By Ben Edwards
A trip to the South of France in late June. How delightful that sounds… and yet I have a love-hate relationship with the Paul Ricard circuit, current home of the French Grand Prix.
The track is situated in a beautiful location in the hills above the Mediterranean. The historic town of Le Castellet just down the road is charming, and if you have time to saunter along to the beach at Bandol you can enjoy great food and local wines, in glorious sunshine with stunning views.
Last year, however, our Channel 4 team had more views of boot lids and back bumpers as we crawled in traffic down rural lanes to the main entrance, and we were the lucky ones as the bulk of our morning journey from a suburb east of Marseille was actually pretty clear.
Extracting ourselves on Sunday was another matter entirely. One of our crew vehicles ended up embarking on an epic woodland gravel stage and a huge circuitous detour, which took hours to complete.
At least they made it to the hotel. Driving away from a GT race there one year, I clipped a jagged stone at the side of the road, ripped open a front tyre on the hire car and had to wait hours to be recovered.
My wife, who was with me for the event, was not impressed with my driving skills, especially as the episode ruined the couple of days we were supposed to enjoy after the race.
Not quite going with the flow
Reinstating the French Grand Prix on the F1 calendar last year was a positive and welcome move.
But I can’t help feeling that ever since the world championship began in 1950, the country where motorsport was born in the pioneering days of the early 20th Century has never really established a home for its illustrious race.
Paul Ricard is one of eight tracks used since 1950. Some, such as Clermont-Ferrand and Rouen, were based on public roads and would be far too dangerous in the modern era. Others such as Reims and Dijon had character, but didn’t live up to the requirements of the F1 entourage.
Then there is Magny-Cours, host between 1991 and 2008, a circuit that never fully captured the imagination – and the same is true of Paul Ricard.
Created and named after a drinks entrepreneur who had a love of both the Tour de France and motorsport, I sometimes wonder why he didn’t incorporate a hill-climbing element to the track when it was founded in the 1960s.
The relatively flat layout and huge run-off areas painted in vivid stripes of red and blue to indicate different levels of grip enhance the feeling of what this place had become by the 1990s: a test and development track rather than a pure racing venue, and not the sort of place that pushes drivers into that peak of adrenalin witnessed at Monaco and Silverstone.
Add in a straight almost as long as the one in Baku, but which has been interrupted by a flow-stemming chicane, and nothing quite gels as it should do here.
That was probably the feeling that Sebastian Vettel had straight after the race 12 months ago, as he threw away a potential podium by bumping into Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap and ultimately finished fifth.
It was one of his ever-expanding catalogue of errors that has now gained a new chapter following his antics in Canada last time out.
Without the mishap of running onto the grass at Turn 3, the argument over the subsequent interaction with Lewis Hamilton and the stewards’ decision to punish him with a five-second penalty would never have been a factor. As it was, it became almost as contentious as Brexit.
An F1 referee
So how does F1 deal with the unending quest for consistency in handing out penalties? Perhaps the answer is to have a permanent steward, somebody who is always present and who follows the rhythm of each and every session, bringing some continuity to each decision.
The downside is that one person could be open to bias, even subconsciously, to a particular team or driver. But if the right person could be found perhaps it would work.
It needs to be someone who has raced frequently in F1, and not in the distant past. Preferably an individual who has driven for at least a couple of different teams, has perhaps claimed a pole position or a win along the way.
Such a person would also need to understand the pressures that can result in a car finishing up crumpled in a barrier.
My mind was floating around the subject as I watched some of the Le Mans 24 Hours coverage at the weekend, and suddenly through a cloud of dust there was the answer.
A racing car stranded with a smashed front end, and in the cockpit a driver with 95 grand prix starts to his credit, a pole position and victory in Spain in 2012 – and a host of incidents to use as a back reference.
Pastor Maldonado, I have a little job for you…
Watch highlights of qualifying for the French Grand Prix on Saturday 22nd June from 6:30pm.
The big race highlights from Paul Ricard follow on Sunday at 7pm.
By Ben Edwards