Features - Historical
SEPTEMBER 19, 2000
The history of Magny-Cours
BY JOE SAWARD
It was back in 1960 that Jean Bernigaud built a racing circuit on land attached to his farm, alongside the RN7 close to the village of Magny-Cours.
The village is six miles to the south-east of Nevers, a small busy town on the upper Loire, 150 miles south of Paris.
Bernigaud's track was just 1.21 miles in length, but its reputation grew quickly. It was the world-famous Ecole de Pilotage Winfield which really put Magny-Cours on the map. It was the kindergarten for the entire generation of French F1 stars of the 1970s and 1980s.
The school was established by Bernigaud in 1963 with with assistance from Jean Lucas and Gerard Crombac. It would be renamed Winfield later but the list of successful pupils would grow quickly: Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Francois Cevert, Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Jacques and Laffite were all early graduates.
By 1969 the track record stood to Depailler with a lap time of 49secs. French racing at both national and international level was growing rapidly. It was time to expand.
Bernigaud decided upon an extension which would create two interconnected circuits, which could be combined to form a track of 2.39 miles.
Traditionally Magny-Cours's biggest meeting of the year takes place on the May Day national holiday and the new track was opened on May 1 1971.
Bernigaud died in November 1971 and the circuit was then taken over by the local motor club -- the ASA Nivernais. Bernigaud's widow Jacqueline remained an important part of the administration.
In order to help fund the track industrial units were built and Automobiles Martini and ORECA became the famous of Magny-Cours's resident companies.
In the late 1970s international racing arrived at the track with the European Formula 3 Championship topping the bill at the annual May Day event. European F3 would remain a regular visitor until the series was cancelled at the end of 1984. By this time, however, the track had deteriorated badly. For three years there was no international motor racing at Magny-Cours.
In 1988, however, the circuit was acquired by the regional conseil de la Nievre which planned to overhaul the circuit completely as part of a plan to revive the flagging economy of the department.
The project gained immediate support from the French President Francois Mitterand, who had once headed the local government of the Nievre, and his Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy, the Mayor of Nevers.
Massive investment was put into the plans which included the track, a huge new industrial park, an 18 hole golf course and a motor museum. A new motorway was planned to connect the track with France's network of autoroutes and there were viability studies for the extension of the runway at Nevers-Fourchambault airport.
The industrial park -- the Technopole -- was built to attract France's top racing teams. They were helped by huge incentives including a free business licence for five years and financial assistance in the construction of premises.
Among the first to arrive was the Ligier team. Today Magny-Cours is the home of Snobeck Racing Services and Dominique Delestre's Apomatox Formula 3000 team. In the next year the DAMS F3000 team will also be moving in.
The new track follows the basic route of Berignaud's 1971 layout, but every corner has been changed. There are still two tracks which can be run independently -- an inner circuit of 1.07 miles and an outer track of 1.62 miles. These connect to form a full-length 2.65 mile. The design profited from the involvement of both Jacques Laffite and Rene Arnoux and includes a number of corners which have been copied from tracks around the world. There is a curling sweeper (named Estoril), a tight hairpin (Adelaide) and two fast kinks (Nurburgring and Imola).
The track incorporates all the latest safety features. There is no metal barrier, but rather concrete walls and gravel traps. The entire track is covered by closed-circuit television cameras. The pit building features 45 garages, a control tower and all the necessary press and hospitality facilities. Across the track from the pits is a secondary pitlane with extra garages. The entire track has been carefully cambered to avoid standing surface water in the event of rain.
For spectators the new circuit affords remarkable viewing potential with three-quarters of the circuit visible from any given point.
There have been problems. The pitlane entry road was not very successful and the original new surface had to be relaid with a different type of tarmac. There was also the controversy surrounding the removal of the French Grand Prix from Paul Ricard.
The Le Castellet track has hosted the French Grand Prix since 1982. It is the most advanced facility in France, but the powers-that-be insisted on Magny-Cours for the next five years.
Ther are still problems. An F1 race needs a considerable local infrastructure and Nevers does not have sufficient hotels to house an F1 invasion. There are plans for a new hotel to be built at the track and talk of major improvements to the local roads -- but these will take time.
It is not surprising that there has been a storm of protest over the switch away from Paul Ricard but, clearly, having friends in high places can have remarkable results.