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.
Circuit map from 1950s shows short track with a straight connecting the two legs
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.
Alberto Ascari in his Ferrari 500 on his way to victory in Rouen’s inaugural French Grand Prix
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.
At the foot of the staircase of sweepers lies the final test — Nouveau Monde, 180 degrees of cobbled hairpin
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.