A HACK LOOKS BACK

French GP

This weekend's French Grand Prix will be the last to take place at the Magny-Cours circuit, famously located in a remote part of the country to which it has always been difficult to attract spectators in sufficient numbers to pay the increasingly onerous costs of staging a major international event. Despite some energetic efforts to publicise the race, the promoters have now been forced to give up the struggle, leaving France without any obvious alternative venue for an event whose history can be traced back for more than a century. While the corporate swells who demand five-star hotels will not miss Magny-Cours, Mike Doodson will be saying a regretful adieu to 'La France Profonde' and the attic in the village of Magny-Cours where a local family has hosted him for the last few years.

The history of modern motor racing is firmly rooted in France, where that nation's emerging car tycoons were quick to understand that competition successes could have publicity value and thus embarked on the famous pioneering series of city-to-city road races at the turn of the last century. Those races, suicidally dangerous though they were, provided the foundation of road racing as we know it today, and our sport's international federation is still located in Paris. Down the ages there have been some good French drivers, of course, although in modern times most of them got a helping hand thanks to the financial support provided by the French executives of oil companies and tobacco conglomerates. A surprising number of the oil men subsequently found themselves before the courts, accused of diverting funds to their personal use, sometimes after using the 'driver training' programmes as a cover for their self-enriching schemes.

I mention this because I sense that France, while always in the forefront among race-organising countries, has somehow never been exactly comfortable with a multi-national sport like ours. Even Renault, whose association with motor racing goes right back to company founder Louis Renault and his class-winning success in the Paris-Rambouillet event of 1899, didn't manage to find its feet in modern F1 until it learned - as Ferrari was already well aware - that patriotism was not necessarily a vital ingredient when recruiting drivers and engineers.

It's unfortunate that France's politicians took even longer to learn that lesson, for it was they - not hard-headed businessmen - who made the seemingly bizarre decision to build a permanent circuit in the middle of nowhere. In the post-war period, when British race organisers were using old military airfields as circuits, their counterparts in France continued to take advantage of their legal right to close down public roads for races. As a result, their country became notoriously short of permanent circuits. For a while the race alternated between Dijon, which had no proper access roads, and Ricard, which was too close to the Mediterranean beaches ever to attract a large crowd in summer. When Monsieur Paul Ricard got tired of subsidising the French GP, the French government decided to get involved.

It goes without saying that mixing politics with sport is a disaster. It's all very nice for London to be getting the Olympic Games in 2012, and I'm sure that we will make a good fist of organising them. But consider this: even if the projected cost estimates are only slightly exceeded, the money being spent on the games would pay for an all-new top-class F1 circuit and a couple of GPs in Britain every year for the next 50 years or more. Bernie Ecclestone's rate card may be going through the roof, but you can't argue with his contention that F1 is a bargain when compared with having to provide facilities for circus acts like synchronised swimming or dressage.

When the French government invested in Magny-Cours, it did so for a reason. The President at that time had his political base in the area surrounding Magny-Cours, so building a circuit there allowed him to square away some of his allies. Not all the details of the financial arrangements have been made public (this is France, after all), but suffice to say that a lot more money was spent than would have been the case if the project had been put into the hands of someone who was spending his own money rather than the taxpayers'. It has even been suggested to me that the new pit buildings had to be demolished and rebuilt when it was discovered that one of the President's supporters had not been allowed to get his beak wet when the first contracts were shared out. There was even a mysterious suicide of a local dignitary who shot himself in the head. His memorial, which stood in the paddock for several years, was a rounded black obelisk. Rather pretty it was, too, although I always thought that the hole pierced in the top of the stone was somehow inappropriate ...

Before I started reporting F1 events, I was already well acquainted with French circuits as a reporter on F2 races. I was sent to Reims, Rouen, Albi and even the 'old' Magny-Cours, although that was to cover the Tour de France Automobile. In those days the little track was France's equivalent of Mallory Park. My main memory is not so much of the races as of the two-hour lunch break when everyone sat down, in a tent, to a belt-busting repast complete with unlimited wine. No wonder I decided not to go back to being an accountant.

My favourite F2 event was always the one at Pau, in the south-west of the country, where a Monaco-style event was staged through the streets of the ancient city. The first year I went to Pau, for Motoring News, I was just leaving the office when the office secretary (as she was titled in those non-PC days) informed me that although a room had been reserved for me in a city hotel, we hadn't received confirmation. "Don't worry," she said, "we've been staying there for years and I'm sure everything will be OK."

Early the following morning, with suitcase and typewriter in hand, I arrived at the hotel at the exact moment when its last remaining wall was in the process of being demolished by a huge crane with a big steel ball on the end of a chain. I spent the next four nights six flights up in a room on the top floor of Pau's only one-star hotel, courtesy of a French F2 team, who had taken pity on me and billeted me with a Japanese mechanic with whom I had no common language. In a double bed ...

The most terrifying of the French road circuits was Clermont-Ferrand, which I first visited in 1969. I drove down in the ageing (and painfully slow) Simca 1500 estate car which I had been landed with as my staff car. The closest that the F1 teams got to a hospitality unit at that time was the articulated unit owned by the Gulf oil company, used primarily as a rest centre by its sportscar drivers at long-distance events. Gulf also supported the Brabham team, so the unit was sent to France at the suggestion of John Wyer, the tough martinet who managed Gulf's sportscar racing activities.

On Saturday afternoon, before final qualifying, Wyer invited a group of British journalists to join him for refreshments, which came as a welcome break at a circuit which didn't even have proper pit facilities, let alone a restaurant or cafe for the press and mechanics. We were settling down to our tea and sandwiches when there was a knock on the door.

"Come in," said an irritated Wyer. The door opened and there was Jochen Rindt, Jack Brabham's team mate and (presumably) a contracted Gulf driver.

"Do you mind if I come in and change into my overalls here?" said Rindt.

"Well, alright," said Wyer, with obvious reluctance, "but as you can see I am busy entertaining these important journalists, so be quick about it."

A chastened Rindt climbed into his gear and left. On many occasions since then I have had cause to think that John Wyer had his priorities well sorted out. Journalists more important than drivers? Nothing wrong with that in my opinion.

Gulf certainly looked after journalists. Several hours after the race, as the fuel trucks were preparing to leave the circuit, I was told that there was some of the company's racing fuel available if I wished to fill up my own car. I can report that the old Simca seemed to have taken a new lease on life as she almost flew back to England on the special F1 brew.

For more than 20 years after Ricard opened for business in 1971, the circuit was the most popular in Europe for F1 testing. Attending a test was a good way to do a relaxed interview with drivers, who often had long periods of inactivity while their cars were being modified with the latest tweak. In 1988 I had made an arrangement with Ayrton Senna to do an interview with him at Ricard, at a midsummer test, and had flown down specifically to see him.

I drove to the circuit in mid-morning, settled down in the McLaren area of the paddock, and patiently waited for Ayrton to find a moment to join me. But he seemed to be constantly busy, glancing at me from time to time but making no effort to sit with me, even during the periods when it was obvious that his car was out of action.

Eventually he came over and asked me if I wanted anything. When I reminded him that we were due to record an interview, he put his hand to his head and groaned, explaining that he had clean forgotten our arrangement. At that time, happily, we had a pretty good relationship, and he could not apologise too much. He had to go back to his flat in Monaco, he said, but would I be prepared to do the interview next day, in the apartment? This involved me finding a room in a hotel, but it was the only solution. In the event, I got Senna at his most relaxed. I doubt if many journalists were ever invited to visit him in his luxurious digs in the Houston Palace, so I made the most of the occasion. The result was one of the most memorable interviews of my entire career and I was able to use the material for years to come.

Ricard still exists, of course, under the ownership of none other than Bernie Ecclestone. One of the first things he did on acquiring the old place was to tear down the grandstands, and he has made it abundantly clear that the circuit is to be used strictly for testing. How ironic, you might think, that the man who runs the F1 show has no interest in running races at his own track.

But then Bernie, more than anyone, knows the exact cost of promoting a Grand Prix. And if some government in a far-flung country thinks it's a good PR move to stump up all those millions to have its own Grand Prix, then he's not going to stand in their way. After all, I doubt that the politicians there will ever bother to study what happened when their counterparts in France got involved in building a race circuit and promoting a Grand Prix. The chances are that by the time they find out, they will already have signed a multi-year contract with Mr E.

No wonder he's wealthier than you or me.

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