This weekend, the French GP at Paul Ricard welcomes Formula 1 back to the birthplace of grand prix racing. The French Grand Prix is one of motorsport’s most storied events, and it has produced many memorable moments over the years. a few favorites have been selected by the Autosport staff.
While Formula One fans may not consider Paul Ricard’s present status as a test track to be particularly appealing, the French Grand Prix will draw a sizable crowd nevertheless.
Although it has been 32 years since a French driver won his home race, the home crowd has two drivers to root for in Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon.
The French GP has always produced plenty of thrilling moments for the adoring crowds. The writers at Autosport look back on some of their favorite moments from the magazine’s history.
Kevin Turner’s ‘The Race of the Century’
A race that has been dubbed “The Race of the Century” may seem a little out of place, but it’s worth a closer look.
When the field gathered in Reims for the 1953 French Grand Prix, no one besides Ferrari star Alberto Ascari had won a points-paying race in more than a year (excluding the atypical Indianapolis 500).
Ascari’s Ferrari 500, the pinnacle of Formula 2’s two-litre, non-supercharged era, earned him the pole position. A strong challenge has emerged from Maserati with three A6GCMs ranking in the top five.
Archive: Ferrari’s first great champion rises and falls
Jose Froilan Gonzalez jumped out to a commanding lead in the first few seconds. As the Ferraris of Ascari, Mike Hawthorn, and Luigi Villoresi swapped positions around the high-speed track, the Argentinian moved away in his Maserati.
Before Gonzalez stopped for fuel, Juan Manuel Fangio had moved up from sixth place to second, passing Ascari for the lead.
Hawthorn also used the alias Ascari, and he and Fangio engaged in a thrilling combat during which they alternated roles. As they slid by each other on the circuit, their lap records show that they traded the lead 11 times in the second half of the race.
Going into the last turn, Hawthorn held a slim advantage. Ferrari’s superior acceleration allowed Hawthorn win the dash to the finish line and become the first British winner of a world championship race, despite Fangio’s challenge.
Gonzalez and Ascari, who were trailing by a few points, were making a strong comeback. It was a heated struggle for third place as the race for the top spot waged on. The defending world champion was defeated by Gonzalez, who came within 0.4 seconds of his teammate Fangio. After two and a half hours of racing, the top four were separated by just 4.6 seconds.
As James Newbold breaks through in 2003, Minardi makes history.
The race itself has practically nothing to do with why the 2003 French Grand Prix is my favorite memory of the event.
This year’s new chicane at the end of the lap rendered Magny-Cours an even worse track for passing, although it did provide some interest by catching Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari off guard. The Brazilian was passed by Mark Webber’s Jaguar and finished seventh.
Something genuinely astonishing happened on Thursday when Minardi set the fastest time in qualifying. A one-off in Formula One’s 340 race history, yes, but first qualifying was a big deal back then (when there were two one-shot sessions, with championship order deciding the running order for the second session that set the grid).
Verstappen took advantage of a track that was still wet, but drying, making it ideal for late-session runners. His teammate Justin Wilson, who was running in last place, was only 0.1s slower than him on dry tyres, yet he still managed to hold on to the lead.
It was all for naught, as Minardi would never be able to match that speed in the dry, and the team finished in 19th place (with Verstappen) and 20th place (with Wilson) after the race (after Wilson’s Friday time was scrubbed for being 2.5 kg underweight due to the late decision to swap wets for dries).
If you think that’s an evidence of a faulty qualifying format, it’s up to you whether or not you think so. Because of it, it was completely wonderful and more worthy of attention than the actual race itself, according to one eight-year-old.
Reigning world champion Ralf Schumacher won the pole position ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya of Williams. His attempt to overtake Schumacher had gone awry when the German followed suit and maintained his lead. The pitwall gave Montoya a hard time when he voiced his unhappiness over the radio.
A thrilling four-way battle for the Formula One championship was on the horizon as Schumacher’s second win in a row put him just 11 points behind his championship-leading brother, Michael, who finished on the podium. McLaren teammate David Coulthard had a long stop after switching to a reserve fuel rig and then trying to depart with it still partially attached, but Raikkonen still finished fourth despite a blown brake disc.
Mansell’s pit-to-p2 heroics in 1989 make him a hero – Haydn Cobb.
When Ayrton Senna was racing for McLaren in 1989, the story of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna locked out the front row by more than a quarter of a second from Nigel Mansell in his Ferrari took a surprising backseat during the French Grand Prix.
Gugelmin slid into Boutsen and Berger in the first corner, then landed on Mansell’s rear wing, inflicting heavy damage on the German. Remarkably, the 1985 British Formula 3 champion walked away from the wreckage of his rolled March with with minor injuries.
Mansell started the race from the pits, while Senna’s McLaren came to a halt on the first lap after he was forced to start from the back of the grid. It was much easier for Prost to pull away from the field without his archrival in the front and Mansell stuck in the back.
It was F1 novice Jean Alesi in his Tyrrell who rose to second place before pitting owing to the early turmoil and an astonishing first lap from 16th to ninth. Even though he finished fourth, it was an impressive debut for him because he was the last driver on the lead lap when the race ended.
When it came time for Mansell to make his way through the field to catch his former Williams teammate Riccardo Patrese, Alesi was somewhat eclipsed by his own drive through the pack. A spin by Patrese as a result of pressure from Mansell allowed the British driver to pass for second position.
Frenzy of Frentzen shines as wet weather gamble pays off for Jordan and Jake Boxall-Legge in 1999
Modern-day Formula 1 is termed a “mixed-up grid” when one of the traditional top three teams – such as Fernando Alonso in Canada – enters the race. Due in part to the damp circumstances, Magny-Cours’ 1999 French Grand Prix was a true exhibition of a mixed-up grid.
To start off the race, Rubens Barrichello took the lead in his Stewart, followed by hometown favourites Jean Alesi (in a Sauber) and Olivier Panis (in a Porsche). The next three positions on the grid were filled by a more traditional front-running trio of David Coulthard, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and Michael Schumacher.
Dry weather allowed Barrichello get ahead of Alesi, while the Stewart-Ford SF-3’s greater pace helped him outpace his teammate. One-time winner Coulthard used him to gain ground on leader Barrichello, whom he then passed to take control of the race’s lead. McLaren’s alternator failed, allowing Barrichello to take the lead again.
meanwhile, Mika Hakkinen had fought his way through the pack and climbed from 14th on the grid to second place in a quick at the start of the race. Then, the rain started to fall, causing a flurry of pit stops to put on their wet tyres. At this point, the race may be considered won by Frentzen and Jordan.
In his autobiography, Eddie Jordan recounts a time when he had the team’s odd-job man stationed in a nearby village with an umbrella and a phone so he could keep the players updated on the weather. Because the rain was expected to continue for the rest of the race, the Jordan pit crew loaded Frentzen’s car to the brim and sent him on his way.
The race was restarted on lap 35 after a safety car period due to Alesi’s Sauber hitting the gravel. In the next three laps, Hakkinen tried to pass Barrichello for the lead but failed, allowing Schumacher to gain ground on a bloated Frentzen. The latter then got past Barrichello for the lead as Hakkinen began another ascent, with Schumacher building a lead that got to eight seconds – before electrical trouble hit, necessitating another pitstop to swap out his steering wheel.
As Frentzen appeared to be in line for third, Barrichello took the lead once more before being overhauled by Hakkinen. The top two were forced to pit once more before a frantic finish. It was Jordan’s second F1 victory in challenging conditions when Frentzen didn’t. When EJ told the story of a man with a brolly, or if the team had just taken a risk and won big, it started Frentzen on the path to an improbable championship campaign.