It seems very strange to be returning to the Cote d’Azur only a couple of weeks after the Monaco Grand Prix – but Nice Airport Terminal 2 is where the similarity ends. The Circuit de Monaco and the Circuit Paul Ricard couldn’t be more different if one of them were located on Mars.
Set on a high plateau above the Mediterranean, Ricard is all about wide open spaces, high speeds and big stops. The cars will get up above 300km/h on four different straights, with some heavy braking into tight, fiddly sections – but also the famous ultra-high speed Signes corner at the end of the Mistral Straight. If you’re new to Ricard or if the memory has dimmed, it’s not entirely unlike Copse Corner at Silverstone – but usually with more sunshine.
It’s a long time since F1 raced at Ricard – 28 years to be precise. The French Grand Prix has always led a peripatetic existence but it came to Ricard more than anywhere else in the 1970s and 80s – so the memories tend to be about ground effect, barely-controllable turbo cars, flares and lots of hair.
Not that Ricard isn’t familiar territory. Over the last couple of decades, it’s styled itself as a high tech test-track (hence sometimes referred to as Circuit Paul Ricard HTTT), and pioneered the use of things like TecPro barriers and run-off with configurable abrasiveness (the blue and red zones which make it visually striking). It’s also incredibly flexible, being configurable into 167 (they say – but no-one’s actually counted) different layouts, allowing people to test for whatever particular track characteristics they want.
Until the testing ban it was a popular venue for F1 testing, losing out now to Barcelona, which has the slightly better weather in February and March. F1 still visits, however, with Pirelli particularly using the track for both wet weather and dry tyre testing. We’ve been there on Pirelli’s behalf, as have most of the top teams. Meanwhile, most of the drivers in the field this weekend will have raced at Ricard at some point in their career in various junior series.
So Ricard this weekend is new – but also very familiar.