Preview: Pau, The Thinking Person’s Monte Carlo

There are many, many race tracks in this world that are worthy of at least one visit but there are few that exert such a hold on people that they regularly make the journey there and are distraught at the idea of not going. Among the magical names (Monte Carlo, Le Mans, Indianapolis, and many others) there are some that are not so well known outside of a small coterie of cognoscenti. Pau is one such place. Most people when you mention the name will look at you blankly. A few – especially the Francophones – may associate it with Henri IV, but not many will say, ah yes, the Grand Prix de Pau, this despite the fact that it is now a race with a 70-plus year old history behind it, having started before Monte Carlo was even an idea of a race.

Start of the 2002 Pau Grand Prix © Stella-Maria Thomas
Start of the 2002 Pau Grand Prix © Stella-Maria Thomas

So what makes it special and why should you go? Well, for a start it’s in the South West of France, which usually guarantees good weather (though when it rains there it does it thoroughly) but that’s not the main reason. There’s the old town and the castle, a favourite area for post-race dining… which brings us to the food of course, and in that respect provided you’re a meat eater you cannot go wrong – duck in every possible combination is very much on the menu, accompanied by some of the local wines, delicious if mostly unpronounceable! But that’s not the main reason either.

Restaurant in the old town © Stella-Maria Thomas
Restaurant in the old town © Stella-Maria Thomas

Of course it helps that the track is within easy walking distance of most hotels, and the prices, although they rise on race weekend somewhat, for everything remain this side of insanity. But again, not the reason you should go!

Nor is the stunning vista from the Boulevard des Pyrenees where you can look down at the Gare hairpin and watch the cars slithering round, tyres squealing in protest (Nico Rosberg had a lot of trouble here), or straight ahead to the mountains themselves, usually snow-capped at this time of year, more than just another minor point in favour of a visit.

Nico Rosberg having trouble with Gare © Stella-Maria Thomas
Nico Rosberg having trouble with Gare © Stella-Maria Thomas

You should go because this is street racing as it should be, on a track that would, if it was suggested now, cause those listening to shake their heads and question the sanity of the proposer. It would never be approved today…but it continues and it provides a spectacular challenge to the modern racing driver, a long way from the Tilkedromes and massive Grand Prix circuits they spend most of their year racing on. The colour and noise are exhilarating, whether you are in one of the grandstands overlooking the pits, watching from the lawns of the park, or out in the grounds of the casino as the cars blast past at phenomenal speed, the drivers so close to the walls that the tyres and decorated with paint from the barriers after each session.

Jake Dennis at Foch © Stella-Maria Thomas
Jake Dennis at Foch © Stella-Maria Thomas

The course winds its way through the narrow streets of the city, with barely enough room for modern racing cars, past the casino, through Parc Beaumont and alongside the river Gave, and only the very skilled can navigate its twists and turns without coming a cropper against the unforgiving barriers. Sometimes this can lead to some very strange races, among them the 1998 F3000 race, won by Juan Pablo Montoya by almost a lap after pretty much the entire pack bar Montoya tangled at Monument on Lap 1 and by the time they were disentangled and sent on their way Montoya was around 40 seconds ahead. As a result he lapped everyone bar himself (and may have managed that too) to win the race.

The WTCC boys too have been known to have trouble round the treacherous Tarmac of this historic city, including Franz Engstler who managed to tangle with an unsafely released Safety Car of all things in 2009. It wasn’t entirely surprising that after three outings there the touring cars opted to play elsewhere in future when the Grand Prix was suspended for a year for financial reasons.

Formula 3s in the collecting area © Stella-Maria Thomas
Formula 3s in the collecting area © Stella-Maria Thomas

A year later and the Grand Prix was back as an F3 event and this year promises excitement and mayhem in equal measures with at least 34 cars expected to turn up, which is probably about a dozen more than you would ideally want to start here. It should attract a good crowd to watch the new superstars of motorsport trying to make a name for themselves and become the next Max Verstappen.

This is a meeting that brings out the crowds every year anyway, the Palois thoroughly enjoying themselves in the grandstands and in the park where there are always displays to interest the racing fan, and in the paddock which offers access to the teams and drivers in a way that is impossible in many modern circuits. Oh, and then there is Saturday night’s Nocturne, when the racing continues on into the night and the partying (at least for those not involved professionally in the Sunday Grand Prix) continues even later into the night.

Pau bites back as Jamie Green discovers © Stella-Maria Thomas
Pau bites back as Jamie Green discovers © Stella-Maria Thomas

So the 72nd Pau Grand Prix this weekend should be very interesting indeed. The FIA F3 European Championship is two meetings and six races old now, and has thus far visited the wide open spaces of Silverstone and Hockenheim, where the walls are a long way away and it’s like turning sharks loose in an Olympic sized swimming pool. This weekend those same sharks will be confined to a goldfish bowl and inevitably some of them will not be able to avoid the walls. It’s a circuit that calls for talent and confidence in equal measure, and only the best drivers will thrive round here. It will be interesting to see what the rookies (and over 50% of the field are rookies) make of it, especially those who have not been here before in Formula Renault or Formula 4. By the end of the weekend we should know if they really are as good as their PR people suggest or not.

Look out in particular for Felix Rosenqvist, winner of the 71st Pau Grand Prix and back for another season, this time with the all-conquering Prema Powerteam, for Antonio Giovinazzi (Jagonya Ayam with Carlin), also back here for another tilt at the title and much improved on last year, and then the surprise package of this season so far, Charles Leclerc, stepping into the shoes vacated by Max Verstappen at Van Amersfoort Racing to stunning effect so far (and he’s raced here before which is going to help him considerably). Both Leclerc and George Russell (Carlin) were here in 2014 in the Formula Renault 2.0 series and were pretty nifty then. Of course this is an event that often throws up a surprise result so it’s anyone’s guess as to who will actually win.

Le chateau © Stella-Maria Thomas
Le chateau © Stella-Maria Thomas

See you in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques folks!

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