Put to one side the speculation over the future of F1 and the threats that, if the FIA hit Michelin with an excessive punishment, we could find ourselves watching another six-car race. If normal service is resumed in France, there is a mighty championship battle to be fought.
If Silverstone, host of the first ever World Championship Grand Prix, is Formula One’s spiritual home, then France, scene of the first ever Grand Prix, is its ancestral home.
Like Britain, France is the only other country to have held a Grand Prix every year. The current venue, Magny-Cours has been home to the French race since 1991, despite being a rather antiseptic and uninspiring venue miles away from anywhere in the French countrside.
Ferrari’s one-two in the United States was, of course, aided by the fact that they had no realistic opposition. However, their mammoth testing programme has finally brought improvement sin their one-lap speed and they remain strong over a race distance. Michael Schumacher is, finally, back in the frame as a serious contender for victory.
And, just three points behind Kimi Raikkonen, he is not to be ruled out of the title race just yet.
Renault will be hungry for victory in front of their passionate home supporters, and the famously ultra-smooth Magny-Cours surface may just play up the McLaren’s vulnerability on on-lap pace enough for them to steal pole position. Fernando Alonso was exceptional here in 2004, almost a match for the (four-stopping) Schumacher, so a win is definitely on the cards for him.
Kimi Raikkonen, of course, simply has to keep taking points of Alonso and hope that team mate Juan Pablo Montoya (who will yet again be running early in qualifying) can take points off Alonso. That assumes that Montoya won’t also take points of Raikkonen – as he surely would have done when on course for victory in Canada.
It is worth remember that the Ferraris will be running engines that did an entire Grand Prix distance at Indianapolis (though surely not at full revs) while the Michelin teams will have almost-new motors.
Exactly how competitive BAR will be is difficult to judge. If they were desperate for points when they returned from disqualification three races ago, they must be panicking as, after America, they are now the only team left not to have scored at all this year. Expect BAR and major rivals Toyota to be closely matched, though BAR may stick with their aggressive fuel strategies.
The first French Grand Prix was held at Reims in 1950, and for decades would move from venue to venue each year. The ultra-fast Reims track held even Grands Prix, the last in 1966. The beloved Rouen-les-Essarts track first held the French race in 1950, and would on four further occasions. The cars would hurtle downhill into the cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin, then climb back to the start/finish line. By the time of its last F1 race, in 1968, the dangers of the circuit were become unacceptable.
Clermont-Ferrand was the third host of the French Grand Prix, holding four races from 1965 to 1972. This was an unusual track, akin to a smaller N�rburgring Nordschleife, with endless turns and vomit-inducing undulations. At the last race in 1972 the ever-luckless Chris Amon led before picking up a puncture, then producing a sterling drive to take third.
The French Grand Prix was held at the Le Mans Bugatti circuit in 1967, which proved a universally unpopular venue. The track used the start/finish line of the famous La Sarthe track, home to the Le Mans 24 Hours sports car race, but was too short, tight and twisty to produce spectacle (and would perhaps not look out of place on a contemporary Formula One calendar.) It has, however, become a staple fixture on the Moto GP calendar.
From 1971 the Paul Ricard and Dijon-Prenois circuits became the favoured hosts of the French Grand Prix. Paul Ricard featured the massive Mistral straight, over 1km in length, whereas Dijon was an almost unending series of sweeping corners connected by a single straight. In 1979 Dijon produced one of the most celebrated battles in Grand Prix history as Rene Arnoux and the late Gilles Villeneuve raced wheel-to-wheel for second placed in the final laps. Hardly enyone noticed that Arnoux’s team-mate Jean-Pierre Jabouille took his first win, and the first for a turbocharged car.
The French had two races in 1982 – one at Paul Ricard and the second at Dijon, ostensibly called the ‘Swiss’ Grand Prix (motor sport having been banned in Switzerland since the death of over 80 spectators in the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours). At Dijon, Keke Rosberg took his maiden win, and the only victory that would come his way during his championship-winning season.
From 1985-1990 the race was permanently at Paul Ricard, though the track was shortened significantly in 1986 after a testing accident claimed the life of Elio de Angelis. After 1990 the race moved the the new Magny-Cours circuit for political reasons. Bernie Ecclestone acquired the Paul Ricard circuit, and has turned it into a high-specification dedicated testing venue.