the North East there’s Belgium and Germany: three tracks and seven drivers, including the reigning world champion. In the South East corner sits the glamorous principality of Monaco and further along the coast is Italy: two drivers, one circuit and one of the most famous teams in the world. And lastly, sits Spain: two drivers, two races and one team. Yet France sits in the middle, devoid of involvement but for Renault engines.

But now, that could be about to change.

Rumous started about plans to bring back the French Grand Prix and these were confirmed by the French Prime Minister François Fillon in June; "It is true that I have put in place a team [to] attempt to create a proposition that will allow the organisation of a new grand prix in France. It (the team) is led in particular by one of my former colleagues Gilles Dufeigneux, working with the French motor sport federation, the FIA and also Eric Boullier and the director of Le Castellet, Gerard Neveu."

Paul Ricard could make a return

Plans have been circulating for some time about a race-sharing deal with Belgium, with Spa Francorchamps known to be under pressure financially and keen to find a way of cutting costs. It may not been a popular move with the fans, but such a deal is the only way the French Grand Prix can return, a point that former star Jean Alesi picks up on; “The drivers have a lot of fun at Spa, and I believe it’s very important that we race here always because of the spectacle, the history, and so on,” the 1995 Canadian GP winner told Lotus’s website. “But the problem is money. Spa doesn’t have the rights money to compete with places like Abu Dhabi. It would be such a huge shame if we lost Spa, but I say it’s much better to go to Spa every two years than not at all. The compromise could be good for everyone. As a proud Frenchman I would love to see the French Grand Prix back, and by sharing the calendar slot we could retain both and they would be sustainable.”

Sharing with Spa doesn’t sound ideal, but for French motorsport it would be the preferable option. Race sharing deals have happened – and still do happen – in F1. Ecclestone has said that 20 races should be the maximum number and with Russia joining in 2014 and many other countries wanting a look in, holding a French race every year would be financially and logistically difficult. However, the deal has not yet been done.

All weekend in Spa, the news was that a deal was about to be signed. Ecclestone flew in from his daughter’s wedding for the meeting two hours before the race. Fillon and Viscount Davignon, representing the Belgian side were to sign the deal. But a few minutes later, it emerged that Fillon had been summoned to an emergency meeting by president Sarkozy, so instead sent a deputy. However, Davignon says a deal cannot be done until Ecclestone substantially reduces his hosting fees. Therefore at the moment, France still does not officially have a grand prix. It probably will do from 2013 on alternate years, but as we speak, it does not.

2009 was not a happy time for Romain Grosjean...

The return of the French Grand Prix would also coincide with the most exciting French talent for years. Since the retirement of Alain Prost in 1993, France has not had a major star to cheer on. Olivier Panis provided some home by winning the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, whilst Sebastien Bourdais and Romain Grosjean had brief stints in 2008-9, neither with success. However, there are four men – including a reformed Grosjean – who could be in Formula One very soon and who could have the chance to end France’s winless streak that currently sits at fifteen years and rising.

...But now he's the GP2 champion

Romain Grosjean, Jules Bianchi and Charles Pic are at the top of the GP2 championship, the feeder series for Formula One.  Grosjean clinched the title last weekend in Spa, after sitting out the second half of the 2009 championship – which he could have won – when he was promoted to F1 with Renault. Those seven races reflected badly on Grosjean, who was seen as erratic and not up to standard. Despite that, Grosjean was within half a second of Alonso on average even though he had not tested the Renault R29 before his debut in Valencia that summer. Renault was a team in disarray after the Crashgate scandal and the car was, quite frankly, a dog. Grosjean was one of the scapegoats and he found himself on the scrapheap prior to 2010. Via AutoGP, he returned to GP2 mid-2010 with DAMS and by now he says he is a reformed driver. After a costly mistake in Valencia this season, Grosjean came under fire. Since then, he hasn’t been out of the top four in any race and deserves his success. Eric Bouiller has spoken in praise of Grosjean, although both accept that Grosjean will not race this season after his chance bit him in 2009. For a man of Grosjean’s calibre not to be in Formula One in 2012 would be a crying shame.

Jules Bianchi has been tipped as the next big thing for several seasons now, although since the start of 2010 his form has dipped slightly. Bianchi swept to the 2009 F3 Euroseries title (when such a crown meant something) and was in the running for Massa’s seat after his injury. An indifferent debut GP2 season saw him eventually finish 3rd in the championship, behind Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez. This season started disastrously, with him dropping to as low as 15th in the championship after Valencia. After a first win at Silverstone, he recovered his form and is 3rd in the running, behind Dutchman Giedo van der Garde.  When the Ferrari Driver Academy was created, Bianchi was one of the first to be signed and he tested the F10 in the young driver test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last season. A logical progression seems to be that Bianchi will stay in GP2 next season and move up to F1 in 2013, in the seat vacated by Sergio Perez (another FDA member), who in turn would replace Felipe Massa. Bianchi has the pace to be in F1, but tends to get involved in too many accidents in GP2 that are largely of his doing.

Jean-Eric Vergne has tested for Toro Rosso

Charles Pic may not have the outright speed of Grosjean or Bianchi at the moment, but he does have contacts. Pic’s family business GCA Trans is the primary transport company for Total and has a fleet of 7,000 trucks. The firm tends to buy hundreds of trucks each year from companies such as Renault. Therefore rumours have circulated attaching him to Renault. Pic is also still young: at 21 years old, he could stay in GP2 next season, win the title, and still be attractive enough to F1 teams.

Then there’s the man that has been guided down a different career path by Red Bull: Jean Eric Vergne. The man from Paris dominated British F3 last season and has shown himself to be capable of fighting at the front in World Series by Renault. Toro Rosso’s future is currently looking bright and Vergne will test for the team on Fridays from Korea onwards. A race seat in 2012 is certainly a possibility, naturally dependant on whether Jaime Alguersuari or Sebastien Buemi are retained and how well Red Bull feel Daniel Ricciardo has performed at HRT.

So there you have it; for a country steeped in Grand Prix history, a drought of Formula One could soon be at an end. It’s easy to forget that France is still heavily involved in motorsport for the Le Mans 24 hours is one of the most famous races in the world and has been dominated by Audi and Peugeot (the latter is French) for many years. Citroen dominates in WRC thanks to the incredible talents of Frenchman Sebastien Loeb. He has been unbeatable in WRC since 2004 and his arch nemesis, the ‘anti-Loeb’ is set to take over from him in the near future. His name is also Sebastien and he’s also French. With high ranking politicians involved, four French drivers at the top of the junior formulae ladder and a deal likely for a race at Paul Ricard, France’s involvement with Formula One could be about to restart.

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