Paul Ricard may have held its last French Grand Prix for the foreseeable future. Will Formula 1 miss its trips to Le Castellet?
ThursdayPaul Ricard in 2018, I was encouraged to hear the organisers had since created an ‘F1 lane’ for those working at the event to use.
I crossed the bridge overlooking the circuit, which is situated over the hills to the east of Marseille, the unbearable heat pressing down as I reached the media centre. There was little time to waste as in addition to the usual sessions I had three exclusive interviews lined up, all of which will be published on RaceFans soon.
The regular sessions started with a roundtable with Valtteri Bottas. As he sat down he clocked a bucket hat worn by one of the media. I explained we had been gifted them in a media pack by the circuit and his eyes lit up. “I want one!” He exclaimed. Laughing I promised I would hand mine over later. I can pull off many looks, but a bucket hat is not one of them.
I made my way back to the media centre to find the freebie and walked back to Alfa Romeo to hand over the hat. He grinned “thanks” as I handed it over. Little did I know what trend I was starting there…
Haas driver Mick Schumacher has recently been donning a mask as Covid infection rates rise again. I did the same out of respect for his preference, and noticed his mask made his piercing blue eyes even more prominent. We chatted at length about his family, his timely upswing in form and the team’s tactics which vexed him in Austria.
I met his team mate, Kevin Magnussen, for the first of my exclusives. “Is it you now?” he smiled as he entered the motorhome and he pulled up a chair. We talked for a quarter of an hour and, as the television screens around us began to show footage of wildfires ripping through parts of the world, the conversation inevitably turned to the subject of climate change.
Daniel Ricciardo was next on my list, appearing with his characteristic huge smile on his face and apologising for being late. Relatively relaxed despite recent speculation over his future, which he shot down on social media, the McLaren driver spoke candidly about it. But he had much more enthusiasm for discussing his new Hulu television show, and dropped a few clues about his plans for it.
Finally, I sat down with Alexander Albon in Williams’ hospitality suite. Calmly explaining his time at Red Bull and addressing comments from Helmut Marko about how “nice” he was, he was clearly eager to see Williams’ recent upgrade translate into results.
A hugely busy day ended with a BBQ kindly put on by Mercedes for the media. Lewis Hamilton even found time to pop his head around the corner and say hello.
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The teams’ hospitality suites may be air conditioned but my accommodation wasn’t, and I endured a rotten night’s sleep. I made the long journey into the track with a banging headache. At least now most of the written media’s commitments have moved to Thursdays, Fridays have become far quieter.
Walking to the track I briefly bumped into Alice Powell and Jamie Chadwick, who I worked with during my time as commentator for W Series. In true British style, we spoke about the weather and how hot the circuit had been so far.
Heading through the F1 turnstiles however, I bumped into Bottas again, whose bucket hat was still glued to his head. He had no need to get in early, with Robert Kubica taking over his car for the opening session.
The FIA treated us to breakfast in their motorhome on Saturday as they were keen to explain the Motorsport Games. The FIA’s Director of Innovative Sport Projects Frederic Bertrand spent the next half an hour introducing us to the games, explaining the costs and format. The event is due to take place over the weekend of the 29-30th October, which unfortunately clashes with the Mexican Grand Prix, a race I am hoping to attend.
Qualifying was spent in the media pen, which was far more cramped than usual. The local media were keen to hear from the two French drivers, not to mention Francophone championship contender Charles Leclerc from nearby Monaco.
Bottas was still donning his bucket hat. Sebastian Vettel was in a chipper mood, considering his tough day, but had evidently enjoyed his run an a 100-year-old Aston Martin grand prix car two days earlier, on sustainable fuel.
He is another driver whose future remains uncertain, as he will be out of contract at the end of the year. If he leaves, many will miss his support for LGBTQ+ rights and promotion of environmental awareness. I asked him who would take his and Hamilton’s place as the human rights champions in the paddock once their racing days are over: “Instagram,” quipped Vettel, whose aversion to social media is well-known.
I heard from the rest of the drivers outside the top three, before making the long and slow journey back to the apartment to find something to eat. Too tired for much entertainment, I was tucked up in bed by 10pm.
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Naively believing the promoters had sorted traffic issues that have haunted me since the 2018 race, I left with what should have been seven hours to spare before the race to make the 40-minute journey to Paul Ricard. Two-and-a-half hours later, I finally reached my destination.
It seemed the road to the media car park was the same one used by the support paddock drivers and teams. We were blocked between three F2 cars on the back of a flatbed truck and our parking space, which set me back far longer than anticipated.
After the racing got underway a few hours later, I situated myself in the media pen ready to speak to any drivers who retire from the race. This exposed space in the direct sunlight proved one of the more uncomfortable pens to work on, with little escape from the blistering heat.
But we didn’t have to wait long for the first, thoroughly dejected driver to appear. After Charles Leclerc planted his Ferrari into the wall, I made my way over to speak to him. As usual when he’s made a mistake, he did not spare his blushes, frankly admitting he does not deserve to win the championship if he commits such errors.
The chequered flag fell and Max Verstappen collected another win. For the first time this year neither Mercedes driver appeared in the pen as both had finished in the top three and therefore went to the FIA press conference.
There, Lewis Hamilton’s face lit up when he showed us the “Mr Freeze” ice pop he had been handed. Tearing it apart with his teeth in the press conference room after his 300th race, the seven-times champion said it “reminds me of my childhood, I remember going to the corner shop for these.”
Pierre Gasly spoke movingly at the end of what looks like being the last French Grand Prix for the foreseeable future. The race does not yet have a contract to appear on the 2023 F1 calendar. The AlphaTauri driver was clearly emotional at the thought of not racing at home again.
With the best will in the world, it’s hard to escape the feeling the promoters still have some work to do if the event does continue. Despite the idyllic setting, travel to the venue has always been difficult, particularly for those who don’t have the advantage of being able to use the ‘F1 lane’.
But the atmosphere was terrific: French flags filling the stadium and big cheers for the crowd’s three favourites. There’s no doubt France deserves a grand prix. But Germany does too, and it’s not on the calendar.
It’s a shame to lose such heritage from our sport and it would be a travesty to lose Spa – where we’re heading next month – too. But before then we head to Hungary, where all eyes will be on Ferrari after their disastrous weekend in France.
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2022 French Grand Prix
- McLaren looking into why their starts are “more inconsistent” this year
- Mercedes expect Hungarian GP will ‘expose our qualifying weakness’
- Hamilton and Russell ‘out-performing a car that’s not good enough’ – Wolff
- “We need to decide now”: Inside Sainz and Ferrari’s French GP strategy dilemma
- Television broadcast gave “nonsensical” impression of Sainz radio call – Ferrari