Track test - Rouen-les-Essarts

The circuit at Rouen-Les-Essarts only held five Grands Prix, but it still managed to give two marques and one driver their first F1 victories and prove Fangio’s genius before clouding itself in tragedy. Andrew Frankel sees what remains.

The scene is unforgettable, probably the most famous single motor-racing image ever taken. It is of Fangio, sliding his dented Maserati 250F, striking a pose that seemed to define car control. What the photograph will not tell you, though, is that the Maserati was not only travelling at well over 120mph, it was also hurtling downhill at the time. The photograph, printed elsewhere in this feature, was taken at the circuit at Rouen-Les-Essarts during the 1957 French Grand Prix.

In his report for Motor Sport, Denis Jenkinson observed that, during practice, Fangio 'was the only one who was motor-racing...' despite never having set foot on the circuit in his life. He took pole position and then the race itself.

The point is this: Rouen may be neither the greatest nor best remembered of tracks, hut it placed demands on the courage and skills of its drivers that few tracks, if any, could emulate. The late Denny Hulme, as man as brave as they came, was to recall standing in the pits, as the cars swept past the pits during practice. “Jeez, that was fast. We used to listen to the Formula One guns going clown there to see if they could hold it flat down the hill.” Most could not.

Today the circuit enjoys the distinction of being the nearest track to Calais to have held a bona fide Formula One Grand Prix. Well, almost. Nivelles is even nearer but who would choose to remember the short, flat and dull track near Brussels which hosted just two Grands Prix in the early '70s?

It took the Motor Sport Jaguar XJR rather less than two hours to reach the circuit after emerging from the Channel Tunnel. The route takes you past Boulogne and Abbeville and seems at the moment to be almost entirely under construction. Once the dual carriageway links Rouen to Calais the time taken to reach the track from the tunnel will be less than that required to reach the tunnel from central London.

That said, the actual circuit is not that easy to find. Upon reaching the city you need to cross the Seine at the earliest opportunity and travel south towards Elbeuf. What you are looking for is the tiny village of Les Essarts which lurks in the vee of two merging motorways. From where you are sitting it might seem an unlikely place to imagine a Grand Prix track and visiting the place does nothing to ease this sense of incongruity. It does not help that, even as you stand in Les Essarts, there is nothing to suggest that any racing cars ever came through here, let alone the fastest of the day.

At about this time, we started to feel a sense of overwhelming disappointment. We began to wonder whether we had been on the circuit and simply not realised it, or whether there was now no longer anything to see other than public roads playing host now to little more than an endless stream of smoke-belching camions.

Left with little choice but to scratch around for any remaining fragments of the past, we climbed back aboard the Jaguar and set off in no particular direction.

The first thing we did was drive straight past the pits. They’re still there and complete albeit empty, crumbling and neglected. The grandstands are there too, though smaller in scale than those of, say, Reims, reflecting the fact that Rouen never did manage to make motor-racing pay in the same way as the more successful tracks.

Now, this no longer matters. We did not drive to Rouen to examine its relative lack of commercial success, we travelled in an attempt to appreciate what it was that made this circuit command the awe and respect of the finest drivers who ever raced there.

You don't need to journey more than 200 yards past the pits to find the answer. The road goes over a shallow crest and then dives away, down and to the right. This is the start of the rollercoaster, the mad drop down to the cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin. Over the years, the precise route of the circuit changed, extending from a little over three miles for its first World Championship Grand Prix in 1952 to something over four miles for its last in 1968. But that plunge down the hill always endured.

Even those around in its heyday who raced there only infrequently did not leave without this section burning its memory on their minds. Tony Brooks never even competed in a World Championship Grand Prix there and confesses freely to not being able to remember much of the track, "but that bit after the pits. That was real fun, a real sorter of cars and drivers, something you could never forget about."

It is not difficult to see why. As your car flowed from apex to apex, if you were a few inches off line on the way into a comer, you'd be a few more out by its exit which invariably doubled as the entrance to the next. The smallest error would compound all the way down, with the road never running sufficiently straight to allow the driver time to sort it out.

Of all circuits I have seen there is no other, not even the fearsome old tracks at the Nürburgring or Spa, which possess a section as nakedly terrifying as this. Nor is there any place I have visited which shows more clearly the difference between the skill and talent of the Grand Prix driver on the one hand and, on the other, the rest of us. On July 4, 1968 Jochen Rindt hurtled his Brabham BT26 around here to claim pole at an average speed of over 126mph. At no time during my day at the circuit could I figure out how he did it.

A large part of the reason for this was that a chunk of the circuit seemed to have gone missing. In its simplest form, the track is essentially V-shaped, one side of which is the petrifying run down the hill, the other the rather less daunting and, to a coward in an XJR, markedly more fun blast back up the other side. It was the part connecting the two arms of the V which appeared simply no longer to exist. I could find the flat and featureless link road used by traffic today and for some races in the past but of the swerving course marked on original circuit maps I could, at first, find no sign. It seemed have fallen victim to the same undignified fate as the corner at Malmedy at Spa: It looked like someone had built a motorway on top of it.

I'm not quite sure what made us park the Jaguar and take off across the fields on foot; something which did not line up quite right on the map, or maybe it was an urge to make sure that no sections remained hidden in the weeds. Either way, after a ten minute trudge, out of sight and right in the middle of nowhere, we stumbled across a section of Grand Prix circuit.

Contrary to our fears, it's almost all there. Some of it has been reclaimed by the local vineyard and you'd need a helicopter and winch before you could drive a car on it, but you can walk its length and make out precisely its course without problem. You can tug away at the grass verge and expose tell-tale rumble strip, blunder off into the fields again and break your ankles on fossilised tyres hidden in the undergrowth. Or you can exercise your dog without fee or interference from traffic on precisely the same track as used by Fangio to prove, for all time, that he was untouchable. Which is exactly what the locals do.

Conceived from the start as a Formula One track, Rouen only ever hosted five French Grands Prix so it was shade ironic that the first of these, held in 1952, was run to Formula Two regulations. It was, by all accounts, a dull race like so many of the era, Ascari's Ferrari lapping the entire field and heading home a Maranello 1,2, 3. So tedious was it that Motor Sport’s reporter devoted much of the space allocated for his race report to describing the 'equally uneventful' trip from Croydon to Rouen and hack in an Avro Anson.

The '57 race needs no more fame thrust upon it in on these pages, Fangio putting one over the Ferraris of Hawthorn and Collins, as he was to do just a month later at the Nürburgring, in an unparalleled display of driving virtuosity.

The '62 and '64 races, however, warrant further investigation. For one American and two legendary marques, they would be the most significant races of all. The man was Dan Gurney who won in '62 and then did not stand on the top step of the podium again until the French Grand Prix visited Rouen two years later. He won again. The marques concerned were, chronologically, Porsche and Brabham and, like their driver, were also tasting championship Grand Prix victory for the first time. For Porsche it would prove their only victory, for Brabham, merely the first of 35.

Today, Gurney is modest to a fault about his achievements at Rouen but is in no doubt of the source of his affection for the circuit. "I remember the photos of Fangio in the 250F going down the hill after the pits in '57. It was said at the time that he gave 'the boys' a driving lesson with his four-wheel drifts through the esses. It was the stuff of legends and I very much looked forward to getting a taste of that circuit.

"Also, of course, there is the setting of the city of Rouen with all its history and it added up to what I loved about European Grand Prix racing and all the lore that came with it in those days.

"So far as I was concerned, I was not very pleased that 'the powers that be' had mandated a 1.5-litre naturally aspirated engine formula but I figured if the hill was steep enough, it might still separate the men from the boys..."

It was plenty steep enough. Though Gurney is keen to ascribe his victories to "my perennial good luck in France" the race reports tell a rather different story. In '62, for sure, he was the first survivor in a war of attrition that saw over half the field retire but in '64 the race story was rather different. It was clear from the start that two races were being held that day: one between Gurney and Jim Clark, another for everybody else. And while it's true Gurney never looked likely to pass the Scot, it is also true that Clark was not allowed to let up the pressure on himself or his engine for a lap. It was the latter which let go on lap 31 of 57, providing Gurney with a lead so strong he was able to cruise the rest of the race, allowing the battling Graham Hill and Jack Brabham to cut huge chunks out of' his lead and still having 24sec in hand when the flag fell.

The final French Grand Prix to be held at Rouen came in the rain of July 7th, 1968. It was a rather different and tragic affair. The books record that wet weather genius Jacky Ickx won for Ferrari by two clear minutes. It is the sad story of Jo Schlesser, however, for which the race has become notorious. Honda, having enjoyed success with a V12 water cooled car, decided to make Rouen the debut for its new air-cooled V8 machine. Honda's contracted driver, John Surtees, had tested this RA302 at Silverstone and make it clear that the car, in his opinion, was unfit to race without further development. He elected to take his rather more trusty V12-powered RA301 to France. The 302, however, would still be raced, by Schlesser driving on behalf of Honda France.

He completed just over a lap. On the way down the hill through the sweepers, the Honda was seen to be out of control. On the final right hander it went up the bank, overturned and caught fire. Schlesser stood no chance and perished in the flames. On that track and in those conditions, an undeveloped car that a former World Champion had declined to drive was not, perhaps, the kindest thing to put in the hands of a 40-year old man who had never in his life raced a Formula One car in a World Championship Grand Prix.

As we drove away, I could not forget Schlesser's tragedy or those who would die after him in the Formula Two and Three events the circuit hosted after it lost Grand Prix status. A number of weeks after, however, these events assumed a more normal position in my mind. Schlesser raced in an era when death often went with the territory: he would have known that as well as any.

What remains is an image of a red Maserati 250F, its nose-cone staved in, its angle of attack on those downhill curves absurd. At the wheel is Fangio, giving the other drivers, as Gurney so eloquently puts it, "a driving lesson." I do not believe that another section of track in the world could so readily showcase true genius than that short, glorious and lethal run down the hill from the pits at Rouen-Les-Essarts.