Race Facts – French Grand Prix

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France was the birthplace of modern Grand Prix racing over 100 years ago, but it’s been 10 years since the last French Grand Prix and 25 years since the Paul Ricard circuit hosted a round of the World Championship.

Organized motor racing originated in France during the last years of the nineteenth century, but modern Formula 1 racing can be traced back to the first running of the French Grand Prix on a 103-kilometer circuit near Le Mans in 1906. The term Grand Prix translates as ‘Grand Prize’ in French and refers to the 45,000 Franc prize money paid to the winner of the race. As the Franc currency was pegged at 0.290 to the price of gold, the winner of the inaugural French Grand Prix received the equivalent of 13kg of gold!

The French Grand Prix has been staged on sixteen circuits over the years. Early circuits were comprised of mainly public roads, including the first running on the legendary Le Mans road course in 1921 and several deadly one-off events that that took the lives of both competitors and spectators. It wasn’t until 1925 that the first dedicated circuit was built, south of Paris. The 12.3 kilometer L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry featured 51-degree banking and hosted the French Grand Prix eight times between 1925-1937. Another legendary venue was the Reims-Gueux circuit in the Champagne region of north-east France. This circuit first hosted the French Grand Prix in 1938 and also featured in the first year of the modern Formula 1 World Championship in 1950. The last race at Reims-Gueux in 1966 was won by Australian Jack Brabham.

In 1971, the French Grand Prix moved to the newly-built Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille, which was named after (and financed by) the eccentric millionaire famous for Ricard, an anise and licorice-flavored aperitif. The original 5.8km circuit was dominated by the long Mistral straight. Coupled with other high-speed sections, it was notoriously hard on F1 engines, which often failed after being subjected to full revs for much of the lap. The Paul Ricard circuit hosted 14 editions of the French Grand Prix between 1971 and 1990, and has also been a popular venue for winter testing due to its mild climate and airstrip. Since 1999, the Paul Ricard circuit has been owned by the family trust of ex-F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

From 1991-2008, the French Grand Prix found a new home at the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours (or simply Magny Cours) in the center of the country. The track had been built in 1960, but fell into disrepair in the 1980s before being rejuvenated by the local government and winning the contract to stage the French Grand Prix. The circuit was a favorite of Michael Schumacher, who won a record eight races at Magny Cours between 1994-2006. Suffering from low spectator numbers due to its remote location and poor access, the death knell for Magny Cours was signed in 2008 when the French Motorsports Federation (FFSA) withdrew its financing for the event.

Fast forward ten years and the French Grand Prix returns to the Formula 1 calendar in 2018. A five-year deal to stage the race at Paul Ricard was announced in late 2016 by Christian Estrosi, President of the Regional Council of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, who promised the event would be an important driver of economic development and tourism for the region.

French Grand Prix: did you know?

  • Alain Prost won his home race on six occasions, including four wins at Paul Ricard
  • French manufacturer Renault won the first French Grand Prix in 1906, then had to wait another 73 years for its second victory in 1979! Renault has won a total of six French Grands Prix, most recently in 2005. Another French manufacturer, Bugatti, also won the race six times between 1926-1936.
  • Elio de Angelis was killed at Paul Ricard in 1986 when the wing on his Brabham BT55 detached at high speed, pitching the car over the barriers. The Italian was barely injured in the initial impact, but died from smoke inhalation as insufficient track marshals were on hand to extricate him from the burning car.
  • The 1989 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard is best remembered for a huge first-corner crash caused by Mauricio Gugelmin in the Leyton House, who locked his brakes and hit the back of Thierry Boutsen’s Williams. The Leyton House ended upside down on Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari, and the race had to be restarted. Gugelmin and his Leytone House teammate Ivan Capelli almost caused an upset win one year later, running 1-2 for much of the race before Alain Prost took the victory.
  • Paul Ricard offers 167 track configurations, from 0.8km to 5.5km

The French Grand Prix returns on June 22-24, 2018. Start planning your trip now!

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France was the birthplace of modern Grand Prix racing over 100 years ago, but it’s been 10 years since the last French Grand Prix and 25 years since the Paul Ricard circuit hosted a round of the World Championship.

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About the Author ()

Andrew Balfour is the Founder and Editor of F1Destinations.com. He originally hails from Adelaide, where he went to his first F1 race way back in 1987. He's been resident in Europe for almost 15 years and travels regularly to F1 races around the world.

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