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Race Day : June 29th 1997

Renault bid to make it ‘first’ and ‘last’ in 83rd French Grand Prix at Magny Cours. Schumacher should take advantage of Villeneuve’s impetuosity

The French have more motor racing circuits than any other European country. With at least 25 in irregular use, there are probably more tucked away behind vineyards and deep within forests, that probably even the French don’t know about. Auto racing was introduced in France with the establishment of the Auto Club de France in 1895 and a city to city race between Bordeaux and Paris. With an international series inaugurated by the American Newspaper mogul James Gordon Bennett in 1900, the ‘Coupe Internationale’ became a hotly contested race for the Gordon Bennett cup. But with the massive death toll that City to City racing brought (12 people died in the Paris-Madrid race in 1903 including one of the Renault brothers, Marcel), and the fact that the rules, laid down by the American precluded the national entry to a maximum of three cars, the ACF refused any further participation in the Gordon Bennett races. The name of the race was changed in 1906 to the Grand Prix de l’ACF hence introducing the now common epithet to all subsequent international competitions.

The first Grand Prix of 12 laps in the same year, was held over two days on a 65mile(105km) circuit near Le Mans and was won by one Ferenc Szisz in a 13 litre 4 cylinder works Renault. Since then the French Grand Prix has had many venues. Circuits at Reims, Dijon in Burgundy and the Paul Ricard circuit at Le Castellet near Marseilles, hosted the majority in later times, but Pau in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Albi near Toulouse, Rouen les Essarts in Northern France and the Louis Rosier circuit at Charade near Clermont-Ferrand, all hosted races.

The French Grand Prix has always been eventful. The 1926 race at Miramas, contested by 3 Bugattis, due to a constructor’s strike, was the smallest in GP history. It also boasted the longest winning margin of 15 laps. In 1953 Mike Hawthorn gave his first win for Ferrari narrowly beating Fangio’s Maserati at the final turn. 1960 saw the Cooper Climax take the most definitive victory of all time when Jack Brabham lead them home 1, 2, 3 and 4. 73 years after Renault’s first win, Jean-Pierre Jabouille scored the second for the Marque and a first for a turbocharged car. The race was memorable for the fantastic wheel banging duel for second place between Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari and Rene Arnoux in the second Renault, in which positions were exchanged several times in the last lap. The Ferrari took the place by just 0.24 of a second. Alain Prost won the first of his 51 races at Dijon and returned to win three times in a row in ’88, ‘89’ and ’90 at Paul Ricard.

The Circuit de Nevers at Magny Cours, near Nevers, originally the proving ground of many French drivers passing through the Winfield Racing School, was totally refurbished in 1988, when French President Mitterrand took an interest in bringing Grand Prix racing to a largly rural area, enabling it to become the regular home to the French Grand Prix, the first of which was held in 1991. The Ligier Formula 1 team (now Prost) made their home their in purpose-built accommodation beside the track and have only recently moved to larger premises near Paris. It is the first of a series of fast tracks that form the mid part of the F1 season and is a mix of medium corners, tight hairpins and long, fast curves.

Magny Cours is perhaps, the most notorious track when it comes to changes in temperature and atmospheric conditions. Gary Anderson, Jordan Peugeot’s technical director says, "The weather plays an important part, as the track usually becomes hot and therefore slippery" If it is warm, Gary went on, "In qualifying instead of the teams waiting until the end of the session to make the best times, there is usually a rush to get out early before it becomes too hot. Overall the set-up is a balance between downforce and strait line speed. Downforce for the Estoril bend and straight line speed so you can be quick at the end of the straight and overtake (under braking) at Adelaide (Hairpin)."

Young Jordan Peugeot driver Giancarlo Fisichella after driving to a brilliant 3rd place at the Canadian Gran Prix, Said, "Magny Cours is a good circuit for me because I love chicanes and so it suits my driving style. I do not really enjoy the hairpin (Adelaide), because it is so slow and the 180 degree bend is also slow and you usually have problems with understeer. It is a medium grip circuit but the track surface is really smooth which is excellent."

The most important corner in qualifying according to the majority of drivers, is the final tight right hander (Lycee) that leads into the start-finish straight. Putting power down hear is extremely important and has to be done firmly but progressively. Ralf Schumacher says, "Lycee, which is a very low grip corner is very important because it affects your speed on the straight."

Alan Jenkins, technical director of Stewart Grand Prix says of the circuit, "The most notable feature, is that the track is billiard-table smooth. This and the nature of the surface itself, means that finding a set-up can be a very specific task. It can be a nightmare until you dial into the circuit. We made quite major gains in set-up over the recent two days we tested here."

This should be expected of course, as all the teams have tested here at some point over the last few months and configurations should prove to be quickly attainable at the weekend.

It looks like Austrian Alexander Wurz who exceeded expectations executing his duties for Benetton in Canada will be driving for the team again, as Gerhard Berger still suffering from his sinus complaint underwent a second minor operation. Team boss Flavio Briatore is expected to wait until the last moment before making any decision.

Things on the other hand, don’t look so rosy for Team boss Alain Prost. His driver Olivier Panis who crashed badly in Montreal fracturing both legs, will be out of contention at least until Monza. The highly rated Jarno Trulli has been given leave from Minardi to fill his seat, but Prost is also giving consideration to ex-Williams test driver Emmanuel Collard, current test driver Jean-Christophe Boullion and his own, Tarzo Marques.

Both the Williams drivers especially Jacques Villeneuve will be looking to restore the faith that Frank Williams seems to be sorely in need of. With the French Grand Prix approaching the half way point in the season, the Canadian has finished in only three of the seven races so far albeit winning them. Michael Schumacher has taken advantage of this fact and with Ferrari ever increasing in strength, Villeneuve although quick and, in the quickest car, must lose his impetuosity and start to construct an intelligent race approach rather than the ‘Gung Ho’ manner on which the ‘boy’ in him seems to thrive.

Jean Todt Ferrari’s team director said after Montreal, "I will never be happy until we are in a winning position. When I arrived at Ferrari we were in a very difficult situation. We now have a proper team, but we still have a lot to achieve. There is so much to be done now and we are working to close the gap. Previously it was a question of a year, now it is a matter of months." Words that Villeneuve should heed, for that ‘matter of months’, could already be weeks. Ferrari are currently ahead both in the Driver’s and Constructor’s championships and consistency is what the Didcot team badly need.

After being the ‘nearly man’ in Canada McLaren’s David Coulthard will be looking to consolidate his hand with the vastly improved Mercedes engine that made such an impressive debut at Montreal.

The good news for Damon Hill in the Arrows, was that he finished a race and whilst we should not expect anything more from him this weekend, the team are regarding this as a major stepping stone because of the amount of extra data they have acquired through bringing both cars across the finishing line.

It is good to see thus far in the season, that the bestowal of race honours is not a forgone conclusion for the favoured few. As we have seen over the last couple of races, the mid-field is rapidly catching up with the front runners. Fisichella, Rubens Barrichello, Coulthard, Jean Alesi and even Alex Wurz all have a chance to bite at the winner’s apple. A continuously disappointing Heinz Harald Frentzen will not help Williams put that extra spurt to the line but the sheer bravado and dazzling car control of Schumacher will.


Chris Richardson


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