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Paul Ricard: Dull on track, colourful off it

Paul Ricard: Dull on track, colourful off it

A return to Paul Ricard for the first time in 28 years is unlikely to alter the curious anomalies that grew with this track from the moment of its addition to the F1 calendar in 1971.

The brainchild of Paul Ricard, a drinks magnate and the inventor of Pastis, his track and facilities were state of the art with run-off areas, air-conditioned offices and an extensive tree-fringed paddock with the convenience of a nearby airport suitable for F1’s high flyers. The July dates generally ensured glorious weather — and yet the paying public tended to show a preference for the beach rather than this arid expanse of racetrack, high on a wind-whipped plateau above the Mediterranean town of Bandol.

Despite the twisting climb from the coast leading to inevitable queues on the single access road — and the fact that the majority of races were uneventful — the F1 teams enjoyed Circuit Paul Ricard, not least because of the annual party hosted by Elf. As a major supporter of motor racing in France and sponsor of Team Tyrrell, Elf took over the Hôtel Île Rousse by the harbour in Bandol and (no pun intended) pushed out the boat.

Elf’s motor sport activities were masterminded by François Guiter, a quiet colossus, greatly respected by all. You can imagine laughter turning to stunned silence at the party one year when, gathered round the hotel’s pool on a typical balmy evening, a playful Ken Tyrrell pushed Monsieur Guiter into the water.

The initial gasps of horror were followed by the confusing realisation that the big man, wearing his customary suit and tie, had barely caused a ripple on his way in and then disappeared from view. Relief swept over the Elf contingent as Guiter suddenly but gracefully rose from the far end of the pool, gently shook himself off and seemed totally unperturbed. Never a man to talk about his past, it later emerged that Guiter had been a diver with France’s secret service working with limpet mines during World War II. This incident had been child’s play in every sense.

You could say the same for gaining access to the paddock. Compared to today’s high fences and electronic gates, security was easily breached — as an Irish journalist proved in 1980 by parking his VW camper van, not only in the paddock but also alongside the Shadow transporter. This seemed entirely reasonable to our hero (let’s call him Brendan, but who had better remain anonymous for reasons that will become obvious) because David Kennedy from County Sligo was driving for Shadow-Ford and it seemed right and proper to the only Irish newspaper reporter in F1 that he should have close access in every sense.

Brendan also made sure of an invitation to the Elf party and the opportunity to fully enjoy the oil company’s largesse. The fact that he did not fall into the pool was one of the mysteries of the evening, as was the subsequent return to his mobile abode in the paddock.

Or, at least, on the following morning we assumed he was inside a tatty VW that remained eerily inactive with the shabby curtains drawn. It was race day and doubtless his sports editor in Dublin would be expecting a call (this being before the advent of mobile phones). Just as someone was on the point of gingerly approaching to establish contact, the sliding side-door partially opened. A grey face appeared at floor level and threw up all over the paddock before quickly retreating behind the closing door.

The bold Brendan was in there all right, caring little about the Grand Prix de France and the elegant F1 high rollers who had come to parade through the paddock he had unceremoniously anointed. It was at least some consolation to our man — if not Shadow — that Kennedy had failed to qualify and coverage of the race was no longer high on Brendan’s list of priorities.

But not for the British media as Alan Jones and Williams came from the second row to destroy Ligier and Renault in their back yard. This was not a thrilling wheel-to-wheel race; more a symbolic gesture of defiance on the governing body’s home territory during the height of the FISA/FOCA war.

Paul Ricard has had its share of memorable moments. But not necessarily on the flat and featureless racetrack.

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