A historic circuit is back on the calendar, for the first time since 1990, a year that produced a very special Ferrari win.
The circuit can be found at the top of a road that is all twists and turns, near a fortified mediaeval village, between lavender hedges and with a sea breeze coming in from a few kilometres away. The setting for Paul Ricard is one of the most beautiful of all the venues on the F1 championship trail and this June it marks the return to the calendar of the French Grand Prix. In fact, two years ago, in January 2016, the cars from the blue riband category made a brief appearance here in Provence, for a tyre test. This June, it heralds the return of an actual race that has not been held on French soil since 2008.
In fact, this new entry on the calendar is more of a classic event. The first Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, the track taking its name from the then mayor of Signes, who was the main benefactor involved in building the facility, was held in 1971 and a further fourteen times after that. The last race, in 1990, ended in victory for Alain Prost and Scuderia Ferrari, who had already won here in ’75 courtesy of Niki Lauda.
In 1990, Prost and his Ferrari 641 were in the hunt for the title right to the end, in a battle with Ayrton Senna and the McLaren-Honda. The Ferraris were immediately suited to the French circuit and its billiard-smooth surface, as confirmed by Nigel Mansell securing pole position with a time of 1’04”402. But in the race, the main opposition came from a very unexpected quarter in the shape of team-mates Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin, who lead almost to the finish. All the more amazing because, in the previous round in Mexico, the Leyton House cars could not even qualify. The English team’s strategy for the race was based on not stopping to change tyres, despite the heat. However, Prost fought back, first getting the better of Gugelmin, whose engine then broke and then Capelli, whom he dealt with when there were three laps remaining. Mansell was less fortunate, retiring with a mechanical problem.
For Prost and Ferrari it was the third win of the season: come the end of the year, the Scuderia had a total of six; five with Alain and one courtesy of Nigel. Even more important is the fact that, on that day, the Scuderia celebrated its 100th win in Formula One. What happened at Ricard was a classic example – although rare, even back then – of a leading team being challenged by an outsider. That summer, Prost took three wins in a row. It’s worth noting that Le Castellet has almost always been a “modular” circuit with various configurations. In 1990, the race was held over the short 3.8 km track, whereas, when the French GP returns from the 22nd to 24th June, it will use a 5.861 km layout that has been renewed especially to mark the occasion.