F1: a midsummer
night's dream

F1: a midsummer night's dream 01

Especially as Paul Ricard always evokes memories of the time when Formula 1 – as well as being a technical challenge and a huge global business – was also all about sheer joie de vivre.

The years that passed without a French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard were definitely a loss for the automotive world. But even the races that took place in Magny-Cours from 1992 up until about 10 years ago were significant chapters in F1 history. Especially during Michael Schumacher’s golden years with Ferrari – who in 2002 became champion at an earlier point in the season than anyone had ever managed before, securing the title at the French Grand Prix with six races still to go. 

Two years later, Schumacher tackled the same race with no fewer than four pit stops, driving every lap like a qualifying lap and winning in front of Fernando Alonso’s Renault, which he would never have beaten otherwise, had he followed the same strategy. Magny-Cours has formed part of history, as the home of the Ligier team too. But Paul Ricard….well, that was something else.

Let’s deal with the naming first. In actual fact, the circuit carries the name of the perfectly preserved medieval village of Le Castellet nearby, clinging onto a hillside that overlooks the sparkling Mediterranean. But the more familiar name of Paul Ricard comes from the classic drink, which in the 1970s went from being merely a sponsor to the track’s official nomenclature.

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And then of course, there was the unbelievable speed seen there. The long straight that climbs slightly (known as the Mistral Straight, just like the famous wind that blows from north to west and occasionally bothers sun-worshippers on the Cote d’Azur) was a true icon of Formula 1.

In the 1980s era of turbocharged engines capable of 1400 horsepower, a group of ex-drivers led by three-time world champion Jackie Stewart used to regularly set out on foot from the paddock to see for themselves the point at which the drivers would brake at the end of the straight. This was truly the braking area of champions: after going flat out for more than half a minute, taking your foot off the gas just five metres later than your rival could be the key to a significantly quicker lap time. Above all, it was a true test of bravery, because coming straight after it was a tricky right-hand corner. 

This author remembers well how, on Saturday’s qualifying day in 1987, even Stewart was amazed. Following a crazy duel between Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet, during which they all tried braking later and later, Sir Jackie was stunned by a certain Ayrton Senna in the Lotus-Renault, who didn't seem to lift off at all. 

Possible? Or were the three-time world champion’s ears deceiving him?

One lap later and the explanation was clear: Senna wasn’t exactly keeping it flat but was instead continually blipping the throttle to keep the engine close to maximum revs – which gave the impression that he was constantly pedal to the metal. His lap times demonstrated the efficacy of the technique.

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But there are other gentler memories too. Paul Ricard, above all, meant summer. And with the Mediterranean coast only a few kilometres away (albeit on roads choked with traffic, as will be the case this year too) the warm evenings were magic. The beautiful people came in their droves: including Brigitte Bardot, attracted by the characters of the day such as Francois Cevert, killed in a terrible accident at the 1973 United States Grand Prix, but always remembered as a legend in his homeland. Celebrities flocked to Paul Ricard to celebrate speed by day and then party by night, in the restaurants and bars of the chic coastal towns that surround the track. 

Bandol was a favourite destination, echoing with music late into the hot night: drivers, team managers, journalists and fans packed cheek by jowl into the same places, back in the more innocent days when there were fewer barriers and less political correctness. 

At one table just a couple of metres from the beach, in 1987, a young but already very powerful Bernie Ecclestone was seated: back in the days before he became Formula 1’s boss, a business he recently sold for a hefty sum to Liberty Media. Bernie didn’t have a care in the world, laughing and joking because he couldn’t quite manage to pick up his spaghetti with the crab claws that had been offered in lieu of a fork.

Mr E may have been fooling around, but he was winning as well. One of the wins claimed by his Brabham team (in fact, the very last one) will go down in French Grand Prix history as being inextricably associated with Pirelli. The photo of the final podium says it all: Nelson Piquet celebrating on the top step and pointing to the ‘P’ logo on his cap – showing the world just how important the tyres were to his impressive victory. Scented with French perfume…

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