FEATURE

Why I look forward to... the French Grand Prix

I guess there aren't many F1 reporters still around who can claim, as I can, to have seen a Grand Prix that was won at the wheel of a front-engined car. The race was the French GP of 1959, at Rheims, and the winner was Tony Brooks in a 2.5-litre Ferrari Dino V6. Although Brooks was a terrific driver, and won majestically, I didn't pay much attention because I irrationally resented the fact that I had missed seeing Juan Manuel Fangio race (he had retired from the sport immediately after the previous year's race).

I was spending that summer in Paris, working in a travel agency and shaking off the dust of Rugby school before going up to Cambridge. My employment qualified me for a special cheap railway ticket on a big old French train which made a special stop in the fields at the bottom of the circuit, and all the race fans clambered down before walking in to the track.

It was by far the hottest day that I had ever experienced in my life, so I was soon looking for something to drink. Even with an hour or more to go before the start, it appeared that all the water and soft drinks had sold out. Amazingly, however, champagne - grown locally, of course - was widely available, in plastic cups, at a price. This early exposure to the French habit of ripping off the customer at all costs has, I must admit, coloured my attitude ever since to that glorious but heavily flawed country.

The heat, incidentally, had some interesting side effects. Stirling Moss was making a guest appearance in a factory-loaned BRM, which in his magic hands was reasonably competitive with the Ferraris until its transmission-mounted rear brake failed (as it usually did) and sent him spinning at the Thillois hairpin. Moss tried but failed to bump-start the thing, and parked it, whereupon the car's hot exhaust started a small grass fire. The British pressmen spotted the flames, jumped to the wrong conclusions and dashed out of the champagne tent for the phones. The headlines in the first edition of Monday's Daily Express screamed: "Moss escapes death in 100 mph blaze."

The second-placed Ferrari finished well behind Brooks in the hands of Phil Hill, who was obviously in some distress as his head nodded in the cockpit. It wasn't until four or five years ago, chatting to Phil at Monza, that I learned that he had almost passed out in the car, and why. He told me that he remembered Fangio taking some kind of South American brew when he needed to improve his stamina, and he assumed that the active ingredient was caffeine. So Phil - who had already contested the F2 race before the GP - sank two pots of strong black coffee before the start, obviously unaware that it would have entirely the opposite effect from what he'd been expecting.

For 25 years after the war, France was without a suitable permanent F1 circuit, forcing the GP to be endlessly shuffled around a variety of venues, all on closed public roads which lacked any provision for safety. By far the most terrifying of these was the appropriately named Circuit du Charade at Clermont-Ferrand, five miles of flat-out unprotected swerves around the outside of an extinct volcano. The "paddock" was a stretch of knobbly cow pasture at an angle of ten degrees from the horizontal and the "pits" were tiny stalls made from scaffolding poles with rush matting for a roof. The French could get away with anything, it seemed.

I was sent to cover the 1969 race at Clermont by Motor Sport magazine, a task I accepted with deep reluctance only because our regular correspondent, the illustrious Denis Jenkinson, was to be unavoidably absent. Jenks wanted to stay in England that weekend because he was sprinting his Vincent motorcycle, so I turned in a tentative story which was then set in type. To my relief, however, it did not need to be published because a few days later Jenks submitted a report which had been cobbled together from a couple of phone calls and the stuff he'd read in the weeklies. Sad to say, this incident rather diminished my admiration for a reporter whose reputation rightly hung on his ability to make you feel he was always at the heart of the action.

French motorsport owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the eccentric millionaire Paul Ricard, who opened his privately-financed permanent circuit near Toulon in 1971. Monsieur Ricard had made his fortune selling his aniseed-flavoured drink and building up a huge liquor empire, but he was also obsessed with building roads at economic prices. He was convinced (probably correctly) that French government ministers were in corrupt thrall to the construction industry, so he built his circuit to show that good roads needn't be expensive.

For the first 10 or 12 years at Ricard, the French GP was held two weeks after the Le Mans 24 hour sports car race, so I got into the habit of driving to Le Mans with my girlfriend in my office car, writing up the story on Sunday night and moving down to the Mediterranean for 10 days' holiday under canvas before heading to Ricard. One year I found myself with two ladies in the party, and there are several ex-mechanics in the paddock who still remember persuading my companions to reveal the full extent of their suntans. Broad-minded readers may wish to know that no VPL (visible panty line) was observed. I suspect that alcohol may have been the release agent involved in this revelation.

No memory of the French GP would be complete without the story of the 1979 event, the famous Arnoux/Villeneuve wheel-banger at Dijon. The Dijon circuit had been built and was owned by a one-time all-in wrestling star whose reaction to published criticism of his facilities was uniquely French: he would track down the journalist involved and punch out his lights.

The press room at Dijon lacked TV monitors, which would not have been too serious an omission if there had been a few windows overlooking the circuit so that journalists could follow the action. Alas, there were none (and we didn't dare to complain). With no way of following the race from their desks, most of the specialist journalists were therefore obliged to watch from the edge of the circuit, and we discovered a suitable place overlooking the first corner which we used throughout practice and qualifying.

A few minutes before the start, as the drivers were completing the parade lap, a dozen military-attired CRS riot police arrived among us to insist that we depart, claiming that our vantage point was dangerous. By the time the race started there was a furious argument raging between the cops and our group of hacks, led heroically by the French journalist Johnny Rives, from the influential sports daily L'Equipe. Most of us completely missed the excitement at Turn 1 because we were standing our ground against the invaders and had our backs to the action.

With the race already underway, and no doubt recalling the events of May 1940 when the Wehrmacht had arrived at their country's borders, the cops shrugged their shoulders and switched into surrender mode. In my indignation, my first response was to boycott any more races in France. Happily, Messrs Rene Arnoux (Renault) and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) dispelled any such thoughts as they battled out the last 10 or 12 laps at close quarters, trading places (and bits of bodywork) in a gloriously madcap struggle for second place.

Does anyone remember the winner of that race? It was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, giving the Renault turbo its very first win after two years of setbacks and failure. It was sheer bad luck for the less than charismatic JPJ that his very first GP win should have been overshadowed, then as now, by that titanic battle between the two blokes he'd outclassed throughout the race.

Perhaps Jabouille was lucky, though. In those far-off days when the FIA presence at races was virtually imperceptible, and when lax enforcement of the rules was the inevitable consequence, French cars always did suspiciously well in their own country's GP events. Dijon 1979 was not the first French GP at which rival drivers complained about peculiar smells and watery eyes while following the Matras or Renaults. But it would have been churlish, wouldn't it, to have lodged a protest after that epic battle for second place?

All that has changed, of course. Nevertheless, I certainly won't be betting against another Renault win at Magny-Cours this weekend. Wouldn't it be nice if Fisi and Schumi were to stage a repeat of their predecessors' duel from 28 years ago?

Somehow, though, I don't think we can count on it.

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