Le Circuit de Reims-Gueux

The motor sporting world, for all its current interest in historic racing, can be an unforgiving place, with so many important landmarks of the past left for nature to consume, or simply destroyed in favour of something new. If the tight motor racing community cannot care for its treasures, what happens when the rest of the world gets hold of them?

In Britain, the earliest permanent race track was Brooklands and visitors of all ages can still gaze in wonder at the small remaining section of its terrifying concrete banking, though most of the enormous speedbowl was lost to developers decades ago. Before Brooklands was even a glimmer in the eye of creator Hugh Locke King, French combatants were thundering from village to village in contests of speed. It would be fair to say that the traditions of motor racing in Europe were borne of those days and those trials, but today precious little of any tangibility remains to remind us of those early motor sporting endeavours on the open roads.

In 1926, a new track was formed out of the public roads near the champagne town of Reims. Linking the towns of Thillois and Gueux in a triangle it became one of the premier French motor racing venues. Though truncated slightly in 1951 to bypass Gueux – actually making the circuit even quicker – it held the French Grand Prix and famous 12 hour sports car epic before racing finally ceased in 1969 for cars and 1972 for motorcycles.

In the intervening 40 years, locals have been able to reclaim their roads, and in fact one corner of the track no longer exists, but several of the original buildings still stand; remarkably intact and utterly evocative. While its contemporary north of Paris, Rouen-les-Essarts, retains no period buildings, Reims exists like a time warp. You can almost hear the engine notes of Ferrari and Maserati – Hawthorn chasing down Fangio in that thrilling 1953 Grand Prix.

Today the great tribunes opposite the pits loom nobly over passing motorists and their condition is remarkably good given their age, though there is evidence of dilapidation where steel reinforcement is being exposed as the concrete frame flakes and crumbles. The old pit buildings are of breeze block construction and their condition is really very good. They are in the process of being painted and patched up by a devoted group called Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux. The ACG, as the association is otherwise known, states its aims as maintaining the legend of the circuit, safeguarding its infrastructure and welcoming classic vehicles to the site once more.

The ACG has already restored the famous old scoreboard to gleaming condition. Mounted on a turntable it is once again able to spin to face all members of the crowd. With the pit buildings well under way, their next target is Le Stand des Marques, where the drivers rested during the gruelling 12 Hours battles.

Gérard Cuif is a local resident, classic Porsche racer and president of the association – often seen paint brush in hand doing anything he can to help preserve the circuit he loves. He fleshes out some of the details: “The buildings at Reims were not knocked down many years ago because their owner was a private society which had bought the property of 15 ha from the ACC (Automobile Club of Champagne) on December 15th 1971. This society was directed by Max Rousseaux who protected the history of the track. But Max Rousseaux died and the next owner became the village of Gueux in 2000. When the mayor of Gueux bought the buildings, he decided to build a private race track. He lost his election in 2008 because of ecologist inhabitants. The new mayor, along with the notaries of Gueux, wants to build private houses in place of the circuit buildings. Founded in 2004, the ACG decided to ask the French government to protect this mythical site. It was obtained in May 2008 for a large part of the buildings by the French Ministry of Culture (grandstands, pits, chronometer tower).”

However, the story doesn’t end there and the ACG faces a constant battle to justify the continued existence of the historic and evocative buildings. The politicians in Gueux need to see tourists visiting and that the circuit is not deserted. Meanwhile, among the 300 amis, 20 faithful members continue to do all they can to keep the site clear and tidy, slowly renovating the old buildings when red tape and budgets permit.

It is clear from spending time with Gérard that he does not believe the amazing old facilities here are safe and that action is required, not only to keep them looking presentable, but also to keep them standing at all. As a result, he has urged all classic car and motor racing enthusiasts to help. At its most simple, this means visiting the site, as Gérard puts it, “The English people can support us by visiting the track when they go to the Mediterranean for their holidays!” For those willing to do a little more, the association holds a membership scheme where subscriptions help pay for cement, tools and paint to help with continuing the works. For the really committed, les amis are always looking out for enterprises interested in partnering in the restoration.

It is saddening when so much of our motor sporting heritage becomes lost or hidden. At Reims, so much is intact and remains so evocative that it cannot be ignored and cannot be allowed to be bulldozed to make way for another housing estate. Racing enthusiasts, you know what to do.

For more information, visit: www.amis-du-circuit-de-gueux.fr

Montjuic Park

Since 1991 the Spanish Grand Prix has resided at the Circuit de Catalunya in Montmelo, about 30 minutes from Barcelona. It’s a tremendous modern race track with great spectating and facilities. In recent years it’s even produced some excellent racing in Grand Prix for both cars and motorcycles, and who can forget that iconic battle for supremacy between Senna and Mansell in 1991…?

Even closer to Barcelona, however, lay one of motor racing’s sternest challenges. Between 1969 and 1975, the Spanish Grand Prix alternated between Jarama near Madrid and the stunning parkland track at Montjuic, just outside Barcelona itself. Today Montjuic Park is a popular cultural and tourist destination, famous for hosting the 1992 Olympic Games.

Back in the 1960s and 70s it was a fearsome circuit – fast, tree-lined and taking place over public roads. It stood shoulder to shoulder with Spa, Silverstone and the Nurburgring as a high-speed challenge. Sadly Formula One stopped visiting after the tragic 1975 Grand Prix where Rolf Stommelen lost his rear wing; his Hill plunging into the crowd killing five spectators. This coming after serious controversy over the safety of Armco in 1973 threatened the running of the race at all.
Whether a legacy of that awful accident in 1975 or not, it appears Barcelona does little to celebrate its amazing circuit – despite the layout remaining almost entirely intact. Where once the F1 gladiators left the grid to do battle there is now a brass plaque illustrating the outline of the course and a list of those who conquered it. For the determined – and energetic – it is still possible to trace the route driven by one’s heroes. And so we took to our feet to try and unearth some of Montjuic’s secrets.

As a park, much of the course is lined with mature trees. The same ones would have mottled the light as Ickx, Stewart et al passed between them. The start took place at pretty much the highest point of the circuit, outside where now stands the Olympic stadium. The crest just past the stadium saw the cars airborne momentarily during flying laps. As tourists mill around with cameras, I wonder how many realise the drama which occurred under their feet forty years previously.

The pack dived through the trees off the grid and downhill towards the first left-hand hairpin at El Angulo de Miramar. The approach is a wide boulevard along the curving, undulating start/finish straight but narrows significantly at Miramar as the macadam plunges downhill. It puts one in mind of the Loews Hairpin at Monte Carlo with its extreme topography. The whole track is not dissimilar to Monaco, but significantly faster and more picturesque.

From Miramar, the drivers were locked into a series of sweepers heading downhill with a high rock face to the left hand side now concealed by dense foliage. Like everywhere at Monjuic this section would have rewarded maximum commitment but instantly punished any mistake. The route then emerges at another tight hairpin – this time turning right at the Rosaleda. If you look carefully, Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia stands proudly in the distance on the skyline. I doubt Rindt and his charging colleagues had time to admire the viewed as they were hurled once more into fast, sweeping bends.

The course continues downhill past a small, pretty park – the tranquillity of its still pond juxtaposing against the violence of Grand Prix racing cars at maximum attack. Here the area becomes more built-up, passing enormous colonial-style palatial buildings as it continues its flat-out meander downhill. One final chute past the police station and the 90degree left-hander Guardia Urbana saw the cars hurtling onto the longest straight worthy of the name on the circuit – the Recta de las Fuentas. This broad boulevard is quite open with the grand conference centre sitting high up to the left hand side.

The Recta must have been enjoyed through gritted teeth as the left-hander which followed must have been one of the circuit’s most dramatic tests of nerve in a powerful 3.0L Grand Prix car. If it wasn’t flat out it probably just required a confidence lift to settle the car and then began the climb back uphill and among the avenue of trees once again. Breathless stuff. The light flickers as you pass between the trees in the bright sunshine. It’s narrow here and must have been fearsomely fast by 1975.

From here the brave pilots would have had no respite. The ribbon of macadam twists its way gently up the hill through a rousing set of sweepers following the natural contours of the ground beneath it. Emerging on high ground, the tortuously long and fast left-hander of Sant Jordi is today broken by a small roundabout, before continuing again apace towards that winding, diving start/finish straight.

Even as a mere pedestrian, it’s a wild rollercoaster of a ride. To have driven a 500bhp Grand Prix car around that track for two hours would’ve taken every gram of nerve and commitment. It’s no coincidence that Jackie Stewart was triumphant twice at Montjuic.

Today, the lack of celebration for the track is disappointing. It’s an area of tremendous interest and beauty and as a race track was the equal of just about any of its contemporaries. It would be nice to see the good folk of Barcelona doing more to celebrate that heritage. The ultimate irony of the place seemed to be that its quiet and relatively secluded nature had made it a Mecca for learner drivers. Every other vehicle contained an eager student learning their craft. If only they could’ve seen the warriors of forty years ago teaching the world how to drive.

Albert Park

In previous blogs I’ve posted motor racing photos from my grandfather, father and even a few of my own. I never expected that I might receive anything relevant to our beloved sport from my great, great, grandfather. William Peile was quite a guy: a well-respected engineer, he travelled the world in the late 19th century, taking photos, collecting memorabilia and keeping a comprehensive diary. There cannot be too many British Victorian gentlemen who found themselves in the Antipodes…

I was sent this fascinating photo earlier in the week. It wasn’t taken by William, but he picked it up while in Melbourne and captioned it appropriately. It would seem that he clapped eyes on the Albert Park Grand Prix circuit 105 years before Formula One found its new home, having moved from the fearsome Adelaide street circuit. Albert Park hosted Grand Prix in the 1950s, but never for the World Championship. I wonder what William would have made of today’s F1 circus, having surveyed the park all those years ago…?

Birthday Cup – Croft 1968

A delve into my father’s archive of photos reveals this fascinating set from the 1968 Birthday Cup at Croft – just a few miles from the former family home in Darlington. The old’s chap’s abiding memory of the meeting, as a 15 year old, was a trio of Gold Leaf sponsored Lotus 47s circulating together. In the end, that most versatile of racers, Frank Gardner, triumphed in a Lola T70 Mk3 from a field which included Ferrari 250LM, Ford GT40 and Tony Dean, father of prolific team boss Richard. A reminder that I was born a generation too late. Or maybe two…