History of the French Grand Prix 30 Jun 2007
Magny-Cours is just one of seven circuits to have hosted the French Grand Prix since it joined the Formula One calendar back in 1950. As speculation continues in the media over the future of the event, we look back at the races long and glorious history
The French event's original home was the ultra-fast Reims track, which had also staged Grands Prix in the pre-war era. The triangular-shaped circuit was fashioned from public roads and produced average speeds of well over 160 km/h, even in 1950. The inaugural championship race was won by Juan Manuel Fangio for Alfa Romeo, a feat he repeated the following year.
In 1952 Rouen-les-Essarts, another street circuit, held its first French Grand Prix, with Alberto Ascari unstoppable in his Ferrari. The Italian not only took pole position, he also led from flag to finish and claimed the fastest lap of the race.
For the following three events the race returned to Reims, with British driver Mike Hawthorn breaking Fangio's stranglehold on the circuit in 1953 after a close battle between the two, which saw them trade the lead countless times. Fangio took his revenge with victory in '54, there was no French race in 1955, and another Brit, Peter Collins, took the honours in 1956.
Between 1957 and 1964 the race moved between the two venues, Reims staging the Grand Prix five times and Rouen three. Among the names added to the winners' list were Tony Brooks, Dan Gurney and Jim Clark. Perhaps most notable though was 1961 victor Giancarlo Baghetti, who remains the only man to have won on his world championship debut.
Set in the scenic Auvergne mountains, Clermont-Ferrand hosted its first of four French Grands Prix in 1965. Jim Clark led from start to finish and when the race returned in 1969 fellow Scot Jackie Stewart did the same. Jochen Rindt was victorious the following year, while it was Stewart again for the circuit's final world championship appearance in 1972.
The spiritual home of French motorsport has always been Le Mans, venue for the famous 24-hour sportscar race. However, the Formula One world championship has visited the famous circuit just once, in 1967. The Le Mans-Bugatti track, as it was known, used only the start line and the pits of the traditional layout, with the rest of the lap comprising a purpose-built infield section. Jack Brabham took an easy win, but the circuit proved unpopular with drivers and spectators alike and never staged another Grand Prix.
Paul Ricard joined the Formula One racing calendar in 1971. Unlike its predecessors, it was a purpose-built circuit, boasting good facilities, though not a particularly inspiring track design. Jackie Stewart was its first winner, while Ronnie Peterson, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Mario Andretti and Alan Jones all took victories in the decade that followed.
During that time, the race switched between Paul Ricard and the Dijon-Prenois circuit, which debuted in 1974. Peterson took the inaugural win, but the sub-one minute lap time meant traffic was a problem. The track was duly extended for 1977, with Andretti victorious after John Watson's leading Brabham started to splutter on the final lap.
The 1979 race at Dijon was an all-French affair. Jean-Pierre Jabouille became the first Frenchman to win a world championship round on home soil and it was the maiden victory for national team Renault (and incidentally for a turbocharged car). However, the race will forever be remembered for the epic battle for second between Rene Arnoux in the other Renault and the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve. The latter finished ahead, but only after two of the most frantic closing laps in Formula One racing history.
When the race returned to Dijon in 1981, it was again a Frenchman who took the chequered flag as Alain Prost scored his maiden Formula One victory, again with home team Renault. It was to be one of six French Grand Prix wins for Prost, including three on the trot at Paul Ricard between 1988 and 1990.
Dijon hosted the Swiss Grand Prix in 1982 with Keke Rosberg taking his maiden Formula One win. The venue then staged its final French Grand Prix in 1984, when Niki Lauda got the better of Patrick Tambay's Renault to clinch victory.
For the following six seasons, Paul Ricard held the monopoly on the French Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet won for Brabham in 1985, before major changes were made to the track for the 1986 race following the death of Elio de Angelis in testing. Nigel Mansell was victorious for Williams that year and he did it again in 1987. Prost then dominated the final three Grands Prix at Dijon.
The race switched to its current home of Magny-Cours in 1991 as part of a project backed by President Francoise Mitterrand to bring much-needed income to the rural area. The rebuilt club circuit boasted an ultra-smooth surface and excellent facilities, even if drivers felt the track itself was a little unexciting.
Nigel Mansell was the first winner, the Williams driver emerging victorious after a tense battle with the Ferrari of Alain Prost. He was on top of the podium again for Williams in '92, while Prost made it three in a row for the British team in '93.
The 1994 event brought Michael Schumacher his first French Grand Prix win. It also witnessed the return of Mansell to Formula One racing after his success in the American CART series. He qualified on the front row for Williams, but ultimately retired from the race.
Schumacher then won three of the next four French Grands Prix, for Benetton in 1995 and for Ferrari in 1997 and 1998. Damon Hill was the man to interrupt his run, but only after the German had retired on the formation lap of the 1996 event with a blown engine.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen scored his first Jordan win at Magny-Cours in 1999, beating the McLaren of Mika Hakkinen and the Stewart of Rubens Barrichello into second and third respectively. Meanwhile, in 2000 David Coulthard was victorious for McLaren after successfully hunting down and passing Schumacher's Ferrari.
However, Schumacher was back on the podium in France in 2001 after a processional race that saw him take the lead from brother Ralf in the first round of pit stops. Kimi Raikkonen looked set for a maiden victory in 2002 until he ran wide on oil at the Adelaide hairpin with just four laps to go. The Finns misfortune handed victory, and with it a record-equalling fifth world title, to Schumacher on a plate.
It was a Schumacher victory again in 2003, but this time it was younger brother Ralfs turn to stand atop the podium, for the second time in two races. He led home a dominant Williams one-two, though team mate Juan Pablo Montoya was less than happy with a late change in pit stop strategy which the Colombian felt robbed him of a chance of challenging for victory. He came home 14 seconds behind Ralf after easing off in the closing stages, with Michael Schumacher third, a further 5 seconds down the road.
In 2004, the older Schumacher sibling was back on the top step of the podium, after finishing less than nine seconds ahead of the Renault of pole-sitter Fernando Alonso. Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari finished in third. In 2005 Alonso was the leading light, taking his fifth victory of the season.
Last year, however, Schumacher regained his winning form in France, comfortably defeating Alonso on Renaults home soil. Though the Spaniard took second, mostly down to a clever two-stop strategy, Ferraris Felipe Massa came home third to increase the Italian teams chances in the title fight.
This season the championship battle is proving equally fierce, and the fight for victory on Sunday looks set to be a suitably dramatic send-off, should this weekend really turn out to be the last French Grand Prix held at Magny-Cours.