Champagne Days

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France’s old Reims-Gueux circuit might effectively have been a high-speed triangle that put the onus on power rather than skill, but one corner was among the greatest in racing…

If you were holidaying in France, en famille, au EuroDisney and happened to have a Ford Cosworth handy and the Reims-Gueux circuit only minutes up the road, wouldn’t you feel that you’d deserved a respite from endless queues, runaway trains and grown-up people pretending to be Mickey Mouse?

Reims-Gueux (pronounced Rams-Ger, although that will usually earn you an askance look in polite company) was one of those extraordinarily French circuits comprising public roads in the heart of the champagne region. It wasn’t a classic, perhaps. It was too flat and featureless for that, but it had something that modern French tracks such as Paul Ricard and Magny-Cours can never aspire to. It was devised in 1925, and it did not break the tradition of the day. A section of Route Nationale 31 gave it a long straight down to the sharp right-hander at Thillois, whereupon another long undulating straight took it initially through a right/left swing into the little village of Gueux, where a 90-degree right past the shops took it gently through the village and back out into the countryside and on to the 90-degree right, at Virage de la Garenne, that took it back on to RN31 . Later, as the proximity of walls and concrete began to worry the organisers, Gueux was bypassed by a sweeping right-hander (bearing that name) just after the pits. This then crossed the old circuit at Virage de la Hovette and went on to another sweeping right that led downhill into a sharper left and thence a hairpin at Virage de Muizon and on to what was now an even longer straight back down to Thillois.

Today Reims stands intact, its straights and corners almost untouched by time. Even in Gueux the beautiful village pond is unchanged, and only the grocer’s shop on the inside of the tricky right-hander is different: it is now a hair salon. The Virage de la Hovette still cuts across the main track, and the straight down to Thillois, though interrupted by the odd traffic island and white line hatching, still climbs dramatically out of Muizon before plunging down its original route.

Even the pits and main grandstands remain, overgrown but still visible, like an unearthed skeleton of the past. Look carefully enough through the undergrowth in the stands from which thousands of cheering Frenchman watched Mike Hawthorn come of age in 1953 by beating Fangio to the line by a second, or Giancarlo Baghetti capture that record first GP victory from Dan Gurney by a tenth in 1961, and you can still discern the fading names of byegone heroes: Jean-Pierre Wimille, Raymond Sommer, Robert Benoist, Jean Behra.

Today it is possible to get a flavour of what F1 racing must have been like in the ’50s by driving a lap at Reims, and the sweeping Gueux right that comes surprisingly quickly after the pits is a salutary reminder of the risks of the game, for here is where Luigi Musso crashed on the last day of his life during the 1958 event, which would also be remarkable as Fangio’s last race and the sole triumph of Hawthorn’s championship season.

Hawthorn it was that Musso was chasing for the lead, a Musso who had only a week earlier electrified spectators and the USAC brigade alike with his abnormal bravery in the Race of Two Worlds at Monza. There, up on the high wire, he had salvaged Italian honour with a blistering lap on the old banked circuit as his Ferrari two-stepped on the very edge of control. Two weeks before that, he had narrowly escaped death at Spa when he crashed his Ferrari into a field after tyre failure.

Musso had come to Reims, it is said, beset by financial woes emanating from mounting gambling debts. Victory, while putting in place the upstart Hawthorn and Peter Collins, who seemed to have so much joint sway with Enzo Ferrari, would also help him wipe clean the slate. His creditors, after all, were not the most understanding men.

Moving past Harry Schell’s BRM, the young Italian was back on the edge in his pursuit of Hawthorn, pure bravery versus innate smoothness and a higher acknowledged level of raw skill. Hawthorn was untouchable that day in France, the master of the sweeper. For the top drivers it was possible to take it virtually flat. As Musso tried it he lost control of the Ferrari, which rolled several times and threw him to his death.

It is an interesting corner even now, in a modern car with four-wheel drive and disc brakes. Past the pits we had achieved an indicated 130mph. In that 1958 race Hawthorn’s fastest lap had been 2m 24.9s, an average of 128.19mph… A long time ago, in the November 19 issue of our weekly sister publication Motoring News, colleague Michael Tee had written of a conversation he had overheard outside a Reims cafe on the evening of that year’s race. ‘Stirling Moss and a group of drivers were discussing their ordeal (remember the heat?) when one of them asked him how he tackled the long sweeping right-hander called Gueux which comes after the pit straight. On the outside is a very solid barrier which would mean disaster for anyone hitting it at speed. ‘Moss said: “Oh, I approached it at 6300rpm in top gear in the BRM, going up to six-five on the slight down slope, then I twitched it into a drift, slammed the throttle to the floor and put on bags of left lock. It then held its own line right round the curve”.

‘Several of the drivers (all well-known GP pilots) looked at him in disbelief and one of them said after he had gone, “I never took that corner at more than five-five and I certainly would never dare to put it into a drift like that for fear of losing it and hitting the barrier.”

‘It should be pointed out that 6500rpm is equivalent to about 165mph.’

Today Stirling remembers Reims fondly. “It maybe wasn’t quite as fast as that. It think 6500rpm would have been just short of 160, because no front-engined car of that era and horsepower could really do much more than that. Maybe it might have, with the downhill slope…

“With that corner you had to set the drift up reasonably early and hold it with the power on, using the steering wheel just to compensate for any undulations in the road or the back stepping out of line over bumps. It was one of the most difficult corners in motor racing at that time, a corner where you really had to concentrate. Where you were doing speeds like that, and with cornfields either side and, I think, a small road or entrance that changed the camber, it was very difficult. And when the corn was high it made it more difficult. It was the same as the Mille Miglia, when people were standing inside a curve. They stopped your line of sight, and so did the corn. You might know the corner really well, but you couldn’t see the curvature for the distance that you wanted to at the speed you were doing. In a way it was like driving blind.

“Reims was a great circuit, because of where it was. In driving terms it was mainly straights with one corner that was extremely difficult. Like Abbey in those days at Silverstone. The most difficult corners are always the fastest, of course. When a car is at maximum speed it’s at its most delicate…”

During our pilgrimage we did indeed remember the heat. It was blisteringly hot, well over 100 degrees. Just as the 1959 race had been. That day no breeze ruffled the national flags as temperatures nudged 110 degrees trackside and the cockpits, especially of the front-engined cars, became intolerable ovens just waiting to roast the drivers. Some resorted to soaking their light coveralls before the start, but Tony Brooks hit on a unique idea.

“I rigged up a bottle of orange squash in the cockpit, which I could sip through a pipe. I thought I was being terribly clever, and that it would be just the thing when I got near half distance. I got ahead at the start,” – he had taken pole position from Brabham, in the increasingly competitive rear-engined Cooper, and teammate Phil Hill – “and that was just where I wanted to be because at least the air would be slightly cooler than if I was behind a stream of other cars.”

As the tar began to melt and drivers and radiators received a shotblasting from loose stones, Brooks sailed majestically on towards a crushing triumph 28s ahead of Hill, completely untroubled by the heat blackouts that were affecting others. Indeed, he was probably the least affected of all as Latins fell around him, but the drinks bottle, now such an accepted part of a racer’s equipment in hot events, was not quite the sinecure he’d hoped.

“I took a big swig eventually and of course the liquid had been in the cockpit all the time and its temperature had risen dramatically! I should have used a Thermos flask; as it was it was quite unusable!”

The Gueux corner apart, Reims favoured power over sheer ability, and never was that better illustrated when novice Giancarlo Baghetti had his greatest day by beating Gurney’s Porsche to win a Grande Epreuve at his first attempt and to salvage Ferrari’s honour on a day when polesitter Phil Hill and fellow frontrow companions Taffy von Trips and Richie Ginther had fallen by the wayside after dominating initially in the sharknose 156s. In the end the virtually unknown Italian beat the American to the finish line by a mere tenth of a second, a minute ahead of Jim Clark’s Lotus.

Gurney chuckles when he recalls that battle, painting a graphic image of what made him great. “It was so close! Ferrari had a big edge. I could have moved Baghetti over, but it was one of those things I was honourbound not to do.” He laughed when he thought about such ethics in comparison with today’s accepted tactics. “I don’t know where that stops. You either do it or you don’t do it. Some people won’t do it. Once it starts, why then hey! The sky’s the limit. Katy bar the door! You can do whatever you want to do. But if people did that then, what actually happened was that it was dangerous enough that if somebody did that, somebody definitely was going to get hurt in a big way. And those people that did sort of take that approach usually weeded themselves out in a big hurry. Hopefully they wouldn’t ever take someone else with them, but it was interesting to see that was just the way it was.

“I got a lot of static for letting this unknown guy beat us, generally outside Porsche, not from the team. It was interesting, you know. I felt it took a lot just to be there in a position just to get beaten!” Indeed, Hill had qualified just under five seconds faster than Gurney’s Porsche, and the red cars had a clear horsepower advantage even with a novice such as Baghetti aboard the fourth chassis.

“I had plenty of time to try and do it either way. If I would slipstream, come off the last turn behind him, I couldn’t get by him till quite a way past the start/finish line. If I came off ahead of him, he could get by before we got there!” Gurney laughed again. “So I was divided. I hoped if he had a little oo-oo and I got into the last turn first, which is what I did on the last lap, that he might just make a little bit of an error or a bigger one… But he didn’t!”

The last Grand Prix was held at Reims in 1966, when Jack Brabham made history as the first man to win a championship race in a car bearing his own name, and shortly afterwards even the annual ‘weekend of speed’ fell by the wayside as financial problems reared their ugly head. Now, though the pits and stands remain, as incongruous memorials in the flat farmland, even they are the subject of an argument that threatens one of the few remaining links with France’s glorious racing heritage. D J T