It might have only returned to the schedule in 2018 after a decade-long break, but the French Grand Prix is in fact the oldest race on the Formula 1 calendar. First run in 1906, it was the first race to carry the ‘grand prix’ name in its title. Since then, the race has been staged at no fewer than 16 different venues. Many of these were formed from closed public roads, especially in the early years.
In the history of the Formula 1 world championship that began in 1950, a total of seven different circuits have been used for the French GP. Through the first two decades, the race rotated mostly between Reims, Rouen and Clermont Ferrand: three fast and demanding public road courses.
Then there was Le Mans: the most famous racing venue in all of France. It was on the public roads around the town of the same name where the very first grand prix took place back in 1906. But the world championship’s first visit to Le Mans in 1967 would be to the much smaller Bugatti circuit. The mainly slow-speed turns laid out around an area previously used as a car park proved unpopular with drivers and spectators, and Formula 1 has never been back to Le Mans since.
However, there were problems with the other tracks of the time too, mainly safety. Jo Schlesser lost his life in what would be the final race to be held at Rouen in 1968. The 1972 race at Clermont-Ferrand was the last French Grand Prix to be held on a road course – after Helmut Marko, the Austrian who today oversees Red Bull’s Formula 1 teams, had his driving career ended when a rock was thrown up by Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus and pierced his helmet visor, blinding him in one eye.