This month marks exactly 16 years since the last victory by a French driver in Formula One, when Olivier Panis took the chequered flag at Monaco after a demolition derby in the rain that left only three cars running.
Ahead of this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, the anniversary is a reminder of how long it has been since France was a force in motor sport.
The last French Grand Prix was won by Brazil’s Felipe Massa in 2008 at the unloved Magny-Cours circuit in central France, while the country’s only world champion, Alain Prost, won his fourth and final title almost two decades ago, in 1993. There was not one French driver on the grid in 2010 or 2011.
There are still success stories. Renault supplies engines to a number of F1 teams, including Red Bull Racing, the 2010 and 2011 world champions, and Williams, winner of the recent Spanish Grand Prix. The Le Mans 24-hour endurance race for sports cars is one of the most famous events in sport.
However, the nation that was the birthplace of motor sport more than a century ago has in recent years slipped out of the mainstream of Grand Prix racing.
In part that reflects a shift in F1’s centre of gravity away from the sport’s traditional European heartland to Asia, where governments have been ready to subsidise F1 as a national shop window, something that recession-hit European countries are increasingly unwilling, or unable, to do.
The fate of the French Grand Prix is a case in point. First held in 1906, the race was part of the F1 world championship from 1950, before it began to struggle financially.
In April, hopes were raised that the French Grand Prix could return to the calendar in 2013 when Bernie Ecclestone, F1’s commercial supremo, declared “the deal [was] done” with David Douillet, who was the country’s sports minister until recently.
The plan was to hold the race at Le Castellet, a circuit near Toulon in south-east France owned by Ecclestone’s family trust, every two years, alternating with the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps.
“We are still discussing a few points about money… [but] for me, there is no doubt that we will sort it all out,” Ecclestone was quoted as saying in L’Equipe, the French sports daily.
Since then, however, François Hollande has succeeded Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s president, and the priorities of a new Socialist government do not seem to include paying for the return of the French Grand Prix.
“The proposal will be reviewed,” Hollande told L’Equipe before the election. “I do not think the French state should be responsible for any financial outlay. There are enough issues to consider without spending tens of millions of euros on a Grand Prix.”
Since then, it has been suggested that Hollande and his government might reconsider, possibly by alternating the race between Le Castellet and Magny-Cours, which was conceived as a centre for the French motor sport industry under François Mitterrand, another Socialist president.
The country’s F1 fans can at least take heart from the return of some of their drivers to the grid – Romain Grosjean of the Lotus F1 team, Jean-Éric Vergne of the Red Bull second-string outfit Toro Rosso and Charles Pic of backmarkers Marussia, as well as Jules Bianchi, test driver for the Force India team.
Grosjean, currently eighth in the world championship after taking third place in Bahrain and fourth in Spain, is conscious of his country’s motor sport heritage. “We have one of the longest traditions of any nation in Grand Prix racing,” he says. “’Grand Prix’ is a French expression, and the sport’s governing body is the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. We can be proud of our history in motor racing.”
In a season where no driver or team has been able to establish dominance, some commentators believe the 26-year-old Grosjean is capable of winning a Grand Prix.
Of course, a decline in the number of young drivers making it into F1 is not unique to France. Yet it is particularly striking after the glory years in the 1980s and 1990s, when sponsorship programmes, especially that of oil company Elf Aquitaine, helped a long stream of drivers to climb the expensive ladder to the top.
Grosjean is reluctant to blame sponsorship issues. Pointing to his own backing this year from Total, the French oil company, he says: “It is really just the turn of a cycle, as we see with the absence this year of Italians, who also have a long history in F1.”
But he notes that financial support remains a key element in motor racing success. “To get into F1 it is almost mandatory to get everything right: talent, luck, results and, of course, financial and political help,” he says.
Red Bull’s Vergne, who moved up through the team’s driver development scheme, believes it is harder for French drivers than a decade or two ago. “There is no longer massive support from oil and tobacco companies,” he says, adding that “the French motor sport federation has done a lot of work and it is beginning to pay off. Major French companies will probably get more involved in helping drivers get to F1.”
Like other motor sport fans in the country, Vergne would be happy for the French Grand Prix to return to Magny-Cours. “It would be fantastic to have a French GP again, especially as we have French drivers on the grid now.”