The French Grand Prix made a welcome return to the Formula 1 calendar last year after an absence of ten years, but the event at Circuit Paul Ricard – which last hosted F1 in 1990 – was beset by poor organization. Thankfully, the fan experience was much improved for 2019, even if the actual race was a snoozefest.
All photos © Andrew Balfour / motorsportguides.com
One of the few rural circuits on the F1 calendar, Circuit Paul Ricard is 45km east of France’s second largest city of Marseille. The circuit is accessed via small local roads; a lack of planning in 2018 saw many fans stuck in traffic for 6 or more hours trying to get into the circuit on the first day of track action. The parking organization at the track was even worse, with multi-hour delays entering and leaving the circuit over the weekend. A new mobility plan was put in place this year, which included “park and ride” facilities in nearby La Ciotat, free trackside parking and a special VIP access lane – as well as the crucial co-operation with local police that was missing last year. Thankfully, the new organization worked well – helped in part by official attendance for the 3-day event falling from 160,000 in 2018 to 140,000 in 2019. Our bus from Marseille took no longer than 1 hour to get to and from the track each day, apart from after the race on Sunday when the trip took approximately 90 minutes.
The facilities for fans at Circuit Paul Ricard are pretty basic. The F1 Fanzone behind the Main Grandstand was covered in synthetic grass, but the rest of the paths around the circuit were unsealed and very dusty. The organizers also worked with the local tourist authorities to showcase the beautiful region of Alpes-Côte d’Azur in the fanzone and various classic French cars were featured around the circuit, including an awesome display of classic turbo-powered Renaults. I was also able to check out the views from the Start-Finish Grandstand and the Chicane Grandstand.
Most armchair fans will agree that the 2019 French Grand Prix was by far the most boring race of the season to date. When you spend four days at the track however, a boring 84-minute procession doesn’t exactly ruin your weekend. For the record, Lewis Hamilton led home teammate Valtteri Bottas for a Mercedes 1-2, followed by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. The most excitement happened on the final lap, when Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris, Nico Hulkenburg and Kimi Raikkonen battled it out for the final points-paying positions.
I was working all weekend with F1 Experiences, running the bus for guests from the AC Hotel Marseille Prado Velodrome and also doing Paddock Tours. It was great to see so many F1 legends in the Paddock, including Alain Prost and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. I also spent a fair bit of time in the Champions Club, which is situated in a permanent building known as the Burger Bar next to Turn 15. The views were excellent.
Jean Alesi made a special guest appearance in the Champions Club. I used to get his autograph in Adelaide – had a quick chat with him about the race in my home town. Watched the start of the race from the rooftop terrace of the Formula 1 Paddock Club, checked out some of the pit stops and also made it into the pitlane for an up-close view of the podium ceremony after the race.
There wasn’t too much time to explore Marseille, but we did get out for dinner in the old town on Saturday night and a few drinks on Place de Lenche. I also had the morning on Monday to do some exploring. I was staying next to the Velodrome, the city’s main football stadium. It wasn’t in the centre, but was right next to a metro stop, so it was cheap and easy to get into the city. I took the number 60 bus up to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde for some amazing views of the city, then checked out the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, or MuCEM (but didn’t pay to enter) before exploring the oldest part of the city near the port.
From what I did see, Marseille was definitely my kind of city. Historic, a bit gritty, multicultural, friendly locals and tasty food. It’s also the gateway to the French Riviera, an area I’m definitely keen to explore more of in the future.