Champagne socialising

Threatened by developers, the historic Reims circuit hosted a defiant celebration of its great past
By Simon Taylor

Between 1925 and 1969, the high-speed triangle of public roads west of the champagne capital of Reims was a magical circuit. The scene of the epic Hawthorn/Fangio French Grand Prix duel in 1953, it was always fast: in 1966 Lorenzo Bandini’s Ferrari took pole at an average of over 145mph. There were F2 slipstreamers too, and a 12-hour sports car race which began at midnight with a Le Mans start in front of the floodlit pits, and ran into the noon-day heat the next day.

The decaying pits and grandstands still flank the old start-finish straight, now just a country road between the villages of Thillois and Gueux. Local developers want to demolish all remaining traces to put up modern housing, but so far a strong band of local enthusiasts have held them at bay. This September, to revive the old track’s identity they organised, for the second time, a weekend of demonstrations by historic cars, including some that raced at Reims in period.

Despite new traffic islands at each point of the triangle, much of the character of the circuit remains, especially in the sweeping curves from Gueux to Garenne. For safety reasons the track’s long, narrow straights had to be slowed by very tight artificial chicanes, formed by unyielding water-filled plastic barriers. Between the chicanes the faster cars were travelling very quickly, and one or two came to grief: a Corvette shortened itself against the barriers, and a Lotus Elise cartwheeled into a field. The unhurried organisation included a magnificent champagne-fuelled dinner on the Friday and a firework display on the Saturday, and a large crowd of enthusiastic spectators turned up.

Star turn was a W196 Grand Prix Mercedes – not the streamliner with which Fangio and Kling dominated the 1954 French GP, but an open-wheeler. Jean Alesi demonstrated it in steady rain on Saturday, and in glowing sunshine on Sunday it was driven by 80-year-old Hans Herrmann, whose streamliner set fastest lap in 1954. Other cars with Reims history included Klaus Edel’s ex-Salvadori Maserati 250F and Eddie McGuire’s Gordini 23S, which led the 1952 sports car race from Stirling Moss’ C-type until a stub axle broke. There was a fine turn-out of Bugattis, Delahayes and Amilcars, a Citroën Rosalie record-breaker and Irvine Laidlaw’s Ferrari GTO, as well as some desirable later machinery and one or two unfortunate replicas.

A competitive speed event at Reims must remain a dream – in modern terms, the circuit is too fast and too dangerous – but the keen volunteers who put on this entertaining event deserve every encouragement to repeat it.