Why Dijon is the best French Grand Prix circuit | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

22nd July 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Most of the countries that have held grands prix since the dawn of the Formula 1 World Championship have some kind of claim to fame. Great Britain, for instance, held the very first, at Silverstone on 13th May, 1950. Monaco was then and remains today both the slowest, and most glamorous. Belgium’s Spa circuit is the oldest still in use today having first been used in 1921, while Italy’s Monza (which has hosted every Italian Grand Prix since the F1 championship began bar one (1980)) was then and remains today the fastest race on the F1 calendar, if you exclude the Indy 500 which was included for a few years in the ‘50s for reasons that need not trouble us here.


But as the cars head out for practice at Paul Ricard today, you may now be wondering what records the French Grand Prix can claim for itself, for it and the grands prix from countries named above are the only ones from the inaugural F1 season that remain on the schedule today.

Actually, it’s not short of them at all. Remember there were grands prix long before there was Formula 1, and it turns out the French Grand Prix is the oldest of the lot. Indeed motor sport essentially started in France, the first recognised race taking place between Paris and Rouen in 1894 attracting entries from cars powered by petrol, steam, electricity and gravity. Then think of all those lethal city-to-city races: the Paris-Madrid, Paris-Berlin, Paris-Bordeaux and so on: you don’t need me to tell you what they all have in common.


The French Grand Prix itself was first held in 1906, and the ‘Great Prize’ alluded to in its title was no less than 45,000 francs, which equates to a modern-day equivalent of plenty. The track was laid out over a 66-mile lap on dirt roads east of Le Mans – nowhere near where the 24 hour race would be held. The drivers did six laps on Tuesday and a further six on Wednesday, the whole thing taking 12 hours during which over 750 miles would be covered. So when modern F1 drivers complain about being a bit tired after a couple of hours on smooth tarmac, it is to be seen in this perspective. Just 11 of the 32 starters finished, headed by the Hungarian Ferenc Szisz in a 13.0-litre Grand Prix Renault.

The French Grand Prix has another, less impressive claim to fame, namely the longest layoff in F1 history, a full decade no less, starting in 2008. But actually, the one I want to focus on is geographical. No other country has come close to hosting its F1 Grand Prix in more locations than France. Since 1950, just three tracks have hosted the British Grand Prix (the 1993 race at Donington was the European Grand Prix), and Germany is the same. Since 1950 the Italian Grand Prix has only ever been at Monza apart from that one visit to Imola in 1980. The Spanish Grand Prix has been to four different locations, Monaco fairly obviously just one. But the French Grand Prix has been far more promiscuous. During this century it has been held at its current home, Paul Ricard, and at Magny-Cours before it fell off the calendar, but it has also shacked up with Rouen, Reims, Dijon, Clermont-Ferrand and the Bugatti circuit at the current Le Mans track. That’s seven in total.


I’ve been to them all and there’s a vast disparity between them. Worst by far is Le Mans, a Mickey Mouse affair designed for motorcycles almost universally disdained by drivers during their one and only visit there in 1967. The second least interesting is Magny-Cours which is a dull, fairly featureless track in the middle of nowhere whose few overtaking places made for processional races and low attendance.

Next best is probably Reims, a street circuit to the west of the city. Its problems were very different. Blindingly fast, the last time it held an F1 race in 1966, pole was set at over 145mph, faster that year than even Spa or Monza. It was a place where slipstreaming was essential, but laid out over essentially straight roads connected by simple junctions, it was a circuit that valued pure power and aerodynamic efficiency over driver skill.

But now we get to the good ones. Paul Ricard is a fine circuit even today and would be finer still if the chicane in the middle of the Mistral straight was removed, turning the awesome Signes curve back into a proper corner again. I’m old enough to have driven the track before it was rebuilt 20 years ago, and I can tell you that turning into Signes in a 700bhp GT1-specification Dodge Viper racing car is not something you easily forget.


Even so, the Charade circuit outside Clermont-Ferrand is a far greater challenge. The problem it presents is that it essentially doesn’t have a straight, just an endless series of usually quite quick curves. It was a circuit that required not just great skill and a brave heart, but a strong stomach also. With no moment to relax, drivers were often sick in their cockpits, which doesn’t really bear too much thinking about.

But I’d bet plenty would have rather raced there than Rouen. I often go back to the hamlet at Les Essarts and still goggle at the streets on which they raced Formula 1 cars until the tragic death of Jo Schlesser on the opening lap of the 1968 race. The downhill swerves after the pits are a more frightening combination of corners than I have seen anywhere else in the world, but they brought out the best in the best drivers as anyone who has pictures of Fangio drifting his Maserati 250F there in 1957 will attest.

But the best? It’s probably a minority view, but I’d go for Dijon. It’s not an enormous track, but it has everything there: a very long straight approached through a fantastically challenging rollercoaster of a fast corner, gradients, blind entries, combinations and a hairpin. It flows beautifully, feels as old school as Goodwood, but offers at least some hope should you go off.

Dijon was the scene of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux's legendary duel

Dijon was the scene of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux's legendary duel

I also happened to have my best race there, in terms of my own performance. I’d qualified the Ferrari 750 Monza mid-grid (14th I think) because with just 3.0 litres, four cylinders and drum brakes it was uncompetitive against cars like the Jaguar D-type. But it rained just before the race, not enough to soak the track but more than sufficient to make it extremely slippery and level the playing field more than a little. It was a one hour, two driver race and when I came in for my pitstop, to no-one’s greater surprise than my own, I was leading. Some tracks you just feel at home on. I do at Goodwood and I did at Dijon. On that day and that day alone, I felt I was a match for anyone out there. It didn’t last…

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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