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JUNE 24, 1996

Where are we going this week?

THERE has been motor racing in the sleepy village of Magny-Cours since 1960 when a local farmer Jean Bernigaud built a 1.2-mile track on some of his land. This did not attract worldwide attention until a racing school was set up in 1963. The Jim Russell Racing Drivers' School at Magny-Cours was funded by Shell and run by Englishman Bill Knight. One of the first pupils was a young Frenchman who would go on to become an F1 star - Johnny Servoz-Gavin. Two years later Knight took over the school, changed its name to the Winfield School and convinced a friend of his from the island of Jersey - TicoƊMartini - to set up a racing car-building business.

French motor sport took off in the late 1960s and Bernigaud expanded Magny-Cours - naming it the Circuit Jean Behra after the 1950s French racing hero. An extension created two interconnecting circuits which combined to make a 2.5-mile track. Unfortunately Bernigaud died soon afterwards. His widow Jacqueline took over, allowing the local motor club to run the circuit. In the late 1970s Magny-Cours developed a major event on May Day with European Formula 3 racing as the headline event. The circuit, however, received no real investment and by 1984 had deteriorated badly. International racing ceased to visit the track.

Madame Bernigaud, however, was a well-connected lady and a close friend of a local politician called Francois Mitterand. He had risen through the ranks to become President of France in 1981 and he and his Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy, the mayor of Nevers, Magny-Cours nearest town, dreamed up a scheme to boost the Nievre region by turning Magny-Cour into the motorsport capital of France. Massive government and regional investment resulted in a new track, an industrial park and new roads. Guy Ligier - another of Mitterand's pals - agreed to relocate his F1 team from Vichy to Magny-Cours and huge incentives were offered to other racing teams.

The new track followed the route of the original, but in an effort to produce a spectacular track corners were copied from other circuits - hence the sweeping curve known as Estoril, a tight hairpin called Adelaide and two fast kinks, known as Nurburgring and Imola.

Part of Mitterand's plan was to take the French GP away from Paul Ricard and in 1991, amid much controversy, the race arrived. The F1 circus was not very impressed. Hotels were few and far between, the track was dull, but a huge crowd turned up to watch Nigel Mansell win for Williams-Renault. The following year the event was nearly stopped by a strike of French truck drivers, who blockaded roads all over the country. For the F1 truck drivers this was a challenge and almost all got through, sneaking along the country lanes. They departed in a high-speed convoy with French police outriders after another Mansell victory.

By the time of the 1993 race Beregovoy (who had become Prime Minister) had been defeated in the elections and had shot himself a few miles from the circuit in mysterious circumstances. The Mitterand government was running out of steam. The Grand Prix, however, went on regardless with Alain Prost delighting the crowds with another Williams-Renault victory. In 1994 Michael Schumacher won for Benetton-Ford but last year had Renault power for his second victory.

Such has been the investment in Magny-Cours that - even without Mitterand - the race track has recently won another five-year contract to host the French GP - a decision which will keep the money rolling into the region. Mitterand, it seems, was right.