We’ve talked before about the importance of keeping a place on the calendar for F1’s classic Grands Prix in the face of new arrivals, many of which do little to stir the racing soul.
The lesson from the return to Paul Ricard is that the past and the present are not necessarily an easy fit when it comes to accommodating F1 cars and those attempting to watch them.
When introduced to the calendar in 1971, the track on the windy plateau above the Mediterranean was ‘state of the art’. Run-off areas – a novelty at the time – accommodated an increasing awareness of safety three years after Jo Schlesser had burned to death during the French Grand Prix on the roads outside Rouen.
To bring Paul Ricard into line today, extend the run-offs even further, apply swirling sweeps of paint, add a chicane to one of the best bits – and you’re ready for F1 cars and their shortcomings in 2018.
The fact that the race was eventful rather than epic at least diminished claims that this Grand Prix hardly merited the title of being a classic worth saving. But then, with one or two exceptions, racing at Ricard never had been brilliant. It is what it is; a nice place to be – provided you can get in.
In the late 1980s, Jean-Marie Balestre promised to use his powers as a blustering Frenchman to answer complaints about traffic by building a new access road to Paul Ricard. The circuit’s limited future as a Grand Prix venue was outlived only briefly by Balestre’s tenure as president of the FIA.
The road was never built – much to the annoyance 30 years later of thousands of fans stewing in heat and chaos exacerbated by Gendarmes capable of refusing admission to Romain Grosjean and Sebastian Vettel, decked in properly credentialed team kit and in a hurry to get to work. (Anyone who has attempted to cover the Monte Carlo Rally will be infuriatingly familiar with the dumb intransigence of the local French constabulary and a vocabulary limited to ‘Non!’)
The owners of Liberty Media, apparently keen to respect and understand the history of their purchase and also connect with the fans, failed miserably on both counts. The briefest of words with any experienced F1 person would have warned of the impending traffic problem – assuming Liberty’s worrying failure to see the bleedin’ obvious at the time of reviewing plans and signing the contract.
Okay; mistakes can happen (as Sebastian Vettel supporters said on Sunday). But the heat beneath the cauldron of public dissatisfaction was increased to scorching on Friday afternoon by no less than Chase Carey. When asked what he intended to do about the queues snaring every road within miles, the executive chairman of Formula One Group said this: “Well, it's great to be popular! We got a great crowd here on a Friday and it'll just get bigger as the weekend grows and, er, we'll all have fun."
I have a friend from Northern Ireland who made the trip and paid €350 Euro for a ticket. After five hours spent queuing on Friday, he opted not to return for the rest of the weekend. My guess is, judging by irate Tweets from other fans, he was not alone in abandoning F1 and its return to France. At the risk of having his moustache painfully tweaked, Mr. Carey would be well advised not to ask if they ‘had fun’.
Ross Brawn has since made a more sensible and adult response concerning the urgent need to deal with the issue before the Grand Prix returns next year. In the shorter term, however, Carey’s blithe retort casts an unfortunate interpretation on his priorities at a time when Liberty Media is favouring so-called ‘destination cities’ in Florida and Vietnam while the classics are struggling to survive.
Like Vettel’s mistake, Carey’s apparent bias was – hopefully – unintentional. In both cases, however, it was a costly misjudgement by people who really ought to know better.