Bonjour mes petits poulets, Spy here, heading to the third francophonic race in a row, I’m thinking of swapping the fedora for a beret. I think I’d look good in a beret – though I’m not sure Milton Keynes is ready for a look that… sophisticated. And I definitely wouldn’t need it at Ricard, which is currently hotter than the surface of the sun – or at least it seems so after ten wet days in England. It was raining when we got off the plane from Montreal and still raining as the cars were loaded up into freight for France. They went in two-by-two. Co-incidence? Spy thinks not.
But this is behind us now because it’s high summer on the French Riviera, with cornflower blue skies, grapes ripening on the vines and any other cliché you care to mention. This is the Formula One promised to us as kids in all those annuals sponsored by tobacco companies. Team Principals should be wearing tweed and timing will be done by the driver’s wife or girlfriend*, sitting on the pitwall with a stopwatch.
Actually, on second thoughts, the latter is probably not such a good idea. Race engineers tend to be gentle souls who will put up with all sorts of histrionics from the driver during a tense grand prix. The head-throw is properly box office – but you can’t imagine the driver being able to get away with half of that behaviour were the person under the headset giving it back like Guenther Steiner in a summer frock.
Anyway, moving on from that frankly quite disturbing mental picture. France! Last year this race arrived back on the calendar amid great excitement. That waned quite a bit as most of us spent the majority of our five days sitting in traffic. Admittedly, sitting in traffic under cornflower blue skies amid a bucolic landscape with more vines than you could shake a shaky stick at – but even that starts to pale into the third hour.
We’re told it’ll be better this year – though Spy can’t help but notice everyone’s loading out with extra bottled water and Haribo for the journey. There’s even books in the minibus. Spy didn’t know some of these people could read.
Actually, we’re probably unfair on the circuit. Geography hates it. It’s on top of a mountain approached by winding lanes of the sort best used in a 1930s caper movie. It really isn’t a set-up that’s going to work well for a major sporting event. And, of course, Ricard isn’t supposed to host a major sporting event. It’s a test track. It is a very, very good test track. It doesn’t really do grandstands and car parks but it does a thousand different configurations and run-offs so enormous you could play elephant polo on it, with enough space left over to build a Carrefour**.
If anything, this was the bigger problem last year. Ricard of old had astoundingly quick corners that demanded the sort of bravery and commitment that inspired a generation of kids to buy those Rothmans Yearbooks. Coming back with the grandstands and tyre barriers stripped away, with a lot more downforce but also run-off on which one could land a 747, makes it all look a little bit anaemic.
There’s a wider question about runoff vs gravel traps doing the rounds at the moment. There’s a sentiment frequently expressed in dark corners of the internet which demands the return of gravel traps to impose a stricter penalty on drivers who go off and, by association, an element of jeopardy sometimes lacking from modern racing. Sorry to let everyone down, but it’s a dumbass idea that just isn’t going to happen.
Motorsport is dangerous – but you don’t go out of your way to make it more dangerous. Indeed, there’s an obligation – moral, ethical and also legal – to make it safer. And runoff is safer than gravel because run-off has grip. It’s safer for the drivers but – crucially – safer for the marshals and extraction crews. The only place we see gravel now is on an old-school circuit where there just isn’t enough room for run-off. Gravel’s problems are myriad. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and the car simply skips across the surface, either to hit a barrier or pull half a tonne of aggregate back into a place that you really don’t want loose stones.
Often, however, it’s worse when it does work. The car that has a tank slapper and goes in sideways has a risk of digging in and flipping over – but even without this, it takes a while to extract a car that’s buried up to the axles in gravel. That puts marshals in the line of fire, and so the race is neutralised over and over again. Put gravel traps back in at Ricard, and with the bumps into a downwind braking zone, we’re going to have ten red flags in each practice session and Bernd Mayländer winning the grand prix.
* may they never meet
** one of the big ones, with a garden department and a café