History of the French Grand Prix
Written by Marco Noguier, Edited by Simran Kanthi
France is the fifth nation in Formula One history to have held the most Grands Prix, only behind Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Great Britain. In total, 70 Grands Prix were held from 1950 to 2022 in more than ten tracks in France. Let's go back and see the complicated history of one of Formula One's significant nations.
The first-ever race was held in the early 1900s in France. Here, the term ‘Grand Prix’ was coined, meaning ‘Great Prize’ in French. The term became popular and was then used in 1950 for the first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix in the United Kingdom and also for the first-ever F1 French Grand Prix which was held later that year. The name stuck and is continued to be used today.
The first French track where an F1 race was conducted was the Reims-Gueux circuit, known for its long straights and very few turns. Reims-Gueux was at that time one of the longest and most dangerous tracks on the calendar. In 1950 and 1951, the races were won by Juan Manuel Fangio. In 1953, Mike Hawthorn won the race in his Ferrari. But in 1954, the race was dominated by the Silver Arrows and this German domination on French soil only nine years after the War was seen poorly by the French. The Grand Prix was then held from 1956 to 1966 and had various winners. But the complaint about the dangers of the track was always in question and Formula 1 decided to leave the circuit.
A replacement was quickly found as Formula One visited another French track in 1952 and 1956, and then from 1962 to 1964. Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit, like Reims, was known for its speed and danger. With a 5.54 km (3.44 mi) track length through the French countryside, the Rouen track was liked by the pilots. The first races were won by Alberto Ascari in his Ferrari and Fangio in his Maserati. Then, the 1962 and 1965 editions were dominated by the American driver Dan Gurney and the race in 1968 was won by Jacky Ickx, but it was also marked by the fatal crash of Jo Schlesser in the very fast turn ‘Six Frères’. This crash sealed the end of Formula One in Rouen-Les-Essarts, with a replacement being found again.
Having already raced there for the French Grand Prix in 1965, Formula 1 headed to Auvergne, more precisely to the Circuit de Charade. With a length of 8 km (5 mi) and twists and turns through the hills of the Auvergne, the Charade Circuit was nicknamed ‘Small Nurburgring’ and was, like its predecessor, appreciated by the drivers. Jackie Stewart won in 1969 and Jochen Rindt won in 1970. But in 1972, flaws started to appear as the track was too narrow and cars were too fast for such a track. Besides, security was a big issue as the circuit was surrounded by volcanic rocks. During the last race, Helmut Marko got hit by a rock thrown from Emerson Fittipaldi's car. The rock penetrated Marko's helmet visor, causing him to lose his eye and thus, ending his F1 career.
After that, the French Grand Prix was held in two tracks, alternately. The Circuit Paul Ricard, a newly-built track at the highest point of technology and security, and Dijon-Prenois, a smaller track. F1 raced in Paul Ricard during the even-numbered years and in Dijon-Prenois during the odd-numbered years. During that period, an amazing moment happened that marked F1 history. In 1974, Niki Lauda got the pole position with the fastest time ever in the history of Formula One with 58.790 seconds. This record was only beaten in 2020 by Valtteri Bottas during the Sakhir Grand Prix Qualifying.
The 1979 edition was remembered for the incredible battle between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux for second place. The 1982 French Grand Prix saw four French drivers (René Arnoux, Alain Prost, Didier Pironi, and Patrick Tambay) finish 1-2-3-4. In 1984, the Dijon circuit was used for the last time as the circuit was too small and the cars were only getting faster. F1 then raced full-time in the Paul Ricard circuit from 1985 to 1990, despite Elio de Angelis' tragic death in 1986. The track brought amazing moments, like in 1990 when Ivan Capelli almost produced the greatest shock, but finished P2 in his Leyton-House, a car that hadn't qualified for a single race, behind the home hero, Alain Prost. The 1990 French Grand Prix was the last edition to be held in Paul Ricard, until 2018.
The venue was moved to the famous Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours in 1991. The change happened to boost the region of the circuit economically. And even if the venue was criticised for various reasons, especially due to its location (in the middle of the French countryside), it still hosted the French Grand Prix for 18 years till 2008. One of the most memorable moments that happened on this track was in 2002 when Michael Schumacher won his fifth championship after only 11 races in a 17-race calendar. In 2008, Formula One left Magny-Cours and France with it due to financial difficulties.
Thus followed a ten-year drought of the French Grand Prix. But in 2018, Formula One announced its return to France on a newly renovated Paul Ricard Circuit. F1 raced there from 2018 to 2022, before being removed again to be replaced with more attractive venues like Las Vegas.
And this raises a question, is Formula One slowly losing its identity? By replacing old and historical venues with newly built tracks, F1 is losing its history. In 2022, Paul Ricard was removed from the calendar, and yes, the track wasn't producing great racing and the infrastructure for the public wasn't great, but it is still a big part of Formula One history being left out. Other historical venues like Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and Monaco were at risk of being removed from the calendar for more interesting venues, economically speaking. With a 23-race calendar next year and many new countries trying to bring F1 to their soil, we might, unfortunately, see other historical venues being replaced to bring more money to the FIA.