Feature: Something Very Different for Magny-Cours

Jacques Regis, president of the French Automobile Federation, penned the welcoming foreword to the race programme for this year's French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours.

Feature: Something Very Different for Magny-Cours

Jacques Regis, president of the French Automobile Federation, penned the welcoming foreword to the race programme for this year's French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours.

"2003 sees something different for the Grand Prix de France," he declared, highlighting the various track improvements.

How ironic those words sound at the tail-end of the year.

A meeting in Paris on Friday at the headquarters of the governing FIA - looking out on the Place de la Concorde where aristocrats were guillotined in 18th century France - is expected to axe the race from next year's calendar.

Something different indeed. The country that gave birth to the first automobile Grand Prix in 1906, and whose language permeates the sport from chassis to parc ferme, looks set to be absent for only the second time in Formula One history.

The last omission was in 1955 in the immediate aftermath of motor racing's worst disaster when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh flew into the crowd at Le Mans and killed at least 80 spectators.

France has otherwise been a fixture, with only Italy and Britain present every year since the first Formula One race at Silverstone in 1950. Those three races, with Monaco, were deemed to be untouchable - the foursome that would form the backbone of the Championship while others came and went.

But heritage is no match for money.

Encouraging Noises

While the French are resisting, making encouraging noises about raising the funds to secure the slot while also guaranteeing a new deal from 2005, the signs are far from promising.

One senior Formula One source suggested this week that Magny-Cours looked dead as a doornail for 2004, a view fuelled by Silverstone selling tickets for a British Grand Prix to be held on the weekend supposedly reserved for France.

France was originally entered on a 17-race calendar as a provisional date, dependent on the circuit, home of the French Grand Prix since 1991, agreeing a new contract.

That did not cause too much initial concern, with Canada and Austria dropped while newcomers China and Bahrain also had asterisks against them subject to circuit approval.

Then Canada bought its way back, as an 18th race after agreeing to compensate the teams to the tune of $20 million for competing without tobacco sponsorship.

Within a matter of days the French authorities announced their Grand Prix, which also bans the tobacco advertising that fuels half the teams, would be taking a year's break due to financial problems.

So Formula One returned to the conventional 17-race calendar, or so it seemed.

But at the end of last month, Regis said 2004 was still a possibility if seven million euros could be raised: "If the promises of our private partners are backed up, I believe we will save the Grand Prix," he said.

That is not a widely held view, with other insiders arguing that the French must now raise an additional $20 million in compensation to have a chance since they and not Canada have become the 18th race.

The 10 teams would also have to vote unanimously to go to Magny-Cours and the chances of that happening are next to nil.

Steady Decline

Montreal and Magny-Cours are chalk and cheese, the Quebec city a favoured venue for sponsors wanting to entertain key guests while the other is miles from any metropolis with restaurants and hotels in short supply.

All the signs are that France will have to wait to 2005 before returning, when at least one other race will be despatched.

The French can always head for Monaco of course, but the absence of Magny-Cours is further erosion of France's influence in a sport the country ruled under former FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre.

There is only one French team remaining - Renault - where once there were several and they have an Italian principal, an English factory and Italian and Spanish drivers.

There is only one French driver also - Toyota's Olivier Panis, at 37 the oldest man on the starting grid.

There are champagne memories but plenty of sour grapes as well. Alain Prost, still the only Frenchman to have won the Championship, was a failed prophet in his own land as a boss and saw his team declared bankrupt in 2002.

"I see it as a total failure for France," he declared bitterly afterwards.

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