French GP en route to Paul Ricard

THE 1997 French Grand Prix will be held at Paul Ricard, the circuit near Toulon in the south of France, and will host the race until the year 2001.

The decision was taken last Friday by the committee of the French motor sport federation - the FFSA, presided over by Jean-Marie Balestre - and needs to be ratified by the international automobile federation.

There were three circuits in the running for the new contract: Ricard, Magny-Cours and Le Mans. The committee listened to delegations from each track: Patrick Ricard and Francois Chevalier from Ricard; Bruno David and Jean-Paul Gervais from Le Mans; and Philippe Gurdjian and Jean Glavany from Magny-Cours. A vote was then taken and Ricard won easily with 21 votes. Magny-Cours received just five, Le Mans three and there were two abstentions.

Ricard has plenty of work to be done but the Paul Ricard company, the local and regional governments have all agreed to help fund the changes - including upgrading of the local roads - to boost the local economy.

The announcement was a surprise in that Magny-Cours was the firm favorite to retain the race. The election of Jacques Chirac as French president last year, however, deprived Magny-Cours of the powerful political connections it has enjoyed with Francois Mitterand and his cronies. It was their support which ensured the reconstruction of Magny-Cours in the late 1980s and in the race being switched from Paul Ricard to Magny-Cours in 1991.

The news is a disaster for Magny-Cours, coming in the wake of the recent job cuts at Ligier. Magny-Cours established the "Technopole" industrial park around the Ligier factory in an effort to build up a local motor racing industry. This is now falling apart and the remaining teams at Magny-Cours are quite likely to relocate to the Signes industrial park at Paul Ricard.

Built in 1969, Paul Ricard was named after the drinks magnate who conceived and funded the circuit. When it opened it boasted the best facilities in the world, and for many years it was considered to be Europe's safest facility. It quickly became a favorite winter testing location thanks to the climate and the fact that there is an airstrip situated alongside the track. It hosted its first French GP in 1971, and then after a period of alternation with Dijon-Prenois, was the permanent home of the French GP between 1985-90.

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