JUNE 26, 1995

What you may not know about Magny-Cours

THE first racing circuit at Magny-Cours was built 35 years ago by local farmer Jean Bernigaud on land attached to his farm.

THE first racing circuit at Magny-Cours was built 35 years ago by local farmer Jean Bernigaud on land attached to his farm. The original track was just 1.21 miles in length but soon became famous because of a racing school which was established at the circuit in March 1963. Originally it was a Jim Russell School, paid for by Shell and British gentleman racer Bill Knight and among its first pupils was Johnny Servoz-Gavin, who went on to become an F1 driver. In 1965 Knight took over the school and renamed it Winfield. At the same time Tico Martini, a friend of Knight's from the island of Jersey, set up workshops and began building racing cars.

The racing school flourished and the list of Volant Shell winners is a tribute to the skill of the instructors. It included Francois Cevert, Jacques Laffite and Rene Arnoux. In 1975 Shell withdrew and was replaced by Elf, and the school has since produced talents such as Damon Hill and Indycar driver Franck Freon, while the sister Winfield School at the Circuit Paul Ricard turned out Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Olivier Grouillard, Paul Belmondo, Eric Bernard, Jean Alesi, Bertrand Gachot, Erik Comas and Olivier Panis. The Volant Elf has also been won by Americans, the most famous being SCCA Players Toyota Atlantic Championship runner Richie Hearn, who graduated in 1991.

The growth of French motorsport in the late 1960s was explosive and Bernigaud decided to expand his track, building an extension which created two interconnected circuits, which could be combined to form a 2.4 miles track. Soon after the work was finished, Bernigaud died; and the track was taken over the local motor club, although Bernigaud's widow Jacqueline remained an important part of the administration.

Traditionally, Magny-Cours's biggest meeting of the year took place on the May Day national holiday with the European Formula 3 Championship usually topping the bill. By the 1980s, however, the track had deteriorated badly, and after 1984 there was no international racing at Magny-Cours.

In 1988, however, the local council decided to completely rebuilt the track in an effort to boost growth in the region. The project was dreamed up by French President Francois Mitterand - who was a local politician - and his Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy, the mayor of Nevers, the largest town near the circuit. Massive government and regional investment resulted in a new track, an industrial park and new roads.

The new circuit followed the route of Berignaud's 1971 layout, but all the corners were changed: Jacques Laffite and ReneÊArnoux helping on the design which included several corners copied from other tracks around the world. There was a fast sweeping curve named Estoril, a tight hairpin similar to the one in Adelaide and two fast kinks, known as Nurburgring and Imola.

The industrial park - the Technopole - attracted some of France's top teams with huge incentives and financial assistance offered to get the teams to move. Among the first to arrive was Ligier - Guy Ligier being a local man and a friend of Mitterand. Today Magny-Cours is the home of the Apomatox F3000 team, Snobeck Racing Services, a top touring car and ice-racing team and the highly successful Promatecme F3 team.

Amid much controversy, Grand Prix racing left Paul Ricard and moved to Magny-Cours in July, 1991, with Mitterand and Beregovoy there to watch the racing. Initially there were not enough hotels to house an F1 invasion, and so the tradition of Magny-Cours airborne spectators began. During the French GP weekend, the circuit becomes the busiest helicopter field in the world, with thousands flying in and out of the track.

In 1992 the race was nearly stopped by a strike of French truck drivers, who blockaded roads all over the country, but the F1 trucks snuck in through the country lanes and departed in a high-speed convoy with French police outriders.

Magny-Cours's political influence no longer exists: Beregovoy (who had become Mitterand's prime minister) shot himself a few miles from the circuit in mysterious circumstances on May 1, 1993 - as the racing teams were packing up after the traditional May Day meeting. And a couple of months ago, Mitterand's term of office ended. The French GP will be held at the track once more in 1996 but afterwards is expected to move back to Paul Ricard.