F1 GP: everything about the French Grand Prix

What’s Paul Ricard like to watch?

With its vast and distinctive brightly-coloured run-off areas, the Paul Ricard circuit is one of the most modern-looking venues on the grand prix calendar. And in recent times at least, Formula 1 has only been going there since 2018. But its racing heritage runs much deeper than might be imagined at first glance: the track at Le Castellet near Marseille held its first French Grand Prix back in 1973 following its construction a couple of years earlier with financing from drinks magnate Paul Ricard.

Ricard’s track shared the hosting of the French GP with Dijon-Prenois for over a decade, and then had the race to itself from 1985 to 1990. This coincided with a glorious period for France in Formula 1 thanks mainly to Alain Prost, who was a product of the Winfield Racing School that is still based at the circuit today. And the most successful French driver in Formula 1 history also remains the most successful of anyone at Le Castellet, with four victories.

Later, the circuit was repurposed as a state-of-the-art test track complete with the laying of the blue and red run-off zones, featuring more abrasive surfaces to help slow cars in the event of an off. Such safety upgrades have enabled the circuit to retain many of its original features, such as the fast Signes corner and preceding Mistral Straight, which offers some of the best overtaking opportunities.

WHAT’S PAUL RICARD LIKE TO DRIVE?

The modern Paul Ricard circuit is more of a challenge to drive than it may appear. Even though drivers can afford to make mistakes without damaging their cars, it is still a demanding one to get right, with a varied layout that can make the perfect setup hard to find. The first sector ends with a slower, technical complex that leads onto the 1.8-kilometre long Mistral Straight – which is today punctuated by a chicane.

The straight is named after the strong Mistral wind that blows across the circuit, which is situated high on a plateau. When it’s blowing, the wind provides an extra challenge for car handling. And while high temperatures and clear sunny days are what the region is best-known for, it’s not impossible for a rain shower to be blown onto the track.

Wet or dry, Signes is the most challenging corner on the circuit and also the fastest, taken at upwards of 290kph. It begins a sequence of turns towards the end of the lap which exert the greatest forces on the cars and the tyres.

WHAT’S PAUL RICARD LIKE TO VISIT?

Paul Ricard is known as the ‘summer holiday track’ – and what else would you expect from a circuit that’s even named after an aperitif? The track is also known as Le Castellet: the name of the perfectly preserved medieval village that’s nearby, clinging onto a hillside that overlooks the sparkling Mediterranean. And there are several similar gems within striking distance of the track: one of the most picturesque being La Cadiere, which oozes southern French charm. All of them have plenty of bars and restaurants, which is handy as the best thing to do in the area is…absolutely nothing. Just soak up the atmosphere.

The most famous villages are found on the coast though, where beautiful people such as Brigitte Bardot used to congregate (and still do). Villages such as Cassis, Bandol, Sanary and St Cyr are like a Mediterranean paradise, made even more heavenly by the local wines (which go together wonderfully with fish and seafood). Don’t forget to visit some vineyards and buy some wine while you are there: most winemakers are happy to organise tours and tastings.

Those wanting a bit more action can take part in all forms of water sports, from a relaxing swim to water-skiing, diving and paragliding. Probably the best way to interface with the water is on a yacht: the coastline seen from the sea is absolutely stunning. You’ll never want to get off.

To cool down, duck into the shade of the many caves and grottoes in the surrounding mountains: the Grotte de Sainte Marie Madeleine is a stunning church that’s actually built within a cave. Is this the most beautiful race of the year? Almost certainly.

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