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Rediscovering Francois

It was going to be a run-of-the-mill French Grand Prix press conference, with the latest news on ticket sales, a cocktail or two and some canapes. Nothing special. The venue was the Atelier Renault in the Champs Elysees in Paris. There were the usual crowd and, as usual, faces which you never see in an F1 paddock. And then there was a face that didn't seem to fit. There was no real need for a double-take. It was Francois Hesnault, the former Grand Prix driver who walked away from the sport without a backward glance at the age of 26 back in 1985.

Back then he seemed older. His face always seemed a little world-weary and even in his twenties it was creased. Nineteen years later he seems to have changed little. Yes, he's a little older and now wears glasses. Perhaps he's even a little gaunt but he looks healthy and has a rich dark tan.

Ah, one thinks, the life of a playboy.

"No," he says. "I've been in Africa on business."

I always liked Francois and have always believed that he was a better driver than history relates. My colleagues have always found that amusing but then they only ever saw him race in Formula 1. The first time I met him was at Albi in the summer of 1983. He was driving for David Price Racing in the French Formula 3 championship. He had scored a bunch of wins that year and was fighting for the French title.

Francois was lucky by birth, being born into a wealthy family, but money is not the answer to everything. When he was 16 years old Hesnault suffered very serious injuries to one of his hands in a shooting accident. It took eight operations and a lot of pain to repair the damage. By the time he was 19 Francois was ready for military service but his chosen route was not the job of a driver or mechanic as with many racing drivers. Hesnault was commissioned as a junior officer in one of France's best known parachute regiments and saw action in West Africa.

Having acquired a taste for adventure he set up his own trading company to do business in countries where others feared to tread. He was 21. When he was not wheeling and dealing in Africa and the Middle East, he decided to try his hand at a few hillclimbs. He discovered that he had a considerable talent behind the wheel and so signed up to attend the famous Winfield School at Magny-Cours.

He missed the chance to win the Volant Elf because of an attack of hepatitis but raised the money needed to race in Formula Renault the following year and won a victory in his debut season, no mean achievement at the time, and the following year finished third in the series. It was a promising start and he jumped straight to Formula 3 and was third in the French Championship in his rookie season. He was intent on winning the title when we met back in 1983. A few months later Francois was able to negotiate a break in Formula 1. He had connections and with backing from Antar and Loto, he was able to win a place at Ligier alongside Italian Andrea de Cesaris. The team was emerging from a rough patch and had a supply of Renault engines.

When the F1 circus tipped up in Jacarepagua at the end of March 1984 for the Brazilian GP there were an impressive group of new boys: Martin Brundle and Stefan Bellof were at Tyrrell, Ayrton Senna was at Toleman and Hesnault was at Ligier. The Ligier-Renault was not bad but Hesnault had little experience and so was overshadowed by the wild but rapid Andrea de Cesaris.

"Kenny Roberts says that when you are racing you need to do a lot of running in order to learn to slow things down in your head," Francois says now. "That was my biggest problem because I did not test very much that year. My one big chance was at Dijon, because I knew the circuit and I did well and qualified 15th and I was very confident for the race."

And then politics intervened. Andrea de Cesaris's car was found to have had an empty extinguisher bottle and so lost its qualifying time. With rain falling on Saturday he did not qualify and Guy Ligier took the bizarre step of withdrawing Hesnault's car, a move which allowed Andrea to start from the back of the grid.

After that the relationship at Ligier was strained.

"When you have the sixth best Renault engine and you do not do much testing and you do not know the tracks it is not easy," says Francois.

At the end of the year he talked to Toleman about replacing Senna (who was moving on to Team Lotus) but he ended up signing a deal to be Nelson Piquet's team mate at Brabham, the team that was then owned by Bernie Ecclestone. The operation was built around Piquet, who had been there since 1978 and the second drivers rarely did very well. The BT54 was not a bad car but the team's decision to use Pirelli tyres was not a good one. Hesnault's Brabham experience lasted for just a few months. In May he was testing at Paul Ricard when the car snapped out of control in Verreries, the high-speed sequence of corners after the pits on the old track. The accident that followed was huge and the Brabham ended up, wrapped up in catchfencing, with Hesnault unable to get out of the cockpit until help arrived.

"I told Bernie that something had broken on the car," he says. "And all he said was that things don't break on Brabhams. So I left and I am glad that I did because the following year Elio de Angelis had almost the same accident."

The difference was that de Angelis died, asphyxiated in the cockpit because the marshals did not have large enough fire extinguishers to put out a small fire and there were not enough people to turn the car over. De Angelis's only injury from the accident was a fractured collar bone.

Hesnault re-appeared only once: driving a third Renault in the European GP at the Nurburgring at the end of 1985. After that he disappeared and we wondered what had happened. He did reappear once at a Belgian Grand Prix in the late 1990s but much had changed and the F1 paddock was not to his taste. He was happy out of it, running his companies, living a quiet life in Switzerland and bringing up three daughters (who are now 17, 15 and 13). The main Hesnault company was floated in 2000, just before the current economic downturn, but Francois remained a major shareholder and in recent years has been heavily involved in running the business, having to shoulder the responsibility of downsizing the company and laying off staff.

"That was terrible," he says sadly.

Francois's passion today is rollerblading. He was always thin but while the rest of us have enjoyed a little middle age spread Hesnault has grown leaner.

"I get up at five o'clock every morning and for two hours I rollerblade on the streets of Paris," he says. "Paris is always empty at that time. You know, you get down low, like a speed skater. I like it very much."

He is still fascinated by the technology of Formula 1 and asks if there are still a lot of characters.

"Brilliant people," he says. "Like Gordon Murray."

He's more interested in F1 than he used to be, but for him there are still only two racing drivers who stand out.

"Jim Clark," he says. "And Senna, of course."

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