The track was five miles long, had fifty corners and separated real drivers from also-rans like no other. Andrew Frankel revisits and unfairly forgotten circuit
“It was the best track in France; better by far than everywhere else we went like Rouen, Reims and Paul Ricard.” The words belong to Jackie Stewart, a man not known for overstating the facts. He is talking about the circuit at Clermont-Ferrand and, says Stewart, one of the four most difficult circuits in the world.
The evidence for the claim is strong. Just four Grands Prix were held there, of which Stewart won two, in 1969 and 1972, while the 1965 inaugural event fell to Jim Clark and the 1970 race to Jochen Rindt. Four races won by three world champions, the three finest drivers of their era. It was a circuit where precision was everything, a misplaced wheel here spelling disaster there, a place requiring more mental stamina than any other on the calendar with the possible exception of the Nurburgring. It was a beautiful, awe-inspiring place and, while there hasn’t been a race of any description on the full circuit for over a decade, it still is.
I’d wanted to go Clermont ever since, in the last series of Track Tests, I reported back from its rival, the circuit at Rouen-les-Essarts. Among the correspondence that came tumbling in were several letters all saying essentially the same thing: That was Rouen, thank you. Now, when are you going to Clermont-Ferrand? The tales that accompanied this common request told of stunning scenery and awesome racing on public roads around two extinct volcanoes. It was a place I had to visit.
It’s rather easier to get to now than it was when it opened its gates in 1958. Now you need simply drive to Paris, around the peripherique, leave towards Chartres before spearing south past Orleans to Clermont-Ferrand. The circuit lies in the countryside about five miles to the south-west of the city, outside the pretty town of Royat. On our return leg, the BMW carried us from the circuit to Paris in comfortably under 2.1/2 hours.
But do not turn up expecting to see the architecture of one of the great race circuits in the way that you do if you visit Reims. Go to Clermont and your enjoyment will be doubled if you do your research beforehand and pack your imagination. Know where to look and you will find the odd relic, the occasional slice of the past lurking here and there — but you will have to work at it.
To an extent, this is perhaps as it should be. The magnificence of Clermont never had anything to do with its facilities; indeed there were precious few, as you might expect from a track which was only ever used once a year and for the remaining 364 days was effectively a ring road around twin volcanic plugs. Go to Clermont today and you don’t need elegantly faded tribunes, or quietly crumbling control towers; go to Clermont, drive the track, marvel at the natural beauty of the circuit and imagine what it must have been like in a DFV-powered Formula One car.
“A lot of people used to wear open-faced helmets there so they could throw up as they went down the hills…” This frank and typically illuminating piece of information came from the late Denny Hulme, as quoted in Joe Saward’s World Adas of Motor Racing. And it would seem he wasn’t joking. In 1969, DSJ’s race report in Motor Sport recalls Jochen Rindt having a particularly tough time: “The Austrian was suffering from sickness and diziness, thought to be brought on by the violent G-forces generated on the Clermont-Ferrand circuit.. He finally had to retire from the race when he began to get double-vision.” It is some measure of the man that he returned a year later and won.
Drive the circuit and it’s easy to see why Rindt’s constitution reacted so violently. Apart from a short stretch past the pits and another uphill section immediately after, the circuit has no straights worthy of the name. Right round the mountain, one corner flows into another with dizzying frequency around the five mile lap. It is truly daunting.
Though rumblings of a track in the hills around Clermont-Ferrand were heard as early as 1908, this circuit was the brainchild of Jean Auchataire, the local Fiat dealer, encouraged by Toto Roche, the man also responsible for Reims. According to the legendary French joumalist Jabby Crombac, the man who has attended more Grands Prix than anyone else alive, Roche’s motives were not exactly pure.
“He was in favour of anything that took attention away from Le Mans. He backed the circuit at Clermont-Ferrand just to sock it to the authorities there.” Work began in May 1957 and was completed in time for the first meeting to be held the following July. The cost of rather more than 100 million Francs was paid by the local authority, topped up by contributions from car clubs, the town of Royat and the newly formed Societe de Circuit.
The first race was held on July 27 with a three-hour sportscar race heading the bill. Crombac, Colin Chapman’s assistant team manager at the time was able to persuade the authorities to homologate a Lotus 11 for limes Ireland, who duly walked away from the field, leading the Ferrari 250GTs of Olivier Gendebien and Maurice Trintignant to victory.
And for the next six years, Clermont-Ferrand hosted sports car and Formula Two races, while the Grand Prix fluctuated between Reims and Rouen. Stirling Moss won in the Cooper-Borgward in 1959, Jo Bonnier claiming the Six Hour race the following year in a Porsche RS60. Willy Mairesse won the following year aboard a 250GT SWB while Carlo Abarth took its successor, the 250GT0, to the flag in ’62. Lorenzo Bandini won in a Ferrari Testa Rossa in ’63 while the big F2 race the following year saw Denny Hulme lead home Jackie Stewart and Jack Brabham.
It wasn’t until 1965 that the French Grand Prix finally arrived. “I didn’t win it,” says Jackie Stewart today, “but it was one of the races than made people sit up and take notice of me.” The record books show why. It was the year in which Jim Clark won every Grand Prix he finished and this was the final championship outing of his Lotus 25. The BRM-bome Stewart qualified and finished second, 27sec behind Clark and over two minutes ahead of anyone else. “It was seen as an achievement because it was recognised as a real driver’s circuit.”
There were problems, however, both on and off the track. Back then, Clermont-Ferrand was a long way from anywhere and coaxing sufficient people through the gate was always a problem. And the financial ramifications of this were compounded by the expense of closing the roads for a meeting, which was colossal. This was no small kart track, and resources required to barrier and police all the access points stretched finances further than they usually cared to go. In addition, the on-track facilities were not what you’d expect, even in the mid-60s. Crombac remembers, “The pits were so small there was no room even for refuelling. All the teams, when they needed more fuel, had to leave the pits and go off to another area of the track, refuel and return. Not ideal…”
Even the surface of the track brought its own problems. Because of its location, there was (and remains) a vast amount of volcanic debris around the circuit. And while it was kept off the main track, it littered the verges and punished doubly anyone who stepped a little bit off line.
So far as the Grand Prix was concerned, that was it for another four years. The race returned to Reims for the last time in ’66, had one, ludicrous outing on the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans in ’67 and a final fling at Rouen in ’68 where the death of Jo Schlesser in the rain ended its career as a Grand Prix venue.
So, by 1969, Clermont-Ferrand seemed to have the stage to itself. Reims was too fast, Le Mans too boring and Rouen just too dangerous. But the honeymoon lasted only two years, enough for Stewart to win at last in his Matra in 1969 and for Rindt to score one of the last wins of his too-short life when he scorched from pole to victory in 1970. One who was there on both occasions and remembers them well is John Miles, now one of the reasons Lotus makes the best-handling cars in the world, then a relatively inexperienced works Lotus Grand Prix driver. He found the circuit outstandingly tricky. “You had to be so precise there; much more so than at other tracks. The roads were narrow and you had to stay on line. The problem was so many corners looked alike and I never spent enough time there to really get to know it. Like at the Nurburgring, it is those who are able to commit to the blind brows and the sequences of comers who are going to be quickest. You couldn’t afford even a confidence lift, particularly on the uphill sections but at the same time, if you did make a mistake, there was absolutely nowhere to go. All the corners flowed into each other and the real aces could recognise that, if they made a mistake at point A, by the time they’d reach point D, they were going to have a really big accident if they didn’t do something about it. I didn’t have that luxury.”
Then, in 1971, the writing appeared on the wall for Clermont-Ferrand and it said ‘Paul Ricard’. It was then that the eponymous pastis millionaire opened the most modem Grand Prix track in the world. Located at Le Castellet in the South of France it had all the facilities, glamour and access Clermont-Ferrand lacked. Clermont would see just one more Grand Prix.
The 1972 French Grand Prix is remembered among the long list of races Chris Amon should have won. Unlike the others, however, Anion reckons it was the greatest of his life. Driving the Matra MS120D, he flew around the 50 corners that comprise a lap here to qualify nearly a second quicker than anyone else. At the start he led comfortably from Hulme and Stewart with the rest of the field nowhere. And he was extending his lead when, at half distance, one of his tyres fell foul of the now notorious track debris. He crawled back to the pits, spent 50sec stationary and rejoined in ninth position, less than amused.
Why his fightback has not gained legendary status is a mystery to me. With almost no straight, overtaking was horrendous but by lap 35 of 38 he was fifth, having smashed the lap record before coming up behind Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert. DSJ, not known for handing out the plaudits too readily, takes up the story:
“In one lap, Amon disposed of Peterson and Cevert, passing them as if they were not there and on a circuit that is noted for its lack of passing places. It was fantastic and almost unbelievable. Not content with that he lopped four seconds a lap off Fittipaldis lead, but the race was one lap too short for the New Zealander.”
He finished third, behind Emerson and Stewart. But if he had cause to curse the rock strewn circuit, Helmut Marko had rather more. One such rock pierced his visor, blinding him in one eye and ending a promising career which included winning Le Mans in 1971 at an average speed that, to this day, has yet to be eclipsed.
Such distant memories. The circuit is all still there, some of it as a much smaller, permanent race track and rather more as the old public roads. It’s still fabulous to drive, still daunting. Still littered with volcanic detritus. But almost everything else has gone. The grandstand has been pulled down and the once packed paddocks are now just areas of wasteland. We found a little bridge that’s in the old photographs and mugged up lurid oversteer shots for the camera at the tighter corners on the circuit. You can’t do a full lap because of the barriers between the track and the road. What you can do is forget about the car, park up and climb up onto the banks. It’s a very quiet place and nothing but the wind will disturb your concentration. And as you stand there, you might just hear that V12 Matra engine, the greatest sound ever to emanate from a Grand Prix car and see Chris Amon, coming down the sweeps, always out of shape, always over the limit.
Now it is an entirely forgotten place. In 1972, just two years after the previous Grand Prix held there, a dozen of the drivers had never even heard of the circuit before going to race there. So you can imagine how it’s memory has stood the last 28 years. But you should still go. On many of the old circuits there were certain requirements needed before you could go fast. Monza needed horsepower, Monaco needed grip, the Niirburgring served best those who could forget about home, while Spa needed daredevils. You only needed one thing to win at Clermont-Ferrand and that was, very simply, to be the greatest driver of your day. Go there and you will see why.