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JANUARY 15, 2002

What happened to all France's racing drivers?


Olivier Panis, Hungarian GP 2001
© The Cahier Archive

No Frenchman needs to be reminded that his country was the original home of motor racing. The first motor race was held there in 1894. The first Automobile Club was founded in Paris the following year and all the early races were between Paris and other European cities. The French racing industry was way ahead of the rest of Europe in the early years of the Twentieth Century with firms such as De Dion Bouton, Panhard, Mors, Renault, Peugeot, Darracq, De Dietrich and Richard-Brasier. Delage, Ballot, Bugatti, Salmson and Delahaye took up the challenge after World War I and it was not until the 1930s that the French had been eclipsed by the Italians and the Germans.

Immediately after World War II France had a brief revival with Jean-Pierre Wimille and Raymond Sommer amongst the best drivers in the world but both were killed and it was not until 1955 that a Frenchman won a World Championship Grand Prix. Maurice Trintignant was that man but no Frenchman would win again until Francois Cevert's victory for Tyrrell in 1971.

The 1970s and 1980s were to be the heyday for French drivers thanks largely to the support of Matra, Elf and Renault.

The formation of the Elf oil company in 1967 was a key moment as Elf Marketing Manager Francois Guiter decided to use the sport to promote the new oil company and began pumping money into Matra and then into Renault's racing programs. Renault played a big role, establishing Formula Renault and the Renault 8 Gordini Championship to act as place for youngsters to prove themselves. Elf also began to support the Winfield School at Magny-Cours and then helped the winners to move up the motor racing ladder. Elf poured much of its money into Tyrrell and several of the new generation of drivers found themselves racing for the British team, notably Francois Cevert, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier and Didier Pironi.

Jean-Pierre Beltoise won a race for BRM in 1972 but it was not until the late 1970s that Frenchmen began to win Grands Prix on a regular basis. Guy Ligier took over the Matra F1 operation in 1976 and with backing from the French government-owned Gitanes cigarette company, hired Jacques Laffite. Laffite won the Swedish Grand Prix in 1977, the first Frenchman driving a French car, powered by a French engine to win a World Championship GP. There followed the arrival of the Renault F1 team with Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Arnoux. Ligier expanded to two cars for Laffite and Depailler and in 1979 Ligier challenged for the World Championship and the Renault factory team won its first race at Dijon.

It was the start of the Golden Age for the French and in 1983 there were even two Frenchmen (Rene Arnoux and Patrick Tambay) driving at Ferrari. But then the tide turned: Depailler was killed; Jabouille and Pironi suffered serious leg injuries which forced them out of the sport. Ligier slipped behind. And when Renault failed to win the World Championship in 1983 the team began to break up: Alain Prost went to McLaren. Elsewhere Laffite moved to Williams.

Renault Sport was closed leaving team boss Gerard Larrousse to try to run his own team and Ligier was well-funded but continued to underperform. Others tried to join the fight but AGS was never a success. By the early 1990s the only team left was Ligier and it was under the control of Italian businessman Flavio Briatore.

Outside F1 there was a thriving motorsport industry thanks to the exploits of Renault, Peugeot and Citroen plus specialist racing firms such as ORECA, DAMS, Automobiles Martini, Graff, Apomatox, Snobeck and Saulnier. French aerodynamicists were in much demand, many of the top men in F1 coming out of the European Space Program in Toulouse.

Drivers continued to be helped up the racing ladder by Elf and Gitanes which supported the likes of Olivier Grouillard, Paul Belmondo, Eric Bernard, Erik Comas, Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis. Marlboro too had a flourishing driver program, overseen by ORECA.

But then the French government stepped in. In October 1990 the government passed a ban on tobacco and alcohol advertising - known as Evin's Law, after Health Minister Claude Evin. The result was devastating when the ban came into force in January 1993. The only support left came from Elf but Guiter had retired and a revamped scheme which replaced the Volant Elf promotion was not a success. When Elf decided to go public the company withdrew from F1. The string of French drivers in F1 dried up. French youngsters get to Formula 3000 but then disappear off into sportscars or touring car racing.

Now Prost Grand Prix (the old Ligier team revamped) is in dire trouble and Olivier Panis is the only Frenchman left racing in F1. Renault is back, having bought the Benetton F1 team, but the team is a British one, pretending to be French.

The French national motor sport federation FFSA is trying to rebuild a structure in which drivers can flourish with a new scheme in league with Total Fina Elf.

But it remains to be seen whether this will find replacements for Jean Alesi and Panis.

Perhaps the tide is turning again...