The History of the French Grand Prix

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1960 French Grand Prix, Reims

History of the French Grand Prix


The Grand Prix de I'Automobile Club de France

The French invented Grand Prix Racing. It began in 1906 with the first Grand Prix de I'Automobile Club de France, and this was the official title of the so-called 'French Grand Prix' until 1967. Since 1968 when, after a coup, the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile assumed control of French motor sport, the race was officially named the Grand Prix de France. But much like French politics, the story is not as simple as that.

On several occasions, rival Grands Prix de France were held, while in 1952 a series of Formula Two races was organised under the title Les Grands Prix de France. Not only that, but in the 1930s, the ACF 'posthumously' awarded the 'Grand Prix' title to the major town-to-town races held between 1895 and 1903 so as to make theirs the oldest race in the world. These were not Grands Prix at the time and, moreover, the ACF had not been formed at the time of the 1895 race.

The Circuit de la Sarthe

The ACF formulated plans for the first Grand Prix in 1906. Regulations demanded a maximum weight limit of 1000 kg (2204 Ib) with an allowance of 7 kg (15 lb) for cars with magnetos. The venue chosen was a fast, triangular 64.11-mile road course known as the Circuit de la Sarthe, with the start/finish area at the town of Le Mans. The Grand Prix de I' ACF started at 6 am on Tuesday, 26 June 1906. Cars commenced at 90-second intervals and six laps were to be covered that day.

Ferenc Szisz

After a night's rest from the dust, tar, stones and fumes, the surviving competitors completed a further six laps. Driving his 12.9-liter Renault which featured detachable rims, Hungarian driver, Ferenc Szisz, conquered Felice Nazzaro's 16.3-liter Fiat by 32 minutes, averaging a remarkable 62.88 mph. Even the staunchest critics of the inaugural Grand Prix had to concede that it was an excellent race. For 1907, there were changes. It was to be a one-day event on a shorter circuit-a 47.84-mile affair known as the Circuit de la Seine-Inferieure with the start/ finish area on the outskirts of Dieppe.

Instead of a weight limit, cars had to adhere to a fuel-consumption formula: 231 liters (50.8 gallons) were allotted to each competitor, which worked out at 9.4 mpg. Although Szisz's Renault crossed the finish line first, on corrected time (competitors started at 60-second intervals), the verdict finally went to Nazzaro's Fiat by over six minutes. Forty-eight cars started the 1908 race, also at Dieppe. With the French cars running into tire problems due to the poor state of the roads, the Germans took an unpopular win with Christian Lautenschlager's 12.8-liter Mercedes leading home two Benz entries.

The Free Formula Grand Prix de France

The French manufacturers had been humiliated and, along with other European companies - including Mercedes and Benz - agreed to abstain from racing. As so few cars were entered for the proposed 1908 Grand Prix at Anjou, it was cancelled. In 1911 the Automobile Club de la Sarthe organised a free formula Grand Prix de France (won by Victor Hernery in a 10-liter Fiat) and, as it was successful, the ACF decided to run their Grand Prix again in 1912.

1901 Paris to Berlin Victor, Henri Fournier
1901 was a good year for Henri Fournier, as he was also the victor in the Paris to Berlin race, averaging 44.1 mph. Celebrations after the race were lavish, as he won the Kaiser Cup, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg's Trophy and a large sum of money from the city of Hamburg.

1906 Delage Voiturette
Camile Jenatzy engulfed by both steam and dust, waiting at the start of the 1905 race.

Tile drawing depicting the winner of the 1907 race, Felice Nazzaro, in a Fiat
Tile drawing depicting the winner of the 1907 race, Felice Nazzaro, in a Fiat.

Maurice Fournier rounds a tight left hand corner during the 1911 race
Moments to death. Maurice Fournier rounds a tight left hand corner during the 1911 race. Look closely and you will see Maurice looking down at the wheels of his 1907 Corre-La Licorne - moments after this picture was taken the front axle of the car gave way, the car losing control and ending up in a ditch. Fire engulfed the wreck and, although Fournier and his mechanic Henry Louvel were thrown clear, the driver was already dead.

The first post-war race meeting was held in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris on the 9th September, 1945
The first post-war race meeting was held in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris on the 9th September, 1945. Pictured is the start of the Coupe Robert Benoist for 1500cc cars, which was won by Henri Louveau, seen on the right of the first three cars. Left is Deho (Maserati) and in the center is Bonnard's unusual special single seater, built from an MG R-Type chassis and an eight cylinder supercharged engine.

The start of the 1946 Turin GP
The start of the 1946 Turin GP, dominated by Alfa Romeo and Maserati. The race was won by Varzi in an Alfa, and it was used to decide the result of a 20 million lire national lottery.

The Alfetta of Dr Guiseppe Farina at the shortest of the 1946 GP races, the Circuit of Milan
The Alfetta of Dr Guiseppe Farina at the shortest of the 1946 GP races, the Circuit of Milan. Alfa Romeo again scored a 1-2-3 victory, with Trossi winning.

The Alfa Grand Slam - Start Grid of the 1947 Italian GP
The starting grid of the 18th Italian GP, at Monza, 1947. The grid was dominated by Alfa Romeos and Maseratis. Trossi, Varzi and Senesi led and Alfa Grand Slam.

Prince B. Bira in the 1947 Small Cylinder Race
As is the case today, GP events usually had a "curtain raiser" - and seen here is Prince Bira who would take victory in the 1947 "small-cylinder" race.

A photo from the 1948 Empire Trophy, held on the Isle of Man circuit
A photo from the 1948 Empire Trophy, held on the Isle of Man circuit. Pictured are Bob Ansell and Reg Parnell.
American David Bruce-Brown's 14.1-Iitre Fiat led after the first day's 10 laps but, on the second, a fuel pipe fractured which led to his retirement. Georges Boillot and Jules Goux scored a 1-2 for Peugeot, while British Sunbeams were third, fourth and fifth and took a 1-2-3 clean sweep in the Coupe de l'Auto. It was back to a one-day event in 1913 with the new Circuit of Picardie venue at Amiens and amended regulations. A 14.12 mpg fuel consumption limit was imposed with a weight restriction of 800 kg (1764 Ib) minimum and 1100 kg (2424 Ib) maximum. Peugeot were rewarded with another Boillot/Goux 1-2 result.

The 1914 Grand Prix went down in history as one of the greatest motor races. This year the formula stipulated a maximum engine capacity of 4½ liters and a maximum weight limit of 1100 kg (2424 Ib). The scene changed to Lyons and a 23.38-mile circuit to which teams from five nations were enticed. Cars were started at 30 sec intervals and into the lead went Mercedes' 'unknown' Max Sailer who stayed in front until his engine broke after two hours' racing. Georges Boillot took up the cudgels for Peugeot and at half-distance he led the Mercedes of Lautenschlager but, in the closing laps, the German narrowed the gap and stole ahead. On the last lap, Boillot's Peugeot, driven to its limit, expired with engine and rear axle problems, leaving Mercedes to romp home to a 1-2-3 grand slam.

The First Post World War 1 French Grand Prix

In 1921, the first post-World War 1 French Grand Prix was run at Le Mans. The new formula called for 3-liter engines and a minimum weight limit of 800 kg (1764 Ib) and it coincided with the 1920-1921 Indianapolis formula. This resulted in American entries and the first American Grand Prix win, Jimmy Murphy's Duesenberg conquering the French Ballots. The Duesenbergs were fitted with hydraulically-operated brakes, the first seen in Grand Prix racing and a definite advantage. At Strasbourg in 1922, a 2-liter limit was imposed together with a minimum weight limit of 650kg (1433 Ib).

A massed start was arranged for the first time, although grid positions were decided by lots. It was a race of attrition dominated by the Fiat 804s, but they had a rear axle fault; third man Biagio Nazzaro's car shed a rear wheel at speed, hit a tree and overturned, killing its driver; second man Pietro Bordino's also lost a wheel, but stopped safely on a slow section of the circuit; and fastest man Felice Nazzaro, Biagio's uncle, survived to win, albeit with a cracked cylinder casing on his car. The 1923 race was held at the 14.16-mile Tours circuit to the same formula, it saw a 1-2 victory for Sunbeam with Henry Segrave leading home French driver, Albert Divo.

In 1924, at Lyons, on a shortened 14.38-mile version of the 1914 circuit, the race developed into a contest between Alfa Romeo, Sunbeam and Fiat (it was, in fact, Fiat's last Grand Prix appearance). Giuseppe Campari's Alfa Romeo won a survival-of-the-fittest contest with the reliable Delages of Albert Divo and Robert Benoist second and third. The last year of the 2-liter formula was 1925 when the new Montlhery circuit on the outskirts of Paris was used, the 7.77-mile venue combining both a banked oval and an artificial road section. With Alfa Romeo withdrawing after Antonio Ascari crashed and was fatally injured, the Delages achieved a 1-2 win for France in the marathon 621-mile event.

The Miramas Circuit Marseilles

In 1926, the Grand Prix formula was altered because of rising speeds. The engine capacity was lowered to 1½-liters and the minimum weight raised to 700 kg (1543 Ib). Few entries were received for the race on the new 3.11-mile banked Miramas circuit near Marseilles (intended to be Europe's answer to Indianapolis but a flop) and only three Bugattis started. In 1927, back at Montlhery, large crowds gathered to watch a contest between the top French teams: Delage, Bugatti and Talbot. Shortly before the race, the Bugattis were withdrawn, leaving a seven-car race from which the Delages emerged triumphant.

In 1928, few entries were received for a new formula for cars which weighed between 550 and 600 kg (1213 and 1323 Ib), so the French Grand Prix was organised for sports cars at Comminges. The winner was expatriate Englishman Willdm Grover-Williams who raced under the pseudonym 'Williams'. He also won in 1929 when a fuel consumption formula (approximately 14½-15 mpg) prevailed. In 1930 no one was interested in this formula and a free formula event was substituted at Pau, Philippe Etancelin's Bugatti beating Henry Birkin's 'stripped' Bentley sports car.

Louis Chiron

The governing body of motor sport in Paris drew up an extremely complicated formula for 1931-33. Not surprisingly, no one wanted to know, including the French, and the 1931 race at Montlhery was virtually a free-formula affair over 10 hours. Frenchman Louis Chiron, sharing with the Italian Varzi, achieved a popular win for Bugatti ahead of Alfa Romeo and Maserati opposition. The following year, the scene changed to Reims and Alfa Romeo completely dominated the race. At Montlhery in 1933, Giuseppe Campari's Maserati 8C-3000 overtook Philippe Etancelin's ailing Alfa Romeo on the last lap to win.

The Legendary Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions

In 1934, a new Grand Prix formula came into being, calling for a maximum weight limit of 750 kg (1653 Ib). It was this formula which produced the most powerful Grand Prix machines ever, the legendary Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions. The first cars from both teams arrived at Montlhery to engage in battle with the Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Bugatti teams. They were too new, the fastest-Hans Stuck's unconventional, rear-engined Auto Union - being driven into the dust by the crowd's darling, Louis Chiron, with his 2.0-Iitre Alfa Romeo P3.

It was a different story in 1935 with Mercedes-Benz W25s seizing an overwhelming 1-2 victory. This was too much for the French to swallow, so sports-car Grands Prix were run in 1936 and 1937, providing Bugatti and Talbot victories respectively. A new Grand Prix formula was introduced in 1938: 3 liters supercharged or 4½ liters unsupercharged with a sliding scale of minimum weight limits which, for cars running at the maximum engine capacity limits, was 850 kg (1874 Ib). Four French light-weights challenged five German monsters, and Mercedes-Benz W154s romped to a 1-2-3 victory. It was almost the same story in 1939 although, this time, the new Mercedes-Benz W163s failed and the Auto Unions finished 1-2.

The Grand Prix is Revived

The French were the first to resume motor racing after World War 2 with a meeting in Paris at the end of 1945, but it was 1947 before the Grand Prix was revived. Held at Lyons, it was run to the pre-war Formula One (1½ liters supercharged or 4½ liters un-supercharged). Louis Chiron drove his Lago-Talbot to a comfortable win at a leisurely pace, nursing a blown cylinder-head gasket. It was back to Reims in 1948 where the all-conquering Alfa Romeo 158 Alfettas were led to a 1-2-3 victory by Jean-Pierre Wimille.

In 1949, the Grand Prix de I' ACF was a sports-car race at Comminges, but there was also a Grand Prix de France that year for Formula One cars at Reims and, naturally, this was considered the more prestigious. In 1950 and 1951, Reims hosted the pukka Grand 'Prix de I' ACF, once more for Formula One cars. Alfa Romeos reigned supreme with Juan Manuel Fangio winning both years. During the 1952-53 period when 2-liter Formula Two cars contested the World Championship series, the Ferrari 500S proved the cars to conquer.

Alberto Ascari headed a 1-2-3 Ferrari sweep at Rouen for the 1952 Grand Prix but, in 1953, at Reims, it was the team's new star, British driver Mike Hawthorn, who stole the headlines after a furious slip streaming battle with Fangio's Maserati A6SSG. A new 2½-liter Formula One came into operation in 1954, the year Mercedes-Benz made a return to Grand Prix racing. Their debut was at Reims where Fangio and Karl Kling trod the Italian and French opposition into the ground, easily taking the new, fully-stream-lined W196s to a 1-2 win.

There was no Grand Prix in 1955 following the Le Mans tragedy where over eighty spectators were killed. The 1956 race was exciting with Franco-American Harry Schell in a British Vanwall dicing wheel-to-wheel with the victorious Lancia-Ferraris before dropping back. The setting for the 1957 race was Rouen. The event thoroughly dominated by Fangio, now in a Maserati 250F and well on his way to collecting his fifth World Championship. Italian Luigi Musso put up a brave fight in his underpowered Ferrari 801, but had to be satisfied with second place.

The following year, at Reims, Musso was killed, his Ferrari crashed heavily when closely following Ferrari team-mate Mike Hawthorn. Hawthorn won, while fourth was Fangio (Maserati 250F) in his last-ever motor race. In 1959, no one could match the power of the Ferraris at Reims but, in 1960, Jack Brabham's rear-engined Cooper T53-Climax conquered them in a race in which every car running at the end was British. The 1961-1965 1½-liter Formula One provided exciting French Grands Prix at Reims, Rouen and Clermont-Ferrand.

At Reims in 1961, newcomer Giancarlo Baghetti was aided by the superior power of his Ferrari Dino 156 to fend off the experienced Dan Gurney's four-cylinder Porsche in a near photo-finish after a customary Reims slip streaming battle. At Rouen in 1962, the first and only Grand Prix victory by Porsche was notched up, by Gurney in an eight-cylinder model, while at Reims the following year, no one could touch Jim Clark's flying Lotus 25-Climax. An engine failure robbed Clark of victory at Rouen in 1964, allowing Gurney to win and score the first victory for a Brabham car in Grand Prix racing. Despite using a 'hack' Lotus 25-Climax, Clark won again in 1965 at Clermont-Ferrand.

Grands Prix de I' ACF at Le Mans

In 1966, the 3-liter Formula One brought increased power and spectacle to the circuits. The last French Grand Prix ever to be held at Reims saw victory go to Jack Brabham who became the first driver to win a World Championship race driving a car of his own construction, the Brabham BT19-Repco. No nostalgia was evoked when it was decided to hold the 1967 race-last of the official Grands Prix de I' ACF at Le Mans. It was not part of the circuit used in the first Grand Prix of 1906, but the unpopular hosts the annual 24-hour race, but the unpopular Bugatti Circuit with its series of slow, uninteresting corners.

With gearbox problems eliminating the faster Lotus 49-Fords, Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme achieved a 1-2 result for Brabham-Repco. Rouen saw a wet and sad race in 1968. Jacky Ickx piloted a Ferrari 312 to victory in the pouring rain, but the event was marred by French veteran Jo Schlesser's fiery fatal accident in the experimental, air-cooled Honda RA302. Initial plans to organise the 1969 race at Albi were dropped, and the demanding Clermont-Ferrand road circuit hosted the Grand Prix for 1969 and 1970. Scoring the first French Grand Prix win for a home-produced car since 1931, Jackie Stewart headed a Matra MS80-Ford 1-2 win in 1969 from Jean-Pierre Beltoise, while Jochen Rindt's Lotus 72-Ford emerged the winner in 1970 after the retirement of the favorites.

The Paul Ricard Circuit

The new, luxurious Paul Ricard track near Marseilles was the venue for 1971, Jackie Stewart and Francois Cevert heading the, Tyrrell-Ford team to a 1-2 result. Stewart won again in 1972, this time at Clermont-Ferrand, although even he was overshadowed by the performance of New Zealander Chris Amon in the French Matra Simca MSI20D.

Amon led easily, suffered a puncture and then made a remarkable, record-breaking recovery to snatch third place behind Emerson Fittipaldi and receive a hero's welcome. It was back to Paul Ricard for the 1973 race which marked the first Grand Prix victory for Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson UPS/Lotus 72-Ford). However, another newcomer made the headlines, South African Jody Scheckter (McLaren M23-Ford) leading until Fittipaldi attempted an impossible overtaking manoeuvre with his JPS/Lotus 72-Ford and effectively eliminated the pair of them from the race.

In 1974 the race moved to another new home, at Dijon, and Peterson scored again - from Niki Lauda's Ferrari. Ricard was the venue in 1975 and 1976, after hopes of a return to Clermont-Ferrand had faded. Lauda held off a strong challenge from James Hunt to win the 1975 race by 1.59 seconds and Hunt himself won the following year from Patrick Depailler's six-wheeled Tyrrell.

The 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon was one of the most memorable Grands Prix of all time. There was an epic battle for second place betwen Gilles Villeneuve in the Ferrari and René Arnoux in the Renault. Villeneuve eventually won the battle for second, but the winner - Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the sister Renault - would win the race and in doing so would claim the first Formula 1 victory for Renault as well as for a turbocharged car.

Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours

Since 1991 the French Grand Prix's permanent home was the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours. The move to Magny-Cours was an attempt to stimulate the economy of the area, but many within Formula One complained about the remote nature of the circuit. The 2004 and 2005 races were in doubt because of financial problems and the addition of new circuits to the Formula One calendar. These races went ahead as planned, but it still had an uncertain future.

On 29 March 2007 it was announced by the FFSA, the race promoter, that the 2008 French Grand Prix was put on an indefinite "pause". This suspension was due to the financial situation of the circuit, known to be disliked by many in Formula One due to the circuit's location. On 31 May, Bernie Ecclestone confirmed (at the time) that the 2007 French Grand Prix would be the last to be held at Magny-Cours. However, after various negotiations, the future of the race at Magny-Cours took another turn, with increased speculation that the 2008 French Grand Prix would return, with Ecclestone himself stating "We're going to maybe resurrect it for a year, or something like that".

On 24 July, Ecclestone and the French Prime Minister met and agreed to maintain the race at Magny Cours for 2008 and 2009. The change in fortune was completed on 27 July, when the FIA published the 2008 calendar with a 2008 French Grand Prix scheduled at Magny-Cours once again. The 2009 race, however, was again cancelled on 15 October 2008, with the official website citing "economic reasons".

A huge makeover of Magny-Cours ("2.0") was planned, but cancelled in the end. The race's promoter FFSA then started looking for an alternative host. There were five different proposals for a new circuit: in Rouen with 3 possible layouts: a street circuit, in the dock area, or a permanent circuit near the airport, a street circuit located near Disneyland Resort Paris, Versailles, and in Sarcelles (Val de France), but all were cancelled.

A final location in Flins-Les Mureaux, near the Flins Renault Factory was being considered however that was cancelled as well on 1 December 2009. In 2010 and 2011, there was no French Grand Prix on the Formula 1 calendar.
The Automible Club de Frace's Paris to Bordeaux race of 1901 was won by Henri Fournier's Mors
The Automible Club de Frace's Paris to Bordeaux race of 1901 was won by Henri Fournier's Mors. He completed the 327 mile course in just over six hours, averaging 53 miles per hour.

These days they do everything to keep heat in the tires, but back in 1904 the idea was to keep the tires cool. Pictured are an early form of pit crew attending to Salleron's Mors, using rags soaked in water in an attempt to cool the tires, during the 1904 Gordon Bennet Cup.
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