The best and worst French GP circuits | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

01st July 2021
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

It’s always struck me as strange that even in just the period since Grand Prix racing became a world championship in 1950, the French Grand Prix has been held at no fewer than seven different locations. This is more than the United States Grand Prix (six locations despite its enormous size if you exclude the US GP (West) held at Long Beach), the Spanish Grand Prix (five) and British, Belgian, German and Japanese Grands Prix, which have all to date visited just three venues each.


And the slightly stranger thing is that of those seven, the following week marks the anniversary of the cessation of top level racing at no fewer than four of them. Le Mans and Clermont Ferrand today, Reims tomorrow and Rouen on Wednesday. The other locations are Paul Ricard where the event is held today, Magny-Cours which held its last in May 2008 and Dijon which hosted its most recent Grand Prix in May 1984. So having been lucky enough to at least drive around them all, I thought I’d just trot you through them, one by one in order of interest, from least to most.

First out the door is Le Mans, which only held the race once, in 1967. Even at time it was roundly derided because it took place on the newly created Bugatti circuit which I understand is fine for motorcycles but which for 3.0-litre F1 was entirely inadequate, as it was for the Jaguar XJR-9LM I once drove around it. Incorporating only the stretch from the Ford chicane to before the Dunlop Bridge from the 24 Hour circuit, it is a track of which only Mickey Mouse would be proud.


Then there’s Magny-Cours which held 18 in a row from 1991. It’s not a bad circuit and had some interesting sections, but it’s completely flat and featureless and is notably lacking in overtaking places, which you can get away with in Monaco, but not stuck in the middle of nowhere 150 miles south of Paris.

Reims comes next. In its day it was probably the fastest track on the calendar, faster even than the old Spa and Monza. But while the slip-streaming battles that resulted did produce some great races – notably in 1961 when Ferrari’s Giancarlo Baghetti achieved the unique distinction of winning his first ever Grand Prix, pipping Dan Gurney’s Porsche by 0.1 seconds at the flag, then the closest GP finish so far – it’s actually not that much fun to drive around today. It’s basically a main road with a hairpin at either end and a curving back section connecting the two.


We’re getting into the good stuff now as we visit Paul Ricard. I’m old enough to have driven it in its original form in a 700PS (515kW) GT1 Dodge Viper, and while I preferred its somewhat more ‘no prisoners’ former topography to the super safe environment provided today, it’s still an awesome technical challenge and Signes, the right hander at the end of the endless straight, remains one of the world’s great corners in any car without monster downforce.

Now we go to Clermont-Ferrand and if you do too and work your way around the roads that make up the old circuit, you’ll barely believe they raced F1 cars there. The problem is that it is utterly relentless, quite quick but with corner after corner after corner. There’s barely a straight worthy of the mention. It’s the one place I’ve heard of where drivers were regularly and physically sick during the race. I’d need more time and closed facilities to really get my head around it, but even a few hours there was an education.

Which leaves Rouen and Dijon. And I think the run from the pits down the hill at Rouen to the now no longer cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin is the scariest section of track I have ever seen. More frightening than anything at the ‘Ring or original Spa. Just the thought of racing down it terrifies me. It is incredible and while there is little or no infrastructure left, just to visit and goggle at what they did is worth the detour to the little hamlet of Les Essarts. Formula 1 stopped after Jo Schlesser lost control of his Honda and crashed to his death there in 1968 and, on balance, it was clearly for the best.


Which brings us to Dijon, my favourite French circuit, at least of those that have held the French Grand Prix. It’s worth going back on YouTube and watching (again) Arnoux and Villeneuve’s wheel-banging exploits there in 1979 just to get a look at the place. It has a ridiculously long straight, corners of every kind, elevation, undulation, everything you could ever want a race track to have.

It’s far too dangerous for modern F1 of course, but I had one my happiest races there in in a Ferrari 750 Monza. It was one of those occasions where the stars just align. We’d qualified mid-field because we could never keep up with the Jaguars with their bigger more highly tuned engines and disc brakes, but come the race the track was damp and the four cylinder, transaxle Ferrari had two things they lacked: torque and traction. After a fabulous battle with Gregor Fisken in an Aston Martin DB3S, by the time I brought the car in for the driver change I was leading the race. Happy days at one of my favourite tracks in France or, indeed, anywhere else for that matter.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

  • Formula 1

  • Magny Cours

  • Reims

  • Le Mans

  • Paul Ricard

  • Clermont-Ferrand

  • Rouen

  • Dijon

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