This weekend we will be heading back to the country where this all began – France for its 61st Grand Prix. After a decade long break from the grand prix, France rejoined in 2018 with the only current drivers winning in France being Lewis Hamilton (2018, 2019), Kimi Räikkönen (2007) and Fernando Alonso (2005). We will also be seeing Max Verstappen in the upcoming race after his unfortunate crash in Azerbaijan late in the race that called a red flag and forced him to retire from the race.
The first official grand prix was held in 1906 on the 26th and 27th of June near Le Mans in the West of France and organised by Automobile Club de France (AFC) as a method of promoting the French automobile industry as it had the largest industry in the world at the time. To reflect its vast number of automobile companies, the Grand Prix had no limit to the amount of entries any one country could have compared to the Gordon Bennett races which did limit the number of entries no matter the size of the country’s industry. As a result of this, 12 manufacturing teams and 32 cars entered the first Grand Prix races, although a large portion of the entries were French manufacturing companies, there were also drivers entered from Hungary, Germany and Italy.
The race was conducted over 2 days with 12 hours each day the drivers were to complete 6 laps of a 64 mile circuit passing near or through local areas such as Bouloire, Vibraye and Connerré. Overall, the entire circuit was 769 miles long, twice as long as any other previous circuit race had been before. The roads for this circuit were all closed public dirt roads, most of which were hastily sealed with tar making it rather treacherous in the early summer heat which melted the tar and caused it as well as dirt to be kicked up into the driver’s faces by the wheels.
Punctures were a common problem on these roads and during the 1906 race well known tyre company Michelin introduced the detachable rim with a tyre already affixed. This allowed for the tyres to be quickly swapped, cutting down the racer’s time as it was a lot quicker than manually replacing the entire tyre.
France returned to the Formula 1 Grand Prix Championships in 2018 after a 10 year long break with the Paul Ricard circuit on the 24th June for the 8th round of the championship. The Paul Ricard circuit was built in 1969 by Paul Ricard who wanted to experience the challenge of building a race track, a result of this is the track having a 1.1 mile (1.8km) Mistral straight followed by a high speed right hand signed corner. A very challenging track when going at the top speeds of a formula one race car. The track was opened on 19th April 1970 and was considered to be modern for it’s time with innovative facilities such as three track layout permutations, modern facilities, airstrip and large industrial park it was praised for being one of the safest motor circuits at the time.
The final laps of the 2018 French Grand Prix were filled with Tension when Verstappen took advantage of the Vettel-Bottas crash, ultimately taking second place behind Hamilton and Vettel and Bottas taking 5th and 7th respectively. Hamilton won his 3rd race of the season at the time, eventually going on to win 11 overall throughout the season. Räikkönen took 3rd place after passing Riccado in the final laps of the race.
The 2018 France Grand Prix also saw the introduction of the cockpit protection device dubbed the ‘Halo’ – a curved bar aimed to protect the driver’s head by deflecting debris without compromising the visibility of the driver or restricting safety access. The crash protection system was introduced as a result of the fatal accidents of Henry Surtees (2009) and Justin Wilson (2015) who were both struck in the head by debris or tyres. When the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) announced the mandatory cockpit protection they were met with criticism from both drivers and F1 fans many of which complaining that the design was visually unappealing, obstructs the vision and against the concept of open wheel cockpit racing. Niki Lauda, three times F1 world championship Austrian driver commented that the ‘Halo’ distorts the ‘essence of racing cars’. However this criticism was soon followed by praise when the cockpit protection system saved the life of Alex Peroni when his vehicle became airborne and crashed in an F3 event in Monza (2019).
The return of the Formula 1 Grand Prix has been well received by fans after the cancellation of the races in 2020 due to Covid-19 and we look forward to the outcome of the upcoming race on Sunday at the Paul Ricard circuit.