The Paul Ricard Circuit
The Paul Ricard Circuit is a motorsport race track built in 1969 at Le Castellet, near Marseille, in France, with finance from the eccentric pastis magnate Paul Ricard. Ricard wanted to experience the challenge of building a highway.
Its 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 and crashed heavily, fortunately with only light bruising to the driver. Nigel Mansell crashed at the same place in the same weekend during practice and suffered 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 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 team mate Keke Rosberg recorded a time of 1:39.914 during the 1985 French Grand Prix.
It opened in 1970 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, and hosted the Formula One French Grand Prix on many occasions, the first of which was the 1971 French Grand Prix.
In 1986 Formula One driver Elio de Angelis was killed in a testing accident at the fast first turn, and the circuit was modified in order to make it safer. The length of the Mistral Straight was reduced and the fast sweeping curves where de Angelis had crashed were bypassed.
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 have been discussions towards reviving the French Grand Prix.
In the 1990s the circuit's use was limited to motorcycle racing and French national racing, most notably until 1999, the Bol d'or 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 has since been rebuilt into an advanced test track. It is now known as the Paul Ricard High Tech Test Track (Paul Ricard HTTT).
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.
Ecclestone has expressed an intention to return Formula One racing to the circuit by hosting a biennial French Grand Prix at the circuit beginning in 2013 (with a Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps in the alternate years).
The track is characterised by its long Mistral straight (1.8 km) and elongated track design. The track is also unusual in that it is built on a plateau, and is very flat. The length of the full track is around 3.610 miles (5.8 km). In 1986 the track was modified to shorten the circuit. This shorter circuit is known as the GP short circuit and is 2.369 miles (3.8 km) long. The track offers 167 possible configurations from 826 to 5,861 metres. 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 runoff 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 intense tyre wear. The final safeguard consists of Tecpro barriers, a modern improvement on tyre barriers.