You would think that the French Grand Prix would be handy for anyone living in the British Isles. Not so, I'm afraid. Magny-Cours is bang in the middle of France and very awkward to reach. Travel by road and you have a six-hour hike from...
You would think that the French Grand Prix would be handy for anyone living in the British Isles. Not so, I'm afraid. Magny-Cours is bang in the middle of France and very awkward to reach.
Travel by road and you have a six-hour hike from Calais. With the last couple of hours made worse by single carriageway main roads which are just wide enough to have those 'can I, can't I, yes I can - ohmagawd' suicide overtaking passageways down the middle. The problem is you that have to work your way round Paris and this takes time, no matter which route you choose.
So why not fly to the French capital and motor from there? Well, it means using Orly airport to the south, and the infrequent flights that involves. Charles de Gaulle is better served, of course, but the battle is on from the moment you join the autoroute outside the airport. And, at the end of the day, you still have to face that frustrating hour or so stuck behind trucks on the route into Nevers, the nearest town to Magny-Cours.
We tried using a charter flight to Clermont Ferrand, to the south of Magny-Cours. It meant a crack of dawn departure from Luton and then an hour and a half drive at the other end, with a similar rush in reverse on the Sunday night for the (seriously delayed) return flight and a three am arrival home in West Sussex. Thanks, but no thanks.
The one good thing about that particular trip was that we took time out to visit the Charade circuit, up in the hills overlooking Clermont Ferrand. This is a truly magnificent place; five miles of public roads swooping round the Puy de Charade and the Puy de Gravenoire. The track is still used for national racing and, as such, it is in good condition. But, of course, nowhere near good enough for the demands of modern Formula One.
Magny-Cours is the French GP's 16th venue. And probably one of the most boring. In some ways, that’s an unfair comparison since Magny-Cours has followed on from Rheims and Rouen, two very different but charismatic road circuits.
The Circuit Paul Ricard held the race 14 times from 1971 to 1990. This flat and fast track was reasonably challenging and ahead of its time in terms of facilities, but was made really popular by a location above the Mediterranean coast and a mid-summer date. In between, team personnel relished the Dijon circuit as much for its fast sweeps as the excuse to visit vineyards and sample the local produce, even though the working conditions were poor and the circuit owner particularly hostile. Things became so unpleasant that the motor home crews emptied their waste tanks outside the organiser's office while leaving Dijon for the final time in 1984.
Paul Ricard was forced to give way to political expediency in 1991 when France's Finance Minister happened to be the mayor of Nevers and, by chance, French President Francois Mitterand was once president of the region in which Magny-Cours is situated. With the area in need of an economic boost, it was the work of a moment to have the existing track - used mainly for club racing - upgraded. The trouble was, the resulting edifice looks like it was designed by a committee of politicians.
The facilities cannot be faulted and neither can the organisation. But, somehow, the paddock and much of the track lacks soul. There is Tarmac as far as the eye can see. You could be anywhere. There is very little to say that this is the French Grand Prix. That soon changes when you venture outside and head into the rolling countryside to investigate a number of the superb restaurants, many of which are hidden but well worth finding.
And getting to Magny-Cours in the first place? We now have the answer. Board a Eurostar at Waterloo or Ashford, take the 20-minute ride from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon and then take the TGV express for a swift two-hour run from Paris to Nevers, where your hire car is waiting at the station. A twenty-minute drive to the track and then off to sample French cuisine and a glass of Saint-Emilion. C'est parfait!