The Circuit Paul Ricard (French pronunciation: [siʁkɥi pɔl ʁikaʁ]) is a French motorsport race track built in 1969 at Le Castellet, Var, near Marseille, with finance from pastis magnate Paul Ricard. Ricard wanted to experience the challenge of building a racetrack. The circuit has been part of the FIA Formula One since the 2018 Formula One World Championship as the French Grand Prix, previously serving in 1971, 1973, 1975-1976, 1978, 1980, 1982-1983, as well as from 1985 to 1990.
First years (1970–1990)
Opened on 19 April 1970, the circuit's innovative facilities made it one of the safest motor racing circuits in the world at the time of its opening. The circuit had three track layout permutations, a large industrial park and an airstrip. The combination of modern facilities, mild winter weather and an airstrip made it popular amongst racing teams for car testing during the annual winter off-season.
The original track was dominated by the 1.8 km long Mistral Straight that is followed by the high-speed right hand Signes corner. The long main straight and other fast sections made the track very hard on engines as they ran at full revs for extended spells. Engine failures were common, such as Ayrton Senna's huge crash during the 1985 French Grand Prix after the Renault engine in his Lotus failed and he went off backwards at Signes on his own oil and crashed heavily, with only light bruising to the driver. Nigel Mansell crashed at the same place in the same weekend during practice and suffered a concussion which kept him out of the race. Mansell's crash was the result of a slow puncture in his left rear tyre causing it to explode at over 320 km/h (200 mph), which detached his Williams FW10's rear wing. The Honda powered FW10 holds the race lap record for the original circuit when Mansell's teammate Keke Rosberg recorded a time of 1:39.914 during the 1985 French Grand Prix. During qualifying for the 1985 race, Swiss driver Marc Surer clocked what was at the time the highest speed recorded by a Formula One car on the Mistral when he pushed his turbocharged, 1,000 bhp (746 kW; 1,014 PS) Brabham-BMW to 338 km/h (210 mph). This compared to the slowest car in the race, the 550 bhp (410 kW; 558 PS) naturally aspirated Tyrrell-Ford V8 of Stefan Bellof which could only manage 277 km/h (172 mph). Bellof qualified 9 seconds slower than Surer and 12 seconds slower than pole winner Rosberg.
Paul Ricard was inaugurated with a 2-litre sports car race; during the 1970s and the 1980s the track developed some of the best French drivers of the time including four time World Drivers' Champion Alain Prost who won the French Grand Prix at the circuit in 1983, 1988, 1989 and 1990. The circuit hosted the Formula One French Grand Prix on many occasions, the first of which was the 1971 French Grand Prix.
The circuit was also extensively used for testing, especially in Formula One. In 1986, Brabham Formula One driver Elio de Angelis was killed in a testing accident at the fast first turn after the rear wing of his Brabham BT55 had broken off. Although the circuit was not the cause of the crash, it was modified in order to make it safer. The length of the Mistral Straight was reduced from 1.8 km (1.1 mi) in length to just over 1 km (0.62 mi), and the fast sweeping Verierre curves where de Angelis had crashed were bypassed. Effectively, after the start, instead of heading into the left hand Verierre sweeper, cars now braked hard and turned sharp right into a short run that connected the pit straight to the Mistral. This changed the circuit length for a Grand Prix from 5.81 km (3.61 mi) to just 3.812 km (2.369 mi). This also had the effect of cutting lap times from Keke Rosberg's 1985 pole time of 1:32.462 in his Williams-Honda turbo, to Nigel Mansell's 1990 pole time of 1:04.402 in his V12 Ferrari.
The last French Grand Prix held at the circuit was in 1990; the event then moved to Magny-Cours where it ran until 2008. Since then there were discussions about reviving the French Grand Prix with Paul Ricard one of the circuits believed to be considered as the venue. During its life of hosting a round of the Formula One World Championship, Paul Ricard hosted the French Grand Prix on 14 occasions between 1971 and 1990. The Long Circuit was used from 1971 to 1985, with the Club Circuit used from 1986 to 1990. On six occasions (1971, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980 and 1989) the winner at Paul Ricard went on to win the World Championship in the same year. Ronnie Peterson (1973 and 1974) and René Arnoux (1982) are the only Ricard winners who never won the championship.
Recent times (1990–present)
In the 1990s the circuit's use was limited to motorcycle racing and French national racing, most notably until 1999, the Bol d'or 24-hour motorcycle endurance race. The track was also the home of the Oreca F3000 team. After Ricard's death, the track was sold to Excelis, a company owned by Formula One promoter Bernie Ecclestone, in 1999. The track was rebuilt into an advanced test track, and was for a time known as the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track (Paul Ricard HTTT) before changing its name back to Circuit Paul Ricard.
An aircraft landing strip suitable for private jets is amongst the circuit's facilities. There is a Karting Test Track (KTT) that features the same type of abrasive safety zones as the car track. The track has also hosted some races, including the 2006 Paul Ricard 500km, a round of the FIA GT Championship. Other GT championships have run races here, most notably the Ferrari Challenge and races organized by Porsche clubs of France and Italy.
On 5 December 2016, it was announced that the French Grand Prix would return to the Formula 1 calendar for the 2018 season at Paul Ricard. It was the first French Grand Prix since 2008 (last held at Magny-Cours) and the first at Circuit Paul Ricard since 1990. On 19 June 2017, the FIA's World Motor Sport Council in Geneva published its 2018 provisional calendar with the French Grand Prix scheduled for 24 June at Circuit Paul Ricard with the race itself followed immediately by the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring and then the British Grand Prix at Silverstone Circuit. Pirelli Motorsport has planned for a two-day tyre testing for its 2018 Formula 1 tyres at Circuit Paul Ricard in the months of May, June and September 2017.
The track is characterised by its long Mistral straight (1.8 km, 1.1 mi) and elongated track design. The track is also unusual in that it is built on a plateau: it is very flat. In 1986 the track was modified to shorten the circuit, by adding shortcut through to the middle of the Mistral Straight. This shorter circuit is also known as the GP short circuit and is 3.813 km (2.369 mi) long. The track offers 167 possible configurations from 0.826 km (0.513 mi) to the full 5.861 km (3.642 mi). The track's elevation ranges from 408 to 441 m (1,339 to 1,447 ft) above sea level. Its flexibility and mild winter weather mean that it is used for testing by several motorsport teams, including Formula One teams.
The track is known for its distinctive black and blue run-off areas known as the Blue Zone. The runoff surface consists of a mixture of asphalt and tungsten, used instead of gravel traps, as common at other circuits. A second, deeper run-off area is the Red Zone, with a more abrasive surface designed to maximize tyre grip and hence minimize braking distance, although at the cost of extreme tyre wear. The final safeguard consists of Tecpro barriers, a modern improvement on tyre barriers.
In 2019 the pitlane entry was moved following safety concerns. The entry, which was previously accessed via the main straight, is now situated between the final two corners (turns 14 and 15).
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- Billiotte, Julien (5 December 2016). "Le Grand Prix de France confirmé au Ricard - F1i.com". F1i.com (in French). Archived from the original on 7 December 2016. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
- Benson, Andrew (5 December 2016). "French Grand Prix returns for 2018 after 10-year absence". BBC Sport. Retrieved 5 December 2016.
- Noble, Jonathan. "Formula 1 2018 calendar revealed with first triple-header". Autosport.com. Retrieved 20 June 2017.
- Noble, Jonathan. "F1 2017 tyre test plan revealed". motorsport.com. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
- "Official website". Archived from the original on 22 June 2018. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
- Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track, The Marshal: Incorporating Rescue & Resuscitation, April 2007 (Issue 21).
- Mitchell, Scott. "French GP pit entry moved after safety fears". motorsport.com. Retrieved 25 January 2019.