Paris in pain

I was in a cab in Paris when they announced the venue of the Olympic Games of 2012. I have to admit that I was surprised when Jacques Rogge said "London" instead of "Paris". You could almost hear the sharp intake of breath on the boulevards and in the bars. The bands, which were there to celebrate, suddenly went flat. The balloons hanging everywhere seemed to deflate. The cab driver with whom I had shared this defining moment shrugged and mumbled something unpleasant about the city's homosexual mayor.

Oddly enough, I was on my way from Paris to London and the Olympics were everywhere. The Eurostar people were all wearing teeshirts proclaiming support for Paris 2012 and everywhere there were posters. Waiting for the train to board, I found myself looking at one of these posters and I was quite shocked to see a list of big French corporations which were supporting the bid. It was almost a case of trying to work out who was not there on the list.

It struck me as odd that at the French Grand Prix a couple of days earlier none of these companies had been involved. Why not? I thought. Grand Prix racing is a big sport and over a four-year period gets infinitely more coverage than do the Games. Magny-Cours is not the perfect venue but I like it. It is my home race and I am lucky in that I stay in a nice house in the village of Magny-Cours. There are none of the travelling problems which many have to suffer. Admittedly finding somewhere to eat dinner is not the work of a moment but, frankly, in F1 we get all the food we need in the paddock - and it is top quality.

But Magny-Cours will never be a big race. Getting a huge number of people to travel into the middle of nowhere without decent hotels and restaurants and with nothing to look at apart from fields of cows, is a bit of an uphill struggle and I have often wondered why the French do not look elsewhere. Years ago I remember FIA President Jean Marie Balestre trying to talk his way to a Grand Prix in Paris. That was back in the early 1980s and the proposal was to run a race on the streets around the Place de la Concorde. Eventually this was ruled to be impossible because of a law dating from October 10 1955 (in the wake of the Le Mans disaster) forbidding racing in towns. Only Pau retains the right to host a race and a modification for the 1955 law would have to be done by the Prime Minister's office. Balestre later tried a new idea and began a campaign to revive Montlhery but no-one would fund it.

For years I have believed that the best place to do this sort of thing is in the Bois de Boulogne. For those of you who do not know Paris, the Bois is like New York's Central Park. It is a vast place which has long been the playground for Parisians. It caters for any number of sports and features two racecourses, a couple of chic sporting clubs where the rich play tennis and shoot clay pigeons. There are stables, soccer pitches, boating lakes, restaurants and miles and miles of walking, cycle and horse trails through the woods. There is also an established road network, a lot of which is closed off to traffic.

The idea of a race in the Bois is certainly not new. In fact it goes back to the very dawn of the sport, indeed before it. Everyone thinks that the first motor race was in 1894 but that is not strictly true because seven years earlier the cycling magazine Le Velocipede organised a race for horseless carriages in the Bois de Boulogne. The only problem was that Georges Bouton (of De Dion-Bouton fame) was the only entrant. He completed the race distance and was declared the winner but as we know from recent experience races without many cars do not capture the public imagination.

However the Bois had its moment of glory in August 1945, a week after the end of World War II, when the Association Generale Automobile des Coureurs Independants hosted the first post-war motor race in the Bois de Boulogne. The track was 1.72 miles in length and ran around one of the lakes. The big problem was not the bureaucracy but rather where to find sufficient cars. But the Grand Prix de la Liberation happened - and a huge crowd turned up to watch.

"Each spectator understood that the moral winner of the day was the country itself," wrote Charles Faroux, the leading racing writer of the era.

The country wanted to send a message to the world: that France had been the cradle of racing at the very start and was there again for the rebirth.

Perhaps now would be a good moment for Paris to bounce back from its Olympic Games disaster to try once again and show the world how to run a proper Grand Prix. The country was willing to spend zillions on the Olympic Games, so why not a Grand Prix? Renault is doing well and Paris is, after all, the home of the FIA.

"If we stop asking ourselves why we cannot have another Grand Prix driver, we will never get one," said Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais the other day. "We have to be positive. French companies are interested when they hear the words F1."

And let us face it, Paris has had it for the Games now for at least 15 years. London has the 2012 Games and so you can bet that the International Olympic Committee is not going to go for another European city in 2016 and that means that the next possible date would be 2020 and by then none of the current politicians will still be around.

So if Paris wants global sport it should get on the phone to Bernie Ecclestone.

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