Fond memories of a sizzling era

Fond memories of a sizzling era

Formula One

Alain Prost has many great memories of racing at Le Castellet, the French Formula One track that returned to the calendar this weekend for the first time in 28 years, but the wins are only part of the story.

The retired four-time world champion, his country’s most successful racer by far, triumphed at the track near Marseille four times in total, including three in a row and Ferrari’s 100th Grand Prix victory in 1990.

‘Le Professeur’ also gave Renault a commanding home victory from pole position in 1983.

With other wins at Dijon-Prenois in 1981 and Magny-Cours in 1993, no driver has won more home Grands Prix than Prost, although Britain’s Lewis Hamilton could equal that at Silverstone this season.

Some of Prost’s fondest recollections, however, are not necessarily the ones you would expect; of winter testing and the fans who flocked to the circuit to watch and soak up the noise of the engines.

“We had contact with the people,” the 63-year-old, now a Renault ambassador, told Reuters in a recent interview. “Today, I very often meet people who say they became interested in Formula One because they were looking at the tests (at Le Castellet) in winter.

“We were going to the small restaurant to have a sandwich between the tests and you have the people there. It was really a sort of a community,” he added.

“And all these memories come back to me when I am talking about Paul Ricard.”

Created by the late pastis magnate Paul Ricard in 1970, the circuit will host the first French Grand Prix since Magny-Cours in 2008 -- a switch from the heart of rural France to the sunny Mediterranean south.

The track layout has changed, the famed Mistral straight now tamed by the addition of a chicane, but for Prost the main thing is that France is back.

He had lobbied for a circuit near Paris, arguing that it was logical to be as close as possible to the metropolis with its hotels and tourist attractions, but other arguments prevailed.

“France has always been part of Formula One history, in any kind of manner. With constructors, manufacturers and drivers. So that’s the first good news,” he said.

Le Castellet, renovated by former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone for private testing after the Briton bought it in 1999 and now run by a family trust, is a big part of Prost’s personal history.

“I did the karting world championship in Le Castellet, then the school and then a lot of Formula Renault, Formula Renault Europe, Formula Three, Formula One. A lot of races,” he said.

“I have some unbelievable memories in Formula One. I think all the races I have done in Ricard, and in France in fact... If you remember 1990, for sure. But ’88, ’89 against Ayrton (Senna). And when I overtook Ayrton, things like this you always remember.

“And ’83 with Renault was really one of the very nice wins. We were dominating and there are some races where you feel that you were unbeatable and this was one of them.”

The 1988 race saw the McLaren team-mates together on the front row, with Prost denying Senna a record seventh pole in succession.

The Frenchman lost the lead in the pits but seized it back by overtaking down the straight as the Brazilian wrestled with a gearbox problem, and won by more than half a minute.

Prost won again in 1989, from pole and by 44 seconds from Britain’s Nigel Mansell, after he had announced he was leaving McLaren. Senna retired at the re-start.

Only two French drivers have won races since Prost left Formula One in 1993 -- Jean Alesi in Canada in 1995 and Olivier Panis against all the odds in Monaco in 1996 -- but things are picking up.

Renault, champions with Spaniard Fernando Alonso in 2005 and 2006, are currently fourth while France has three drivers in Romain Grosjean, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly. Two domestic broadcasters will be covering the race.

“It looks like it’s getting better,” Prost, who saw his own eponymous team fail in 2002 after sponsorship dried up, said of France’s on-off love affair with Formula One.

“But the biggest influence you have in Formula One is when you are winning.”