LAT Archive: the French Grand Prix, the longest history of them all

Seminal moments and stunning photography from the oldest grand prix – AutoClassics and LAT reflect on classic French F1 races

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No grand prix’s past stretches as long as that of the French Grand Prix. It was the first GP as we know it, dating back to 1906 at Le Mans. Indeed, France even earlier became the first to stage a motor race with the term ‘grand prix’ applied, at Pau in 1900. Motorsport itself is thought to have started in France.

Only in 1955 in the wake of the Le Mans disaster was there not a French Grand Prix on the F1 calendar. That was until 2009 when the race was dropped, but it at last returns – now back at Paul Ricard – this weekend.

Thanks to the LAT Archive, AutoClassics looks at a few notable races from F1’s long French Grand Prix history.

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Hawthorn wins the ‘race of the century’

The French Grand Prix in 1953 ranks highly alongside any F1 race in France or anywhere elsefor that matter – it has been called the 'race of the century’. At the triangular Reims circuit in the Champagne region, characterised by extended straights separated by hairpins, four Ferraris took on four Maseratis. Many of them ran in close company throughout though victory boiled down to Juan Manuel Fangio’s Maserati versus Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari – them swapping places at every corner it seemed. It looked that Fangio’s greater power would prevail over the Ferrari’s handling, but after halfway Fangio lost first gear. Hawthorn, spotting Fangio’s problem, on the last lap thrust down the inside of Fangio at the final hairpin. As Hawthorn calculated the Maserati could not stay with him the on the exit, he took his freshman grand prix win. It remained close too – after nearly three hours of racing Alberto Ascari crossed the line fourth just 4.6 seconds after his victorious team-mate.


Bittersweet final Rouen visit

Early French Grand Prix were blessed by classic road circuit hosts, not least the scene of the 1968 visit to Rouen. But with such blessings there was a curse of accompanying danger, and this also not least applied here. And in early 1968 F1 was in the midst of a particularly persistent run of driver deaths. Rain began to fall just before the start of this one – most opted for intermediate tyres though Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari went for wets. It proved inspired as on the first lap the rain intensified and Ickx – a great rain driver – moved to the front and in the end triumphed by two minutes for his first ever F1 win. But sadly we didn’t escape this race without more tragedy as Jo Schlesser, after his engine cut out, crashed his Honda RA302 – that its usual driver John Surtees had declared not ready to race – and with a full fuel load and magnesium chassis , a fearsome fire quickly towered and swept across the track. Schlesser didn’t have a chance and F1 never returned to Rouen.


Peterson and Scheckter make their bows

By 1973, the classic French road circuits had been left behind and this was F1’s second visit to Paul Ricard – an all mod cons purpose-built venue. This wasn’t the only source of novelty – it also was the scene of Ronnie Peterson’s debut F1 win and was where the young, fast Jody Scheckter announced himself to the world in only his third start. In a factory McLaren M23, for the first time Scheckter qualified second and then shot into the lead from the off. With his car trimmed for straightline speed he showed every intention of staying there, even as a queue of haughty rivals formed behind. The race settled to the two Lotuses, Emerson Fittipaldi and Peterson, attacking Scheckter but making no headway. Then. with 13 laps. left perhaps Fittipaldi’s frustration got the better of him and he tried to ambush Scheckter at the final turn, Scheckter didn’t cooperate and both were out with damaged suspension. Peterson was handed the race on a plate.

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The winner gets forgotten

The victor of the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon should have been memorable in itself – it was the first win for Jean-Pierre Jabouille after a magnificent drive in which he outpaced all rivals; the first for Renault and at home for what likely was F1’s closest answer to a French national team; the first for a turbo. That all this is barely remembered reflects the extraordinary fight for second between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. It’s hard to keep count of how many times they swapped positions, banged wheels, locked brakes, went off the track and back again. Villeneuve pipped his opponent and afterwards they embraced one another. Some muttered they were irresponsible, but Mario Andretti most aptly summed up the dice: ‘Nothing to worry about. Just a couple of young lions clawing each other…’


Prost takes the first of many

The home team triumphed again at Dijon two years later, and this time no-one’s focus was away from the winner – it was the first ever triumph for the great Alain Prost. After a wild start in which the starting lights malfunctioned, Prost ran third behind leader Nelson Piquet’s Brabham and John Watson’s McLaren, and it looked like it would stay that way. That was until a cloudburst stopped the race just two laps shy of when a result would have been declared. Instead, it left a late sprint, the track since dried, and Prost and Watson bolted on soft Michelin rubber which Piquet’s Goodyears – the American company was in its first race back after missing the season’s early part – couldn’t match. Prost shot off into the lead at the restart with Piquet left well behind, and won after rebuffing a brief attack from Watson. It was the first of 51, as well as his first of six French Grand Prix triumphs.


Capelli comes oh-so close

F1’s most recent race at Paul Ricard prior to 2018 was likely its best, and nearly provided perhaps F1’s biggest ever shock win. The Leyton Houses hadn’t even qualified for the previous race and after 18 months of woe, due to a dodgy wind tunnel, it ditched its designer – one Adrian Newey. But just before leaving, Newey bequeathed chassis and floor changes which brought the turquoise machines right into the mix. Pilots Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin qualified well, then in the race things got even better as they went for a non-stop run and when all front-runners peeled in for routine mid-distance tyre changes were catapulted into first and second places – Capelli ahead. For several glorious laps it stayed that way. Ferrari’s Alain Prost later found his way past Gugelmin and with 20 laps to go was with the surprise leader, yet Capelli looked serene out front. But late on he developed a fuel pick-up problem which helped Prost dive past with three laps remaining. Capelli nevertheless salvaged second.


Frentzen flies with extra fuel

Paul Ricard’s replacement Magny-Cours became one of those places where forgettable races continued to unfold. But in 1999 it seemed determined to make up the shortfall in a single afternoon. Both qualifying and the race were disrupted by rain and Rubens Barrichello’s Stewart took an unlikely pole and led much of the race. The year’s front-runners David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen – both in McLarens – and Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari all had spells in the lead but faltered. Late on, though, it appeared normality would prevail and Hakkinen would win, but there was another twist. Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan had been filled to the brim with fuel at the earlier pitstops and the subsequent rain and safety car intervention meant it could make the flag. Frentzen almost alone didn’t need a late ‘splash and dash’ and vaulted through to triumph. It started also an unlikely championship challenge which fell short only in the final rounds.


The final French Grand Prix for a while

In more typical Magny-Cours style this final visit was tepid. It was a one horse race as the Ferraris were in advance and left unchallenged. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton came in with a ten-place grid penalty after a scrape in the previous round which he then compounded by getting a drive through for passing Sebastian Vettel off track on the opening lap. Kimi Raikkonen led from pole – his last pole until Monaco in 2017 – from Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa, and the only disruption to the red demonstration run was Raikkonen’s exhaust breaking at half distance. Impeded, he let Massa by for the win. Most knew that this was the last we’d see from Magny-Cours for a while, indeed this visit was a stay of execution. Rumours abounded of various French replacement venues for the following year, but as it was we had to wait a decade for the French Grand Prix to return.

Images courtesy of LAT Archive

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