Reims was not the very greatest track but it still held a wealth of great races. Sadly, finds Andrew Frankel, its historic remains are rapidly crumbling to dust.
Photography by Andrew Yeadon
Strictly speaking, I’d never been to Reims before. But I had, like millions of others, been through Reims dozens of times. Every time I had cause to be almost anywhere in Europe in fact. It doesn’t matter if you need to be in Stuttgart, Geneva, Nice or Milan, if you’re driving from the UK, you drive through Reims.
Once, in another life, I had even been through Reims four times in a single day during a team attempt to drive a Ford Mondeo 12,000 miles around Europe in a week. On that desperate last day, two of us put 2326 miles under the tyres of that poor car, completing the last one with less than 90 seconds of our week remaining. There was not, you will appreciate, a great deal of time for sight-seeing.
Which always struck me as a shame. Friends who had been to the site of the Grand Prix circuit there had always returned gabbling breathless tales of the haunting beauty of the crumbling remains on the pit straight. Choosing it as a location for our series of track tests was automatic.
Finding it, however, was not. The trip to Reims from Calais, unlike that to any of the other tracks on our tour route, is about as unremarkable as you’re likely to find. At Calais, turn left, belt down the autoroute, pay the toll and, two hours later you’re in Reims. Frankly, had I really put my mind and our Jaguar XJR’s phenomenal point to point pace to it, we could probably almost have halved the time but fear of the local constabulary and rumours of the four-figure fines they are allegedly now able to impose kept the speedometer needle from straying much more than half-way around its arc of operation.
We stayed in a hotel in the middle of town. Not a great hotel, but it was central and possessed at least an air of efficiency. Yet its staff had not the slightest idea that Reims had ever held a motor-race, let alone a World Championship Grand Prix on eleven different occasions. In fact, so convinced were they that these idiot Englishmen had wandered into entirely the wrong city, they even did us the courtesy of providing a local, an alleged authority on the history of Reims who assured us we were victims of a not altogether unamusing practical joke.
Happily, Monsieur Michelin’s map told a different story. Leaving the City on the N31 towards Soissons, we drove out of Reims and directly onto the road that, at the village of Thillois, turned into the main straight of this truly awesome circuit. In fact you turn left in Thillois, opposite the famous La Garenne restaurant and head, instead, up the pit straight, through the arcing right hand sweeper at its conclusion, across a cross-roads and through a couple of delightful curves before reaching the hairpin at Muizon which leads you back onto the N31, two miles upstream of Thillois. Two miles of straight, two miles flat out waiting for something to break before turning once more onto the pit-straight.
Simply calling the 8.3-mile track ‘fast’ scarcely does justice to it. During the 1966 French Grand Prix, the last it was to hold, Lorenzo Bandini was to claim pole position for Ferrari at a speed of 145.3mph. So never run away with the idea that only Spa, Monza or Silverstone ever held a claim to being the fastest Grand Prix circuit of all. In its day, Reims was quicker than the lot of them. Had it survived the political and financial woes that were to bring about its demise in 1970, I guess a modern F1 driver with the commensurate ratio of balls to brains would circulate at 170mph or more.
Away from the pits, there no longer remains any sign that, for more than 40 years, the greatest drivers in the world came here to do battle. At other circuits we had been able to turn up relics from the past, but once you heave right at the end of the Thillois-Gueux straight, you’ll find nothing.
That said, given what remains of the pits themselves, this is hardly cause for sorrow. There is nowhere in the world remotely like it and nothing can prepare you for it’s moth-eaten majesty. Standing proud and alone in a frankly undistinguished slice of French countryside there is 200 yards of full Grand Prix infrastructure. Imagine taking the pit straight at Silverstone, complete in every detail from its track, grandstands and control towers down to its advertising hoardings, arc lights and even its podium and transporting it to the mathematical middle of nowhere. You now have some conception of the sense of surreal incongruity which hurtles down upon you in this place.
Except I forgot to mention the most important detail. Once you have moved your Grand Prix track you must leave it for a generation or more, allowing only the ravages of the seasons to erode the buildings, fade the paint and contrive such a scene of such exquisite neglect as Time alone can create. Then you’ll know what it is like to be here.
It is rather easier, however to go and see for yourself: For all its speed and latter day beauty, Reims is not remembered as a Premier League Circuit. In eyes of those who drove there, it pales slightly as a challenge compared to the likes of Spa, the Nürburgring, Rouen, Monza, Zandvoort and the Österreichring, not to mention those further afield like Suzuka and the old Kyalami. Sure it was fast, as bona fide a slip-streaming circuit as Monza, but as you drive around the circuit you’ll find no corner to match the thrill of an Eau Rouge or the Pflanzgarten.
That said, racing in those days subscribed to a formula where the thrill rose proportionally with the danger level. For all its immense speed, very few died at Reims over the years and just one during a Formula One Grand Prix. That man was Luigi Musso who lost control of his Ferrari 246 during the 1958 Grand Prix at the only truly fast comer on the circuit, the daunting curve to the right after the pits. It was a race he had to win not simply to stay in the hunt for the World Championship but because of a rather more pressing need to pay considerable debts. It was a distracted man who on lap ten turned into the curve too fast.
Curiously, despite the fact that few considered Reims to be among the circuit greats, this did not prevent a wealth of great occurrences there, the significance of which could often only be seen through the spectacles of hindsight. Racing started in 1925 and a Grand Prix was held there as early as 1932, when Nuvolari’s Alfa-Romeo Tipo B just held off the similar cars of Baconin Borzacchini and Rudi Caracciola to win. But it was in 1938 when, at Reims, the glorious Mercedes Benz W154 not only made its race debut but also scored its maiden victory, Manfred von Brauchitsch at the wheel heading home in front of Caracciola and Hermann Lang.
When Mercedes re-entered Grand Prix racing in 1954 with the W196, it missed the Grands Prix in Buenos Aires and at Spa, making its debut once more in France. Again Mercedes won first time out, with just 0.1sec separating the victorious Fangio from his team-mate Kling, an entire lap separating the rest of the field.
But you need to spool back a year for what Motor Sport described as ‘the Race of the Age.’ Everyone knew what was going to happen in the 1953 French Grand Prix: Ascari would put his Ferrari 500 on pole and disappear into the lead until, many tedious hours later, he would win. Of course that was what was going to happen as (save for one race when he disgracefully only managed to qualify in second position) that what was precisely what had happened for the last nine Grands Prix. Sure enough, come race day, there was Ascari, sitting pretty in Number One slot on the grid.
The race, however, did not turn out like that. The battle between the Maserati A6SSG of Fangio and the Ferrari 500 of the young Mike Hawthorn lasted throughout the second half of the race, neither giving an inch as lap after lap they passed the pits side by side. Were both drivers and cars not visibly giving their all, it could have been mistaken for formation driving. It was Hawthorn who claimed the day and his first Grand Prix win, Fangio’s clutch letting him down on the final lap. Hawthorn had, weeks earlier, celebrated his 24th birthday.
We wanted, of course, to find mementos of this and other records of the history made at this track so we walked promptly into the restaurant at the ‘Millais corner, one of the most famous landmarks on the circuit. Could we, we asked, perhaps see the memorabilia and photographs from the Grand Prix days of old? Perhaps some dramatic image of an F1 car sliding gloriously through the corner? No we could not. There was not so much as a snapshot of a racing car old or new anywhere on the premises. We would have to create our own.
Drifting the XJR through Millais does not, to be honest, require racing driver reactions. What you need is to remember to turn off the traction control and the leave the rest to the 370bhp supercharged V8. It slides sideways with such grace and control it is too easy to forget this is a four-door luxury saloon that’s carrying you so swiftly and elegantly onto the pit straight. And once you’re straightened up… I have wondered until this very moment if I would admit in print to the shocking speed the Jaguar would achieve before it reached the pits but I think I’ll leave it to your imagination; soon the imagination is all those who have so cruelly neglected this circuit will have left for us.
My mind flicks back not as far as Hawthorn’s redoubtable drive in 1953 but instead to 1961 when a young Giancarlo Baghetti, competing in his first Grand Prix, qualified his Ferrari 156 in a creditable twelfth position, albeit 5.6sec off the pace of Phil Hill’s pole-sitting Ferrari. Ahead also lay Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Innes Ireland… But in the race the Lotuses of Clark and Ireland were unable to stay on terms with the Ferraris, then Moss retired alongside the Ferraris of Von Trips and Ginther while Phil Hill spun and stalled his Ferrari rendering him out of contention.
Thus the weight of Italian expectation fell on the shoulders of Baghetti. For the last 100 miles he fought a battle with the Porsches of Bonnier and Gurney the like of which has rarely, if ever, been seen in Grand Prix racing. And every time a silver car squeezed past the red car, by the time they reappeared, the rookie would be back in front. Then Bonnier’s engine died which left just the redoubtable Gurney between Baghetti and history. They disappeared on the final lap literally side by side and, when they came back into view on the approach to Thillois, the Ferrari was exactly where it did not want to be: in front. Gurney, using his slipstream skills, neatly swept past into Thillois and rocketed up the straight to the flag. But 300 yards before the end of the race, Baghetti popped out of the slipstream, according to the trackside Jenks, “and shot past the Porsche in one of the most perfect pieces of timing by Baghetti that would have done credit to Fangio himself.” Baghetti won by 0.1sec.
Jenks concluded “Baghetti has arrived, even if he never wins another race, for he has ensured the 1961 French Grand Prix will go down in history…” It was another of DSJ’s eerily prophetic statements. Baghetti had, indeed, won his first and last Grand Prix.
There are three reasons for going to Reims. First, it’s close and, with the Tunnel, ridiculously easy to reach. Second, there is nowhere else like it. I spent a day wandering through the ruins and had to be promised a truly profligate supper before agreeing, to tear myself away. Thirdly, and most compelling, it ‘s not going to be there for much longer. Andrew Yeadon, Who took these extraordinary pictures, had not been to Reims for a decade and was shocked by the deterioration. No-one seems to care about this place. In the ten hours we spent taking photographs, just one other car stopped for tong enough for its occupants to disembark, urinate against the pit wall and continue their journey. I think this place deserves better than that. It will never be restored but I think it should be preserved as it stands, and kept as a national monument. Go there and you’ll have trouble disagreeing.
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