Circuit Paul Ricard, in its current form as a testing site, may not be a Formula 1 fan favorite, but that won’t stop fans from flocking to the site this weekend for the French Grand Prix.
The home support have two drivers to cheer on in the form of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, although it’s been 32 years since a French driver won their home race.
Either way, the French GP has created plenty of exciting moments over the years to delight the crowded stands. Autosport writers pick their favorite moments from years past.
1953, ‘The Race of the Century’ – Kevin Turner
Mike Hawthorn, Ferrari 500, leads Alberto Ascari, Ferrari 500, and Luigi Villoresi, Ferrari 500
Photo by: Sutton Images
It might seem a little odd to pick a favorite that took place before you were born, but an event described as the race of the century deserves closer examination.
No one but Ferrari star Alberto Ascari had won a paying race for over a year (barring the freakish Indianapolis 500) when the field arrived in Reims for the Grand Prix de France from 1953.
Ascari duly took pole with his Ferrari 500, the benchmark machine of the world championship’s non-supercharged two-litre Formula 2 era. But Maserati’s challenge had grown stronger and there were three A6GCMs in the top five.
Archive: The rise and fall of Ferrari’s first great champion
Jose Froilan Gonzalez immediately took the lead. The Argentine had started with half tanks in his Maserati and pulled away as the Ferraris of Ascari, Mike Hawthorn and Luigi Villoresi swapped positions around the track at high speed.
Juan Manuel Fangio ran sixth in the opening stages but stalked through the peloton and passed Ascari for second just before Gonzalez made his fuel stop and dropped to sixth.
Hawthorn also went through Ascari, starting a fantastic duel with Fangio as they constantly switched places. The lap charts show they swapped leads 11 times in the second half of the race, but it was likely a lot more than that as they passed each other around the track.
Hawthorn had a narrow lead heading into the final lap. Fangio challenged, but the Ferrari’s superior acceleration helped Hawthorn win the race for the flag to become Britain’s first winner of a world championship race.
Just behind, Gonzalez and Ascari were back in the running. As the fight for the lead raged on, they fought another great battle for third place. Gonzalez got the better of the reigning world champion and lost 0.4 seconds after catching teammate Fangio. Just 4.6 seconds covered the top four after two hours and 45 minutes of racing.
2003, Minardi makes history with the appearance of cracks at Williams – James Newbold
Verstappen gave Minardi a rare chance in the spotlight in 2003
Photo by: Sutton Images
The reasons I chose the 2003 French Grand Prix as my favorite edition of the event have almost nothing to do with the race itself.
Magny-Cours was never a brilliant layout for overtaking and no doubt made worse by the new chicane installed at the end of the lap that year, although it provided additional intrigue by catching Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari. The Brazilian was overtaken and finished seventh, behind Mark Webber’s Jaguar.
But step back in time to Friday qualifying and something truly remarkable happened – Minardi topped the times. Yes it was only first qualifying (at the time when two unique sessions took place, the first in the order of the championship determining the order of passage of the second which established the grid), but it was a unique experience in its history of 340 races in F1.
Jos Verstappen took full advantage of a wet but dry track, which allowed for the most favorable conditions for those racing towards the end of the session. Using dry tyres, he beat Jordan rider Ralph Firman’s benchmark by 2.6s, then held on as teammate Justin Wilson – running last – ran 0.1s slower.
It was to prove academic, however, as Minardi was never going to have the pace in the dry to repeat that feat, and they returned to the norm for the race (after Wilson’s time from Friday was erased for a weight insufficient by 2.5 kg following the late choice to exchange the wet for the dry) respectively 19th (Verstappen) and 20th (Wilson).
Whether you decide this is a sign of a faulty qualifying format is entirely subjective. But in the mind of this eight-year-old, it was utterly brilliant and deserved far more attention than what happened in the race itself.
Poleman Ralf Schumacher headed Williams team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya to a 1-2 that left the Colombian rather unhappy. He had stopped a lap earlier than expected in a bid to skip Schumacher, only for the German to follow suit and stay ahead. A furious Montoya made his displeasure known over the radio and received a short pit wall swerve.
Schumacher’s second trotting win puts him just 11 points behind championship-leading brother Michael, who joined them on the podium in what was shaping up to be a four-way title battle with Kimi Raikkonen and Montoya. Raikkonen still finished fourth, despite a blown brake disc, as McLaren teammate David Coulthard suffered a slow stop caused by needing to switch to a spare fuel rig and then attempting to restart with it still partially attached.
1989, Prost dominant but pit lane to P2 makes Mansell the hero – Haydn Cobb
Alain Prost, McLaren MP4/5 Honda
Picture by: Motorsport Images
The Alain Prost v Ayrton Senna tale at McLaren in 1989 took a rare and unexpected backseat at that year’s French Grand Prix, although the duo locked down Nigel’s front row by more than a quarter of a second. Mansell in his Ferrari.
The carnage raged at the start when Mauricio Gugelmin crashed into turn one and slammed into Thierry Boutsen and Gerhard Berger, before landing on Mansell’s rear wing. The race was immediately red flagged, as the 1985 British Formula 3 champion emerged from his rolled step and was remarkably relatively unscathed.
Mansell made the restart but in the reserve Ferrari he was forced to start from the pit lane, while Senna’s race ended soon after when his McLaren came to a halt on the opening lap. Without his great rival up front and Mansell mired in the field, Prost slacked off to head for a fourth home win.
In fact, due to early chaos and an incredible first lap to climb from 16th to ninth, F1 debutant Jean Alesi became Prost’s closest surprise competitor, dropping to second in his Tyrrell. before stopping. While he would be relegated to fourth place at the finish, it marked a superb first outing as he was the last driver to remain in the lead lap at the finish.
But, arguably, Alesi’s triumph was overshadowed by Mansell’s own charge through the field as he carved out the order to catch former Williams team-mate Riccardo Patrese in the closing stages. Pressure from the British driver saw Patrese make a crucial mistake and go into a spin, clearing the way for Mansell to take second place.
1999 Frentzen shines as Jordan wins wet weather bet – Jake Boxall Legge
Heinz-Harald Frentzen. Jordan 199
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
In modern Formula 1, a “mixed grid” is usually considered such when there is an intruder among the traditional top three teams – think Fernando Alonso in Canada. The 1999 French Grand Prix held at Magny-Cours is nevertheless the demonstration of a real chaotic plateau, favored by the wet conditions.
Rubens Barrichello took pole in his Stewart, with local heroes Jean Alesi (Sauber) and Olivier Panis (Prost) starting second and third. A more traditional leading trio of David Coulthard, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher occupied the next three positions on the grid.
The race started in dry conditions, and the Stewart-Ford SF-3’s superior pace – the Cosworth engine in the rear being much improved after its Australian double detonation on the grid – helped Barrichello clear Alesi. The former race winner was more of a bottle cap, and Coulthard sent him climbing up to the leading Barrichello – whom he also passed to take the lead. Then the McLaren driver’s alternator spun, allowing Barrichello to reclaim the lead.
Meanwhile, Mika Hakkinen had been pressed early in the race and fought his way through the field – passing Frentzen and Alesi to move up to second place from 14th on the grid. Then it started rocking, causing a frenzy of pit stops to bolt on the rain tires. This is where Frentzen and Jordan arguably won the race.
Eddie Jordan tells a story in his autobiography where he posted the team’s resident odd job to stand in the nearby village with an umbrella and telephone and keep the team updated on the weather. According to EJ, the team was informed that the rain wasn’t about to stop, and so pit crew Jordan filled Frentzen’s car to the max and sent him on his way, with the intention not to stop.
A safety car period followed the stops, as Alesi threw his Sauber into the gravel, the race resumed on lap 35. Three laps later, Hakkinen tried to clear Barrichello for the lead but missed his pass, as big-with-fuel Frentzen lost a place to Schumacher. The latter then passed Barrichello to take the lead as Hakkinen began another climb, Schumacher building an eight-second lead – before electrical problems arose, requiring another pit stop to swap his steering wheel.
Barrichello led again, passed by Hakkinen again as Frentzen looked good for third – but the front two had to stop again for a splash-and-dash to the finish. Frentzen didn’t – and won, securing Jordan’s second F1 victory in difficult conditions. Whether you believe EJ’s parable of the man in the brolly, or whether the team just took a bet and won big, it put Frentzen on the path to an unlikely title bid.