Looking Back – Classic French Grands Prix

F1 car

F1 carAfter an absence of ten years, the French Grand Prix will make a triumphant return to F1 on 24 June. Once considered one of the most glamorous races on the calendar, it was withdrawn after running into financial difficulties in the late 2000s.

Over the years, legends have been born at Magny Cours and the Paul Ricard, the latter of which will host the French Grand Prix in its latest form, a whole twenty-eight years after last hosting a Formula 1 race.

Here, Girlracer takes a look at three classic editions of the French Grand Prix.

1952 – Ferrari’s first win
With seventeen wins at the French Grand Prix to date, team Ferrari are the undisputed kings of the event. No other constructor comes close, and the success of the stallion rampant at French circuits is well-rooted in F1 history. For now, Ferrari’s fifteen championship wins is a record that continues to stand the test of time, but the brand will always account for at least three-quarters of victories for an Italian constructor.

The first man to win a French Formula 1 race (albeit under Formula 2 regulations) was Alberto Ascari, doing so at the head of a podium consisting entirely of Italian drivers armed with the iconic 500 chassis.

Red, famously bullet-shaped and instantly recognisable, the Ferrari 500 chassis championed avant-garde aerodynamic values and boasted impressive durability.

These characteristics, combined with the skill of the drivers behind the wheel, enabled Ferrari to win fourteen out of nineteen races in 1952, making it a vintage season for a constructor that even today remains respected across the world.

As the home driver, and the winner of the previous weekend, Gordini’s Jean Behra was a favourite to win, with teammates Robert Manzon and Prince Bira also boasting a great deal of experience with Gordini’s newest chassis. However, it was eventual winner Ascari that took pole position, with teammates and compatriots Nino Farina and Piero Taruffi completing a front row, which at that time accommodated three racers.

There was little in the way of surprise as the Ferrari drivers dominated proceedings from the off. It was only ever a question of the order in which the front row would finish. Gordini duo Behra and Manzon got off to a strong start, with the latter in a podium place after the first lap. Ultimately though, once Taruffi had regained third place on lap four, some excellent tactical racing enabled Ferrari to lock out the podium.

Ascari won his personal duel against Farina with consummate ease, extending his championship lead to five points. He went on to win the remaining four races of the season, sweeping to one of the most comfortable title wins of that era.

Kimi Raikkonen completes a perfect lap of Magny-Cours in 2008, but the accolade of getting Ferrari’s seventeenth – and to date most recent – win at a French Grand Prix fell to teammate Felipe Massa.

1979 – The wait ends
The final French Grand Prix of the 1970s served as an intriguing point of comparison to the first. As the eighties approached, the phenomenon that was the turbocharged engine was becoming ever more popular. Its presence was finally vindicated in the ultimate way when Jean-Pierre Jabouille stormed to victory from pole position – Renault’s first as a constructor. In doing so, he also became the first Frenchman to get a home win, since the race became an official F1 fixture back in 1950.

It was a seminal race in the context of the decades to come. The growth of the turbocharged engine continued to accelerate in the 1980s, paving the way for modern-day heroes such as Hamilton and Vettel, both of whom remain a popular draw on Oddschecker, especially for those seeking to utilise free bets. Though Jabouille’s victory held significant gravitas, the race is perhaps best known for its battle between two heavyweight drivers over second place. Gilles Villeneuve won that particular battle, but he was made to fight all the way by the relentless Rene Arnoux, who nonetheless managed to get Renault a double podium appearance.

In Formula 1 racing, preparation is everything. Every constructor has worked intensively over the course of a month, but nobody was prepared for the newly blistering pace of the Renaults. Jabouille and Arnoux, two Frenchmen in two French cars, would lock out the front row of the French Grand Prix’s starting grid. The double home triumph was firmly in mind, but the likes of Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda and then-leader Jody Scheckter were also strong.

With everything to play for, the lead changed hands several times, but it was Villeneuve who started the strongest, while Arnoux fell back to ninth place after a poor getaway. However, the power of the Renaults soon began to show, and Arnoux had overtaken no less than six cars by the time lap fifteen came around. Before long, Villeneuve’s now-inferior Ferrari relinquished its lead, there was an air of inevitability thereafter.

By the seventy-eighth lap, both of Villeneuve and Arnoux were experiencing technical difficulties, and it became a street fight for second place, where only skill and racing guile would be the decisive factor. Arnoux was initially able to capitalise on Villeneuve’s misfortune, but the Canadian used every inch of his experience to wrest second place back a lap later. The two cars were neck and neck as the endgame approached, the wheels a mere handshake away from touching and the sparks flying after a series of grinds.

In the end, it was a mistake from Arnoux that handed Villeneuve second place at the death, with the Frenchman running slightly wide at the final corner. That split second was all Villeneuve needed to storm ahead and prevent a 1-2 for France at the Paul Ricard – regardless of what the more quibbling of F1 fans may make of Villeneuve’s French citizenship.

Villeneuve v Arnoux is considered the greatest one-on-one duel of the 1979 Formula One season.

1985 – Brabham’s final victory
The BMW M12 engine that powered the Brabham cars of 1985 had continually shown the ugly side of the newfound fashion for turbocharged engines. Thus, the result of the 1985 French Grand Prix was a stunning one in the context of the season. Eventual race winner Nelson Piquet had suffered four retirements and a ‘nul points’ in his first five races, before picking up a point in Detroit.

Though Piquet’s win was meaningless on the whole, it represented the first win for current tyre giants Pirelli, after a wait of twenty-eight years. In qualifying, there was little indication of what was to come, as Keke Rosberg averaged a speed of over 226 kph. Ayrton was his usual self and joined Rosberg on the front row. Nelson Piquet, meanwhile, could manage only to qualify in fifth and would duel with fellow third-row qualifier Niki Lauda at the start.

The early stages went as expected, with Rosberg pulling away from Senna, while Piquet raced conservatively to maintain a distance from the leading pack that he could exploit at a later time. Within six laps, both Andrea de Cesaris and Michele Alboreto – both of whom had won races earlier in the season – had dropped out of the race, due to a turbo failure and a steering malfunction respectively.

Piquet remained steady and overtook his countryman Ayrton Senna on the Mistral Straight soon after Alboreto’s retirement. The Pirelli tyres were clearly thriving under the conditions; meanwhile, leader Rosberg was suffering from issues with tyre grip, and it was just a matter of time before Piquet took the lead. He did so on the eleventh lap, at the famous Beausset.

It only got worse for Senna thereafter, with the Brazilian literally crashing out (into the fencing) at Signes, after an oil leak affected the integrity of his rear tyres. By the thirty-eighth lap, Piquet had a lead of more than twenty seconds, and despite a late rally from Rosberg, it was an easy win for Piquet in the end.

The result serves as a constant reminder to weaker constructors that sometimes only minor changes are needed for success. In modern times, unexpected wins like these can be the difference between a top-eight finish in the constructors’ table, or relative oblivion.

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