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NOVEMBER 21, 2003

No French GP in 2004?

As we reported in September, there are fears for the French Grand Prix in 2004, because the race promoter cannot raise the money to pay debts to Formula One Management, let alone fund the race for another season. The FIA World Council included the race in the 2004 calendar in October but made it provisional, pending a financial settlement.

There are rumors doing the rounds in France that there is no sign of any financial deal and that the race will have to be called off when the FIA World Council meets again in Monte Carlo in early December.

There is likely to be quite an outcry when the news does break and it seems that the promoters are hoping that this will enable them to find money to save the race.

The loss of the Grand Prix would be a huge blow for a nation which prides itself on being the birthplace of the sport and the only real hope there is is that the French government will come to the rescue, although that does not look at all likely in the current political and financial climate.

If the cancellation is confirmed, it will be the first time since 1955 that the French GP has not happened. On that occasion the race was cancelled in the wake of the Le Mans disaster in which nearly 100 people were killed when a Mercedes-Benz sports car cartwheeled into a public enclosure. With the exception of wars and the years of recovery the race has happened every year since 1911 and ranks as the world's oldest event, the first Grand Prix de l'ACF having been held at Le Mans in 1906.

There was a time when the French GP received huge support from the French government. The race at Magny-Cours was the idea of President Francois Mitterand, who wanted to use F1 to boost the economy of the region and in 1986 instructed the Conseil General de la Nievre, the local state government, to buy the old circuit from its original owners. This was completely rebuilt with government money and in 1990 became the home of the French GP, under the guidance of Jean Glavany, a socialist politician. After the death of Mitterand and the election of Jacques Chirac the race lost its support at the highest level but the local government continued to back the event under the control of local Prefect Roland Hodel. After last year's elections Hodel was replaced as prefect but remained in charge of Magny-Cours and while the local government remains dominated by the socialist party there is little incentive for the national government to pour more money into the region. The economy remains dominated by agriculture and the investments made at Magny-Cours have made little difference to the employment or image of the region.

French motorsport has been on a downward trend since the early 1990s when the then government banned tobacco and alcohol advertising. The privatization of Renault and Elf knocked big holes in available budgets and in F1 the Larrousse and Ligier (later known as Prost) teams have all gone to the wall. The only French team left is Renault F1 but the chassis side of the team is French in name alone and is based in Britain.

The only good news on the horizon is that Renault Sport is expected to begin supplying engines in Formula 3000 in 2005 and that will encourage French teams to graduate to the formula.