Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Au Revoir, Magny Cours

So it looks like we've just seen the last French Grand Prix, for the foreseeable future. I have to confess that my reaction, on first hearing the news, was so what? No more dreary, overtaking-free Grands Prix at Mangy Course? Who cares?

Still, as Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you got 'til it's gone... I have to confess that, I'd never really noticed how spectacular a modern F1 car looks through the Nurburgring chicane, or how tricky the Imola chicane is, with its blind apex, leading to the big stop at Chateau D'Eau. Come to that, Grande Courbe is pretty noteworthy these days, as one of relatively few really fast, really challenging corners on the F1 calendar. There was even a fair amount of overtaking last Sunday - with the Alonso's pass on Heidfeld into Imola, of all places, perhaps the single stand-out move of the season thus far.

There's another reason to regret the passing of the French Grand Prix, though. It is another sign that the sport is losing touch with its roots, treating its history with disdain. From an Anglo-centric perspective, it is easy to think of the UK as the natural home of motorsport, and to some extent that is true. More than half of all the F1 teams are based here, we've produced more Formula 1 champions than any other nation, and at the grass roots, we have a large number of circuits and a huge number of club-level championships.

But the sport did not originate in Britain. Motorsport was born on the other side of La Manche. The earliest city-to-city races were almost exclusively French affairs and the first race to carry the title Grand Prix took place at Le Mans in 1906. While its winner, Ferenc Szisz, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is noteworthy that he won in a Renault - a French car. Those French roots are still reflected today in the fact that the sport's governing body is the Federation International De L'automobile, and has its home in Paris.

In the early years of Grand Prix racing, France was one of three major players. For much of the 1910s and 1920s, Germany's Mercedes Benz and Italy's Alfa Romeo and FIAT fought it out with French marques like Peugeot, Delage, Talbot and, most famously, Bugatti. Only as Mussolini and Hitler's regimes discovered the propaganda value of motorsport, and began to pump serious money into Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Auto Union, did France's pre-eminence in the world of Grand Prix racing begin to decline.

Despite this, as the world stood on the brink of war in 1939, France could lay claim to 3 of the best racing drivers of the era: Robert Benoist, Louis Chiron and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Sadly, the Second World War claimed the life of Benoist, and ruined the career prospects of Chiron who was well into middle age by the time top level motorsport began to re-establish itself after the war. Wimille, who was 10 years younger than Chiron, and might have offered a serious threat to Fangio and Ascari in the early 1950s, was killed in practice for the 1949 Argentinian Grand Prix.

Perhaps the most dramatic indication of the decline of French motorsport in the post-war years is the fact that, after Charles Pozzi's win in the non-championship 1949 French Grand Prix, the home fans would have to wait 30 years for another home victory. There were some moderately successful French racing drivers in the intervening years. Maurice Trintignant won a couple of Grands Prix, as did Patrick Depailler. Francois Cevert just might have become an immensely successful driver in the mid 1970s, but was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix before we really got to see what he was capable of.

Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for much of the period between 1950 and 1980, French drivers paid the price for the fall of the French racing teams. Grand Prix teams may profess to hire on the basis of talent alone, and that may even be true, but a strong racing culture will inevitably breed more top F1 drivers. Surely it is not mere coincidence that the UK has produced more world drivers champions than any other country and has, over the same time period, dominated the world of F1 car manufacturing. If you doubt this, then ponder the otherwise unfathomnable lack of first rate German F1 drivers until the emergence of Michael Schumacher.

Things began to change in the 1970s when the state oil company, Elf, and the tobacco company, Winfield, began to put driver training and development programmes in place. They were probably the most involved such schemes of their time, and in 1980, they hit the jackpot, with the arrival in F1 of Alain Prost. Prost's debut season, at the struggling Mclaren team (in the pre-Ron Dennis days) netted only a trio of points finishes, but it was enough to impress the team bosses at Renault, who were very much a team on the up as the advantages of their turbo engine experience paid dividends. If you think Lewis Hamilton's exploits have been impressive this year (and I wouldn't argue with that), then consider this: On no occasion when the car lasted did Prost finish lower than 3rd - every race he finished, he finished on the podium. Still, with 9 retirements, even a late winning streak wasn't quite enough to put him in contention for the world title.

The 1982 season again saw Prost frustrated by the indifferent reliability of the Renault, but 1983 looked for sure to be his year. Sadly, the great French victory never came - Prost's relationship with the Renault team went into meltdown as the season neared its conclusion, with the performance of the car going off the boil, and Nelson Piquet snuck in to win his second title for Brabham. (As an aside, it is now generally reckoned that Piquet's late season form owed much to illegal fuel being used by Brabham, and Prost's 1983 Renault hangs from the ceiling of the the Chapel at the Musee Des Arts et Metiers in Paris - the French-built championship winning car that wasn't). Renault sank into oblivion, gone from F1 by the end of 1985, and Alain Prost went on to win 4 world championships, driving for English teams, and establish himself as without question the best French driver of all time.

Alain Prost's success appeared, superficially, to have a positive effect on French motorsport. A flood of drivers began to emerge from the Elf Driver programme and elsewhere, but just as one suspects that Javier Villa, Felix Porteiro and the hordes of Spanish single seater hopefuls are no match for Fernando Alonso, so Yannick Dalmas, Philippe Alliot, Philippe Streiff, Olivier Grouillard, Eric Bernard and Erik Comas were ultimately not from the very top drawer. Then, as the 1990s got into their stride, the Elf driver scheme became mired in the more general corruption scandals surround the oil giant, Evin's law put paid to tobacco sponsorship, and the number of French drivers in F1 shrank slowly back to the current figure of 0.

Without top level drivers, a country's interest in Formula 1 is liable to wither away. Witness the difficulties Bernie Ecclestone has in selling F1 to the Chinese or the Malaysians - or, for that matter, the Americans. That's bad news for race promoters, and in particular for the FFSA, who were faced with the difficulty of bringing large numbers of people to Magny Cours.

The French Grand Prix has been held in various locations over the years - the fantastic Mini-Nordschliefe at Charade, the daunting Rouen Les-Essarts and the sunny, relaxed Circuit Paul Ricard on the Riviera. Some of them were better, location wise than others. Some of them were better, as circuits than others (Reims was particularly dreary, now I think of it). Magny Cours, though is built in the middle of nowhere. Why? Our old friend, political corruption again. Magny Cours became the home of the French Grand Prix at the behest of the Mitterand government (the same bunch who threw endless state tobacco money at Guy Ligier's people for seemingly no return whatsoever) because, amongst other things, he is reputed to have had a lot of friends in the area who appreciated the construction contracts. It would be like closing Silverstone down and building its replacement in Northumberland, or north of Inverness. And so, with no home heroes to cheer and no nearby population to come and watch, it is perhaps no surprise that in the end, the French Grand Prix died a death.

With no teams (unless one counts the Enstone-based Renault), no drivers and no Grand Prix, the outlook for the future looks pretty bleak. Is there a chink of light? Yes, I think. For F1 is not the whole of motorsport. France has two iconic events, the Monte Carlo rally and the Le Mans 24 hour race. It has 3 time world champion Sebastien Loeb lording it over the rallying world in a Citroen C4 (I have a nagging suspicion that, given some serious track time, he'd be as good a circuit racer as anyone, too). It has Sebastien Bourdais, aiming for his fourth consecutive Champ Car title for Newman Haas. Now, will someone give him an F1 drive next year?

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Anonymous Clive said...

Another excellent post. Whatever our feelings towards the French, the fact remains that they invented the sport and their contribution has been massive. The thought of a Formula 1 championship without a French GP is terrible.

Or am I just an old fogy mired in tradition...?

4:00 AM  
Blogger CarExpert said...

That’s a good post. Frence really did contribute a lot. They even performed very well in the early years. They have chosen powerful vehicles including the Mercedes Benz, equipped with superior quality parts like the Mercedes Benz Water Pump, essential for cooling purposes, especially when the engine gets too heated on a high speed on race.

3:57 AM  

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