L&T Motorsport

The Top 5 Formula 1 French Grands Prix

Yesterday it was announced that the French Grand Prix will return to the Formula 1 calendar for 2018. The only complaint that I have is that it’s not coming back for 2017 as to not have a Grand Prix race in the country that invented the Grand Prix is inexcusable. The Circuit Paul Ricard, near Marseille, now has a contract to host the event after a nearly thirty-year absence from the Cote d’Azur and a decade absence from France as a whole.

I’m not going to go into any more specifics about the future of the French GP, instead I’m going to delve into its past and highlight the top 5 Formula 1 races to be held in the French Republic.

5th: 1961 – A Rookie in Reims

Okay, I’ll admit it, this race is on this list for one reason and one reason only, Giancarlo Baghetti. The 27-year-old Italian (a relative baby in that period of F1) was competing in his first Grand Prix in a Ferrari (not bad). He qualified an underwhelming twelfth place at the high-speed Reims circuit in the Champagne region. It was even more underwhelming when you consider that the Ferraris of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips populated the front row.

But Baghetti more than made up for it in the race.

As was the way that races went at Reims there was a huge slip-streaming battle which was eventually whittled down to just Baghetti and Dan Gurney. They swapped places lap after lap (like another battle we’ll talk about later) but it was the Italian who took the win by just a tenth of a second after making a move on the pit-straight on the last lap.

Baghetti (Number 50, left) took the lead at the line to win by a nose after a thrilling race. Photo credit: motorsportretro.com
Photo Finish! Baghetti (Number 50, left) took the lead at the line to win by a nose after a thrilling race. Photo credit: motorsportretro.com

Giancarlo Baghetti became the third and last man to win their first Formula 1 Grand Prix and when you analyse the other two Baghetti’s is truly unique. Nino Farina won his first F1 Grand Prix but it was also the first F1 Grand Prix for everybody (Britain 1950) so does it really count in that way? Johnnie Parsons is the other but he won at Indy so it wasn’t even a Grand Prix, really. And both of those two had competed in Grand Prix before 1950 so Baghetti’s win is truly special.

And he did it in extremely hot weather, the air temperature that day was 39 degree Celsius (102 F for the Americans). 1958 also warrants a mention as Tony Brooks won at Reims despite the tarmac starting to melt in apocalyptic heat.

Sadly, for Baghetti, he never finished on the podium again and only competed in another twenty Grand Prix.

4th: 1988 – Senna v Prost

The 1988 season is fondly remembered by F1 enthusiasts because it’s one of the very few years where we had two of the best drivers ever (Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost) in one of the best ever cars (the McLaren MP4-4). The McLaren drivers were miles ahead of the chasing pack in the points and on the track so the battle for the race was going to be between those two. Prost took pole nearly half a second ahead of Senna (I know, incredible) and lead away from the start. But after the first set of pit-stops Senna took the lead through a slow stop for the home favourite.

Senna took the lead after the pit-stops which no doubt angered Prost. What followed was a fine battle. Photo credit: Reddit
Senna took the lead after the pit-stops which no doubt angered Prost. What followed was a fine battle. Photo credit: Reddit

Prost closed up to the back of Senna, however, catching is one thing and passing is very much another. This was the first direct battle between the two McLaren drivers this season and everybody was watching to see how this would develop. As we all know Senna’s defensive skills were second to none but a gearbox issue for the Brazilian hampered his pace and there was another issue he had to contend with; back-markers.

As the Paul Ricard circuit (in this iteration, at least) was a very short lap and the McLarens were the class of the field they were seemingly constantly lapping cars. This usually wasn’t an issue but when the yellow Lotus of world champion, Nelson Piquet, appeared in the distance Senna’s heart must have sank. To put it mildly the two Brazilians didn’t get on and what happened next was somewhat inevitable.

In fairness to Piquet, he didn’t do much wrong but the queue of traffic ahead of the triple world champion sealed Senna’s fate. Going into the Signes corner Senna was balked by Caffi and Martini and Prost sent one up the inside to overtake his teammate. It was a terrific move and something you wouldn’t normally expect from Prost as it was very daring. Prost went on to win the race by over half a minute and lap the entire field, bar Senna and Alboreto’s Ferrari.

A great battle between two great champions at a great track, what more could you want?

An unlikely winner maybe?


3rd: 1990 – A win for Leyton House? Surely not…

This is, to date, the last Grand Prix to be held at the Paul Ricard circuit and if the next one is as good as this we’re in for a treat.

Nobody bat an eye at the Leyton House cars in qualifying, Ivan Capelli in 7th and Mauricio Gugelmin in 10th, but everybody took notice in the race. Up until this point neither of their drivers had finished in the points and they both failed to qualify for the previous race in Mexico (back in the days when we had Pre-Qualifying). It was a boiling hot and sunny day (as it so often was in this part of France) so tyre stops for the drivers would be required at some point.

Leyton House clearly didn’t get that message, as they both stayed out to lead the race in 1-2 formation after the pit-stops. The likely reason why they were so quick was because of a redesigned car and who redesigned it?

None other than Adrian Newey himself. What a man.

Capelli lead and Gugelmin was second but had a queue of cars behind him. Alain Prost’s Ferrari was the first of these challengers and overtook Gugelmin into the first corner but it took him a full 20 laps, a quarter of the race, to do it. By now Capelli was miles in the lead and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

However, Prost caught Capelli fairly rapidly but couldn’t get his Ferrari close enough to try an overtake, the laps ticked down and everybody started to believe that the Italian could do it.

Capelli (leading) was out in front but Prost was breathing down his neck, could he hold out for one of the most unlikely wins of all time? Photo credit: MotOurPassion.net
Capelli (leading) was out in front but Prost was breathing down his neck, could he hold out for one of the most unlikely wins of all time? Photo credit: MotOurPassion.net

Capelli had a very slippery set-up on his car so he was extremely fast down the long Mistral straight, where most of the passing was done around this circuit. He held off the world champion for lap after lap before his engine began to stutter and Prost made a diving move, just like two years previously, to take the lead with just 3 laps of 80 remaining. Heartbreak for the Leyton House team but Capelli still achieved a very impressive second as Senna was too far back to fully challenge him.

So close, yet so far.

The Leyton House team would go into turmoil off the track and end up sacking Newey, which has to be one of the worst decisions in motor racing history. They would go out of business at the end of 1991 and one can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if they won this race.

2nd: 1999 – I’m racing in the rain

You may well not have heard of this race but you really should have. The Magny-Cours circuit, in my eyes at least, was a lack-lustre track that didn’t produce many memorable Grands Prix and that was probably one of the reasons why the French GP was discontinued. But every dog has its day.

Specifically, the 27th June 1999 was Magny-Cours’ finest day as it served up an absolute classic of a Grand Prix. The drama had begun before the race even got underway, as in qualifying five drivers failed to get within 107% of pole. “Why?”, you ask, well it was due to appalling weather conditions. The rain never let up for the entire qualifying hour but those who went out early benefited hugely and Rubens Barrichello got just the second pole position of his career in the Stewart. Jean Alesi started his home race from second in an unfancied Sauber and Panis, another home favourite, was third in a Prost. The two eventual title contenders, Mika Hakkinen and Eddie Irvine, were down in 14th and 17th, respectively.

And that’s all before a wheel was turned in the race!

When the race did get underway, this time mercifully in dry conditions, the fast cars started to cut through the field. David Coulthard in the McLaren took the lead from Rubinho on lap 5 and on lap 8 Hakkinen was already in the points (top 6) and was challenging Michael Schumacher for 5th. A lap later and he was past the Ferrari and was chasing down the top 4 but disaster for McLaren as Coulthard retired with an electrical issue. Stewart GP were in the lead once again!

The Flying Finn was never going to take this lying down as he swept past Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan on lap 14 and then Alesi four laps later, despite out-braking himself. But the rain was on its way…

On lap 21 it was pouring with rain and Irvine came into the pits for wet-weather tyres which would’ve been a clever move if Ferrari were ready for him. He ended up spending over 40 seconds stationary in what has to be one of the worst ever pit-stops in the sport, but strangely not his worst stop that season (remember Nurburgring?). The field subsequently crawled into the pits for the appropriate tyres, the weather was biblical. Around the lap 25 mark a series of cars aquaplaned off, including 3rd placed Alesi. The Safety car was subsequently called and we could all catch our breath.

Lap 37 and Haikkinen was predictably challenging Rubens for the lead but unpredictably spun at the hairpin and dropped to 7th. A few laps later der Regenmeister did manage to overtake his future teammate on a drying track with a huge out-breaking manoeuvre. Schumacher then built up a large lead and you couldn’t help but feel that, that was that. But it wasn’t, an electrical issue for the leader erased his lead over Barrichello by the time he came in for his final stop. 

By lap 59, Haikkinen had recovered to take the lead from Barrichello and with Michael back in fourth surely, he would go on to win it now. But heartbreak for Stewart and McLaren as their drivers didn’t have enough fuel to finish the race and Heinz-Harald Fretnzen in the Jordan took the lead. To add insult to injury for Michael Schumacher his brother, Ralf, overtook him with just a few laps remaining. Frentzen would go on to claim just Jordan Grand Prix’s second ever win by 11 seconds.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen claimed an extremely popular win for Eddie Jordan's team in France. Photo credit: f1greatestraces.blogspot.com
Heinz-Harald Frentzen claimed an extremely popular win for Eddie Jordan’s team in France. Photo credit: f1greatestraces.blogspot.com

What. A. Race.

1st: 1979 – Arnoux v Villeneueve

The F1 veterans that are reading this article surely knew that this one was coming.

The 1979 French Grand Prix was held at the Dijon-Prenois circuit near… well, Dijon. At the halfway point in the season Jody Scheckter of Ferrari lead the championship by a considerable margin and his teammate, French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, was eager to catch him. The Renault cars with their turbocharged engines would have a massive advantage along the very long pit-straight.

When the race got underway Gilles Villeneuve sensationally took the lead from the Renaults and relentlessly built up a lead in the early stages. His pace was absolutely out of this world when you consider that Scheckter finished a lap down in seventh. When pole-sitter Jabouille got by Villeneuve for the lead on lap 46 (due to the Ferrari driver being blocked by Elio de Angelis) the Canadian looked vulnerable to the second Renault of Rene Arnoux who was also closing him down.

On lap 76 of 80 Arnoux was right behind Villeneuve and the battle commenced.

Second placed Gilles Villeneuve (CDN) Ferrari 312T4 leads third placed Rene Arnoux (FRA) Renault RS12. In the closing laps of the race the pair would become embroiled in one of the most exciting race battles of all time. French Grand Prix, Rd 8, Dijon-Prenois, France, 1 July 1979. BEST IMAGE
Villeneueve (leading) ahead of Arnoux in the closing laps. Their fight that day has gone down in F1 folklore Photo Credit: peterwindsor.com

Villeneuve was locking his tyres but consistently made the corners’ apexes, he was right on the ragged edge. A lap later and Arnoux was past going into the first corner but Villeneuve stayed with him and made a superb diving move a lap later at the same corner. He locked all four wheels, smoke was pouring everywhere but he made it, an incredible move. The next lap around Arnoux made a move, again into turn 1, but wasn’t far enough alongside to cut the Ferrari off, he then dived through again, banging wheels, but ran wide, lost traction and Villeneuve again took the lead but only for another wheel-banger and Arnoux to get ahead once more. This didn’t last though because Villeneuve sneaked through at the following corner.

They finished just a quarter of a second apart after swapping positions a barely-believable six times on the last lap alone.

You have to watch this battle to truly appreciate it, words do not do it justice.

Arnoux’s teammate, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, won the race after a fine drive but nobody remembers the Grand Prix for that. Pardon, Jean. Everybody remembers this race for what must surely be the most incredible battle in Formula 1 history.

This incredible drive and wheel-to-wheel racing skill by Gilles Villeneuve is why some consider him to be the best of all time. To say that about a driver that never became a world champion and only won six races may sound foolish but watch some of his races and your doubt will vanish. He was a very special talent.

This race was also notable as it was the first win for Renault and the first win for a turbocharged car in what would go on to become a staple feature on the grid. It was also a rare occasion where a French driver with a French car that had a French engine on French tyres had won the French Grand Prix. Vive la France!

But what do you think? Are you happy to be having the French Grand Prix back, like me, or are you annoyed for one reason or another? Let me know in the comments below:

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