Editorial, June 2003

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The International rules of our sport are written in French. There is an English translation in the FIA’s Yearbook, but when the inevitable loophole leads to the inevitable bout of semantics, it is the Gallic interpretation that ‘settles’ the argument.

Why? The French were first off the mark, that’s why. They hosted the first recognised motor race (the 1894 Paris-Rouen), the first three Gordon Bennett Cups and the first grand prix. Panhard, De Dietrich, Renault, Peugeot, Mors and Richard-Brasier swept all before them bar the occasional Mercedes onslaught – and SF Edge’s 1902 Gordon Bennett success for Napier. It would be 21 years before a British marque scored another win of equal note – Henry Segrave’s French GP victory for Sunbeam (page 50) – and a further 33 before a British car was clearly the class of a Formula One field.

The French dominance lasted until the arrival of the 8C Alfas in the early 1930s. It, i.e. Bugatti, held its own against the ‘Monza’, was put in the shade by the subsequent Tipo B – and totally buried by the arrival of the Silver Arrows. France had run out of inspiration, instead putting its faith in mystery cars that rarely turned up or overhyped machines that broke on the start-line.

Sportscar racing offered some solace, Bugatti (1937 and ’39), Delahaye (’38) and Talbot (’50) winning Le Mans four times in five runnings either side of WWII. But even this, France’s greatest race, the world’s most prestigious endurance event, then slipped from the host’s grasp.

You’d think that Renault and Peugeot would be falling over themselves to win it year in, year out. Instead they have just three victories between them. It’s as though the threat of a home humiliation outweighed the value of an ‘expected anyway’ victory. Certainly, both Renault (page 28) and Peugeot (page 42) tasted bitter defeats before savouring the champagne. Matra, which won three times in a row (1972-74), and Rondeau, the victor in ’80, were smaller companies with less to lose.

Less angst surrounded France’s earlier successes in this race. When Chénard et Walcker won the first running of it in 1923, and Lorraine-Dietrich took the spoils in ’25-26 (page 36), the only surprise was that upstart Bentley had beaten them in ’24. That was not the preordained way of things.

Such confidence, however, is fickle. Losing it is easy, gaining it and keeping it is decidedly not. Peugeot’s rally hero Marcus Gronholm and Renault’s bright new F1 star Fernando Alonso both have it in spades right now. But even success does not guarantee it, as the F3 legend Don Parker (page 66) and BMW’s rally programme of the early ’70s (page 60) proved. It is a ‘language’ that defies translation, but which is universal – and devoid of loopholes.

Motorsport’s je ne sais quoi

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