Friday 21 June 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XIV - Charade Circuit, French Grand Prix

Image Courtesy - www.allf1.info

A doctorate in law, childhood friend and racing mate of the only posthumous World Champion in F1, winner of the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans, lap record holder at the traditional hilly race Targa Florio at Sicily, stints with restaurant and luxury properties, talent spotter who introduced the likes of Gerhard Berger, Juan Pablo Montoya to Formula One.

There are more roles he is associated with, but none more famous than being the mentor for the reigning three-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel. He is Helmut Marko, the consultant for Red Bull Racing. What is lesser known is the fact that; he had long hair, drove in F1, and had the looks that could have made him the poster boy of F1. Being at the receiving end of a freak incident while racing, it stalled his career at F1.

When Felipe Massa was hit on the helmet by rubble in 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, he missed few races. He came back post recovery and still races with Ferrari. However, 41 years ago a similar incident occurred when a stone hit the visor of Marko’s helmet damaging his left eye. The incident signalled the end of his race and his short lived F1 career (nine races). Today, the helmets have bullet proof polycarbonate visors to protect the eyes; a development that took place after the accident involving Helmut Marko.
In this edition of Lost Track, I look back on a circuit located in France whose F1 hosting rights ended in the same year as that of Marko’s driving career.

In the 1950’s Nurburgring in Germany was a popular race track with its elevation changes, long straights and twisty and tight corners. The French motorsport authorities wanted to have their own version of ‘Nurburgring’ and this resulted in a race track built near the Puy (volcanic hill) de Dome mountain, located around two extinct volcanoes; the Puy de Charade and the Puy de Grave Noire. The circuit also passed through the hamlet of Charade and hence the explanation for the one of the names of the circuit.

The legendary French driver Louis Rosier assisted in the project, which was headed by Jean Auchtataire. With very less space to incorporate pit garages and grand stands, neighbouring village roads were included as a part of the 8 km circuit map. The first "Trophées d'Auvergne" was held in 1958, by which Louis Rosier had passed away.

With each year and competitions being held at Charade, there was a growing popularity to include this track in the F1 calendar. France had other circuits which hosted the Grand Prix; the hype around the mountain track was too tempting for Charade to be excluded from F1 and drivers such as Stirling Moss did comment - “I don't know a more wonderful track than Charade”. Not sure if it came from the heart or the comment was made to appease the local authorities. Nevertheless, the word did spread and events such as F2 and F3 races began to take place more regularly and not to forget even the motorcycle championships.

It was the year 1965 when Charade hosted the first French Formula 1 Grand Prix. Jim Clark on his Cooper-Climax won the race comfortably ahead of Jackie Stewart while the future World Champion Denny Hulme scored his first points.

The French Grand Prix was then hosted at three locations for three years running at Reims, Le Mans and Rounen-Les-Essarts before coming back to Charade in 1969. Long before the circuit hosted its second F1 race this mountain track also featured in the 1966 movie Grand Prix as being one of the circuits where the movie was shot.

Jackie Stewart was beginning to assert his class in 1969. He went on win his maiden World Championship title in the very same year with Matra-Ford. Among his six victories that season, one was at Charade where he won by a margin of 57 seconds to his team mate and home boy Jean-Pierre Beltoise who came second.
There was another circuit which was built in Albi, France which was supposed to have hosted the 1970 edition. 

The deal did not materialise and the race returned to Charade for the third time. This was the season, where the geographical location started playing its part on the race strategy. Located in the mountains, it is not uncommon for drivers to encounter rocks, stones on the track. As a result, there were punctures, occasional ones hitting the drivers as they accelerate and brake at various points along the race. Jochen Rindt was in superb form and even with an occasional hit and his uneasiness over the circuit, he won the race. He went on to win two more races before losing his life through an accident at Monza later that season.

The 1970 race was also the last race to be held on public roads without the use of Armco lined barriers. These days the metal barrier fitted at the sides of racing tracks is a must as it helps to absorb the impact of a car at high speed and prevent it from crashing into spectators.

In 1971, France had another race track located at the mountains. Circuit Paul Ricard, located close to Marseille hosted the 1971 French Grand Prix.  The race returned to Charade the following year. The reigning champion Jackie Stewart was under pressure to stay in the championships led by the Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi. The race was not about Stewart’s comeback victory. The race reached its climax on lap eight. With Fittipaldi, not adhering to the two white safety lines cut the corner; resulting in one of the stones thrown from his car which unfortunately hit Helmut Marko’s visor. This incident ended his race and subsequently his racing career. 

The sharp stones falling from the mountains also posed a problem to other drivers which resulted in ten deflated tyre and a call for unscheduled stops.

The circuit located in the French region of Auvergne, not far from the Michelin headquarters had to be contend with other races but F1. The French Grand Prix moved to other tracks; and with emergence of Circuit Paul Ricard, there was less hope for Charade circuit which is also known by its other names such as Circuit Louis Rosier and Circuit Clermont-Ferrand to host an F1 race. In 1980, after a horrendous accident and killing of three marshals, there were protests and voices raised regarding the safety of the circuit.

The 8 km now shortened to half its original length in 1988 currently hosts Formula Three and other low profile races. Due to an agreement made with the local neighbours in 2002, only seven days in a year has been permitted for racing.

It has been five years since France last hosted a Grand Prix. With Magney Cours currently under renovation and modifications as suggested by FIA, it remains to be seen if France will ever get a Grand Prix. Mind you, there are four drivers in the current line-up and Renault being the winning constructor’s engine for three straight years in addition to being home of FIA; it is indeed surprising to not have an annual French Grand Prix.  

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