France's Magny-ficent copycat
Magny-Cours may be very French, but its takes its inspiration from all over the globe.
Picture: Toyota F1
Two men have been instrumental in making the Circuit Nevers Magny-Cours what it is today; Jean Bernigaud who founded the facility as the Circuit Jean Behra, and François Mitterand, a former head of the Nievre regional government who, like the circuit, moved on to bigger and better things.
Wind back the clock to 1960, however, and a small club racing circuit was being built by Bernigaud on land next to his farm, close to the main RN7 road to Magny-Cours village. A short 1.21 miles blast, it was nothing spectacular - if truth be told it was a little dull - but it would soon become the focus of attention for French motorsport.
The establishment of a racing school at the track in 1963 by Bernigaud, Jean Lucas and Gerard 'Jabby' Crombac did not seem overly remarkable, but a whole string of world-class talents emerged, keeping the 1970s and '80s Grand Prix grids stocked with French drivers.
The list of Ecole Pilotage Winfield graduates is as impressive as it is long: early top grades included Jean-Pierre Jassaud, François Cevert, Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Jaques Laffite and Alain Prost.
As a result, the track found itself at the heart of the French racing scene and as it expanded, so too did Circuit Jean Behra. In 1971 a new loop forming two inter-connected circuits was added, bringing the total lap distance up to 2.39 miles. It opened on May 1, for the May Day meeting, traditionally the largest of the year.
Bernigaud's original 1.21 mile course was extended in 1971 with the addition of a new loop to make a 2.39 mile course.
Bernigaud himself had little chance to enjoy his new creation; he died in November the same year and the running of the track passed to the ASA du Nivernais, the local motor racing club. His widow, Jaqueline, remained as part of the administration, however.
The circuit continued to host national-level racing, but to fund track improvements, industrial units were built for racing teams and associated companies. Hughes de Chaunac and his ORECA squad were early residents, while Automobiles Martini established their factory on the site (indeed the MK designation of all Martini cars stands for Martini-Knight, in reference to the Knight family, who now run the Winfield school).
It worked, with a round of the European Formula 3 Championship topping the May Day bill from 1978, with winners including Jan Lammers, Alain Prost, Thierry Boutsen, Philippe Alliot, John Nielsen and Ivan Capelli. However, the track surface was beginning to show its age and, following the cancellation of the European F3 Championship at the end of 1984, no more international racing was held for three years.
Politics intervened in the late-1980s, however. For once, though, this spelled good news for Magny-Cours. The circuit was purchased in 1988 by the regional council, who planned to use it to boost a flagging local economy. A total refurbishment was planned, with the establishment of an even bigger industrial estate for racing teams, quickly named the 'Technopole', a golf course, a technical school (offering France's first academic degree in Sports Engineering) and improved access roads.
The idea was to make Magny-Cours the premier racing facility in France and it gained enthusiastic support from President Mitterand and Finance Minister Pierre Beregovoy, who was also mayor of Nevers! One of the first to sign up and move in was the Ligier F1 team, while top French F3000 teams Apomatox and DAMS and ice and touring car racing specialists Snobeck Racing Services soon followed.
The track itself was completely torn up and a new design put down in its place. Following the basic outline of Bernigaud's original, the new circuit featured corners which were replica's of some of the most difficult from around the world, including Estoril, Adelaide, Imola and the Nürburgring. Input from Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite was also included in the final design.
Modern and impressive, the facilities set the standard for all future ciruit designs, boasting ample run-off and a super-smooth racing surface - although only at the second attempt. Guy Ligier was among those who criticised the original paving, saying it was so smooth nobody could get traction. It has since been repaved and is now regarded as the one of the finest racing surfaces in the world. Another problem is the rather rural nature of the surrounding area; hotel rooms are not exactly ten-a-penny and access is by two lane roads only.
The Grand Prix themselves have been a success, however, and other racing series have followed. Sportscars have raced on-and-off in tandem with the fortunes of the category, while Magny-Cours is well established for French national touring cars and F3 races. The mighty DTM has even paid a visit on a few occasions.
Despite this, circuit bosses cannot afford to be complacent, else they might find themselves on the wrong end of a repetition of history; Bernie Ecclestone has spent millions on turning Paul Ricard into a premier F1 testing venue and the sunshine of southern France might just lure the GP away.
A programme of investment is the answer, and track modifications, extra grandstands and improved spectator facilities were installed in 2003.
Discuss this article in in the e-Tracks forums.