Pastis, traffic jams and beach briefings: Memories abound at Le Castellet

Stepping out: Lewis Hamilton in practice at the Paul Ricard in Le Castellet on Friday

Le Castellet (France) (AFP) – Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel were aged only five and two years old respectively the last time Formula One came to race at the Paul Ricard circuit -– too young to remember the heat, the dust and the traffic jams.  

On Friday, as they learned the new updated technicolour version of the old track near Marseille, they were aided by a variety of computerised simulations that did not exist when the circuit was last used. 

In the sweltering hinterland of Marseille and Toulon, the 1990 French Grand Prix served up a memorable race won by home hero Alain Prost of Ferrari.

It was his third successive French triumph on the circuit built and named after the producer of the iconic French pastis apertif and the last for 28 years at the inaccessible track where the mistral can blow with turbulent effects and long traffic jams were, and still are, the order of the day.

For the nation that is regarded as the birthplace of motor racing, it was the end of an era -– a sepia-tinted time before computers, the internet and globalization, when it was normal for drivers to finish qualifying swiftly on Saturday afternoon and then, after a rush downhill to the coast, hold de-brief meetings with their engineers in clusters on the beach at Bandol.

The leading protagonists were also men of another age -– Prost, his great rivals Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet and the British ‘bulldog’ Nigel Mansell -– outspoken heroes free from any constraints of the corporate big business and digital age that was to follow.

For France, the re-birth of the Le Castellet race this weekend signals Formula One’s return to its roots even if the French media pack that played cards with Prost, and sipped a glass of Ricard’s yellow liquid, have long since retired.

Prost is now an adviser at Renault while national pride has required frequent reminders that France hosted the first recognized Grand Prix in 1906 and was part of the original World Championship from 1950.

Thus the resurrection of the French Grand Prix is a reminder of the origins of the sport and of the transitional progress made by teams in the digital information age, which is so different from all earlier versions.

The 1906 contest was held over two days on public dirt roads around a triangular 100km circuit around Le Mans.  

France was hooked, subsequent French races being held at various famous venues including Reims, Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand, Le Mans itself, Dijon, Le Castellet and, from 1991 to 2008, Magny-Cours.

The last decade of drought, with few French representatives, signalled a slump that Le Castellet’s return has ended. 

Renault’s return as a factory team, a clutch of new young drivers and a brightly-coloured new track has seen to that.

The emergence of talents like Charles LeClerc, Esteban Ocon, Romain Grosjean and Pierre Gasly has roused optimism in France that another age of rousing success may be in prospect.