The return of the French Grand Prix, and the return of the Circuit Paul Ricard brought a smile to the faces of many F1 fans. A French Grand Prix in high summer feels like something that F1 should be doing. It was a sentiment shared by many in the paddock – for whom another trip to the Côte d'Azur is no great hardship, invoking – for some – older memories of a more laid back F1, and weeks on the coast at Cassis and Bandol.
While F1 hadn’t raced at Ricard since 1990, it was familiar ground to many among the crews, having been a popular testing venue throughout the first decade of the 21st Century. For race teams, it was a winter stop, visited in the hope there wouldn’t be snow on the ground. For test teams, it was a regular haunt, particularly before a high speed race, where the long Mistral straight provided a very useful reference.
F1, of course, doesn’t race down the full straight any more. In the past, the French Grand Prix has run on both a long and short version of the circuit. The returning race uses neither of the old configurations but instead uses a tweaked version of the full track with a chicane in the middle of the Mistral. Ricard is probably the world’s most configurable racing circuit. It is primarily a testing venue, and thus the circuit can be set-up to offer configurations to suit pretty much any sort of testing requirement.
The nature of the circuit as a testing venue is also the reason for the presence of the distinctive blue- and red-banded runoff. Gravel traps would be an annoyance for testing , and so the circuit has an enormous acreage of run-off. The blue is the conventional stuff, with the red being extra grippy to slow cars down – but at the cost of destroying tyres.
The corollary to the runoffs is the notable absence of grandstands. Last year the race felt a little unreal. There were some temporary grandstands erected around the track – but they felt slightly disconnected from the paddock. Rather like Silverstone, Ricard covers a large area; unlike Silverstone – which puts up grandstands wherever there is a patch of level ground – Ricard had to limit its construction, not for lack of enthusiasm but rather lack of access. The circuit is located on top of a high plateau, with very limited approaches. It isn’t necessarily a location that you would choose for a modern grand prix track – but then very few of them are.
Our outing last year was pretty good, with second place for Max and fourth for Daniel Ricciardo. In the previous iteration of the race we had only one scoring return with Mark Webber finishing sixth in 2008 – so this greatly improved our record. We went to France not really expecting a great deal, so it was nice to come away with something. While the race itself was largely static, it kept us on edge until the flag, with heavy cloud cover over the circuit. Sadly for the crew, the rain held off until a few seconds after the chequered flag, only to lash down during pack-down as everyone dashed around to get the kit loaded and on the road to Austria in the first part of F1’s first triple-header.