A BUILDER AT HEART
Paul Ricard, the creator of the famous drink that still bears his name, could quite happily have busied himself managing the flourishing industrial group he had founded. But that wasn’t the type of person he was. At the end of 1968 Ricard, who had dreamt of becoming an artist, decided to take a step back from the management of his business. His idea was a simple one: promote his brand among the younger generations through a creation that was in phase with the times.
"Paul Ricard inaugurated his circuit wearing a chief foreman’s outfit in 1970!"
OBSESSION WITH SAFETY
He decided to devote his building fervour to the construction of a circuit. Motor sport was undergoing a real revival in France where permanent circuits were few and far between. Ricard decided to build an ultra-modern track that would set new standards, in particular in the field of safety, as it was a pet obsession with him. He chose a piece of scrubland on the Castellet plateau between Marseille and Toulon, not far from Bandol. Drivers like Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Henri Pescarolo and François Mazet all added their touch to the circuit layout that had several configurations.
AN AIRPORT AS A BONUS!
The works, which included an airport alongside the circuit, began at the start of 1969, and Ricard himself played a very active role in the proceedings. The track was inaugurated on 19th April 1970 with the organisation of a round of the European Championship for 2-litre cars. He was present in person wearing a superb foreman’s outfit for the occasion! It was a kind of V-sign to the administration of the time which had put all kinds of obstructions on his path.
The first driver to enter his name on the roll call of winners at Paul Ricard was Scot, Jackie Stewart, victorious in the 1971 French Grand Prix in a Tyrrell. But the star of the day in the eyes of the crowd was François Cevert, Stewart’s young team-mate, who scored his first F1 podium finish and set the hearts of the crowd aflutter bewitched as much by his talent as by his natural charm. Two years later the ladies’ heartthrob again finished second, this time behind Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus.
"Even if he never won François Cevert set the hearts of the crowd a flutter as much by his talent as by his natural charm."
THE RED TIDE
When Formula 1 reappeared on the Paul Ricard circuit two years later the crowd saw black and gold colours dominating on the French track. The great Colin Chapman, the founder of Lotus, had come up with yet another of the innovations of which he alone had the secret – ground effect. Thanks to their pontoons that had the profile of an inverted wing, the Lotuses enjoyed an almost diabolic level of aerodynamic efficiency. Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson at the wheel of these wing cars, soon to be copied by all their rivals, scored a crushing double.
THE WING CAR GENERATION
Unfortunately, French blue started to fade in the following grands prix. In 1975, Niki Lauda, on his way to his first world title, won in a canter in his Ferrari 312 T followed home by dark horse, the hard-charging James Hunt in his Hesketh. The English driver then joined McLaren and found a car in keeping with his talent winning the race in 1976, a few months before being crowned world champion.
BLUE, WHITE AND RED
Alan Jones (Williams) thwarted the ambitions of Jacques Laffite and Didier Prironi (Ligier) in 1980. But in 1982 the French drivers hit back in style when René Arnoux, Alain Prost, Didier Pironi and Patrick Tambay achieved the unique feat of filling the first four places in the French Grand Prix to the delight of the crowd. Prost, who could do no better than second, soon took his revenge. He won the race in 1983 in his Renault and consolidated his lead in the world championship in which he seemed assured of the title.
"In 1982, René Arnoux, Alain Prost, Didier Pironi and Patrick Tambay achieved the unique feat of filling the first four places on home turf - a first!"
THE ENGLISH HIT BACK
Even if the French teams achieved an increasingly dominant position the British outfits didn’t throw in the towel. In 1985, on a shortened layout (3,813 instead of 5,810 km) Nelson Piquet’s Brabham took the flag in first place despite an impressive charge by Keke Rosberg in his Williams in the closing stages of the race. Williams quickly confirmed that this was no flash in the pan with Nigel Mansell who won the grand prix in dominant style in 1986 and 1987.
PROST 2 – SENNA 0
At the end of the decade the McLaren team had the best two drivers in the world at the wheel of the best car of the time, and Alain Prost had no intention of being beaten by Ayrton Senna on his home patch. Galvanised by his home crowd the French champion excelled himself yet again and triumphed in 1988 and 1989.
THE FINAL SHOWDOWN
The cohabitation between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the same team was not destined to last forever. In 1990, the French champion joined Ferrari and the duel continued. Once again Prost made it a point of honour to triumph on his home circuit. In 1990 he scored his hat trick of wins on the track that had marked the start of his career (he won the Volant Elf there in 1975), giving the Scuderia Ferrari its 100th victory in the F1 world championship.
"Alain Prost scored yet another victory in front of his home crowd. He clinched his third consecutive win at Paul Ricard and Ferrari’s one hundredth."
A MADE-TO-MEASURE TOOL
Although the French Grand Prix was now installed at Magny-Cours on a long-term basis Paul Ricard still echoed to the roar of F1 engines. Renault Sport had an operational base there with direct access to the track. It was a precious tool for the French engine builder that dominated Formula 1 with its partners, Williams and Benetton.
Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 commercial rights holder, bought the circuit in 1999. The track was closed for a time as it underwent a complete revamp that gave Paul Ricard a fresh boost as the new millennium approached.
Just as the project imagined by Paul Ricard was the trail-blazer of a new generation of circuits when it was created, the new version of the Paul Ricard track (it retained its historic name) set a new benchmark. Up till then the circuit in the Var had been used for private testing between races on a very frequent basis. Now it changed vocation. Christened the High Tech Test Track it became entirely dedicated to tests by manufacturers, which now had an ultra-modern tool that met all their requirements with a variety of different layouts, an automatic sprinkling system and venues adapted for press operations.
"Christened the High Tech Test Track the Paul Ricard was entirely dedicated to tests by manufacturers"
THE TOYOTA F1 BASE
Among these manufacturers Toyota – now involved in Formula 1 – took advantage of this unique tool on an intensive basis by installing a permanent test centre there. Sometimes, engineers arrived at the circuit airport in the morning, took part in a day’s testing and then returned to their headquarters in Cologne the same evening.
While the Paul Ricard circuit was dedicated to testing by manufacturers, it had not been forgotten that competition was part of its DNA. A GT race was held there in 2009 on an experimental basis. This triggered an appetite for racing at the Var circuit on which events again followed one another.
A PAINFUL ABSENCE
The French Motor Sports Federation, promoter of the French Grand Prix since 2007, threw in the towel after the 2008 event. Thus, the first grand prix in the history of motor sport vanished from the championship calendar leaving a huge hole in the hearts of all Formula 1 fans.
"Thanks to the creation of a Public Interest Grouping comprising the PACA region, the Var department and the town of Toulon the French Grand Prix is back at the Paul Ricard circuit!"
But behind the scenes some of these influential enthusiasts were getting together to plan the revival of the French Grand Prix. In 2011 a project built around the Paul Ricard circuit sketched the main guidelines of the return of the French event to the calendar. It reached an advanced stage but the state’s decision to withdraw its guarantee effectively sabotaged it.
Christian Estrosi was very attached to the idea of an emblematic event for the Provence Alpes-Côte d’Azur region of which he was president, and he gave the decisive boost to the revival of the French Grand Prix during 2016. After weeks of secret negotiations the good news was finally announced on 6th December. Thanks to the creation of a Public Interest Grouping comprising the region, the Var department and the town of Toulon the French Grand Prix would make its return to the Paul Ricard circuit!