On the Cote d’Azur…

On the way across from Barcelona we spent the evening in Hyeres, a delightful resort on the Cote d’Azur, not far from Toulon. It was a place where people were sent to enjoy mild winters in the 19th Century. Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edith Wharton all wrote books while staying in the town. It was so popular with the British aristocracy that in 1892 even Queen Victoria popped down for a Spring break. Things have changed a little but it is still a magical place and this morning we drove along the coast, passing Rayol-Canadel, where Henry Royce set up a drawing office in 1910 with five engineers working on the design of the Silver Ghost. From there it was on to Cavalaire-sur-Mer and along the coast under the Massif des Maures towards Saint Tropez.

This is God’s own country. It is stunningly beautiful and relatively unspoiled and I was reminded of a shot by the celebrated French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue of a trip he took in that part of the world in 1927. The photograph is one of the most evocative and romantic images that I know: with the sea, the sun, a beautiful sports car and a glamorous girl. My colleague David Tremayne sadly does not quite match up to the lady Lartique took with him, and the Toyota Prius is anything but a Bugatti… but, hey, this is all about dreams, isn’t it?

Mediterranean 1927. © Jacques Henri Lartigue

We did not stop in St Trop. Even at this time of year the traffic is horrible. Instead we headed inland in search of the village of Grimaud, a pretty place with a ruined castle on top of the hill. Our quest was to find a most extraordinary part of Formula 1 history, specifically, a grave in which are interred TWO Grand Prix drivers. And what a story it is. I researched the whole thing and wrote about it in Issue 24 of Grand Prix +, back in 2008. The story is now in the GP+ archive, but as you get that free when you subscribe this year, and it costs only £25 for nearly 100 magazines, I am going to leave you all asking for answers… Suffice to say that there was some confusion over the years regarding the story of Jose Dolhem and Didier Pironi. Some said that they were half-brothers; some said they were cousins. It took a while but I found the answer. Amazingly, they were both.

Equally amazing were their fates. In 1982 Pironi was leading the World Championship for Ferrari when he crashed heavily at Hockenheim and broke both his legs badly. He tried to return to F1 after a series of painful operations, but his legs were not good enough and so instead he built a carbon composite offshore powerboat and teamed up with pals Bernard Giroux, a two times Paris-Dakar winner, and former Renault F1 engineer Jean-Claude Guenard, to race this exotic machine in the the Offshore World Championship. In August 1987, during the Needles Trophy, off the Isle of Wight, Pironi went too fast over the wake of an oil tanker. The boat flipped and all three men were killed.

By that time Jose’s career in motorsport had run its course. He had been in F1, albeit briefly, with Surtees. He had turned to flying instead. Eight months after Pironi’s death, Dolhem was flying a Mitsubishi Marquise from Paris Le Bourget to Montpellier. The party had asked him to land at Roanne, near St Etienne, for lunch. In the early afternoon they took off, heading south. Seven minutes later, the plane crashed near the village of St Just, killing all of those onboard.

Thus Pironi and Dolhem share the same grave, with bronze portraits of the pair, and an inscription that reads ‘Entre ciel et mer.’

Between the sky and the sea.

An amazing grave in Grimaud. © Joe Saward 2011.

Then it was on to St Maxime, where we stopped for lunch in a restaurant on the beach, in baking hot temperatures. It is a tough life, this Grand Prix reporting… (on the good days).

Lunch on the Cote d'Azur © Joe Saward 2011.

After lunch it was on to Fréjus and the quick run down to Nice, where we pottered along the Promenade des Anglais and DT (a renowned World Land Speed Record writer) reminded me that it was there in 1902 that Leon Serpollet set a new record at the amazing speed of 120.805 kph, in one of his steam-powered cars, ending the domination of electric cars up to that point…

I dropped DT off in St Jean Cap Ferrat and I went into Beaulieu-sur-Mer. I could write an entire chapter on the motor racing connections of my favourite town on the French Riviera, but that will have to wait for another day…

In the meantime Ferrari tweaked its F1 technical team, but that did not really seem that important in the sunshine of Provence.

47 thoughts on “On the Cote d’Azur…

  1. Got a bit lost in those roads up behind Grimaud once, in the cork forests. By the third road-side accident memorial the Mrs was beginning to get anxious. When the sat-nav suddenly announced we had left the registered road network, she flipped. Which made the drive all the more entertaining. Great view at the top.

  2. Things have changed a little…

    Unfortunately, changed a great deal even since the ’60s because of the uncontrolled explosion of housing everywhere, though I agree that the Cote is still magical – provided you look out to sea ….

  3. Fantastic. Wonderfully evocative writing and description. This is the type of racing related writing that many of us grew up hungering for, and that makes your books so good, apart from the compelling stories themselves. It’s heartening to know that it’s still possible. Thanks for connecting this day to a previous age. It makes it all a bit eternal.

  4. I sometimes wonder joe , whether it is us anglo’s or the french that are backwards , and how it came about

    ciel et mer and blanc et noir sound fine in french , but a little awkward when translated , don’t you think ?

  5. The best holiday of my life was a week at St. Jean-Cap Ferrat. Morning: brioche and cafe au lait. Lunch: salad nicoise with a cold white. Dinner: moules marinieres. Rinse. Repeat. A tiny hotel (not the four-star on the harbor), and morning walks along Place David Niven into Beaulieu.

    Right now I could use that.

  6. Your road trip to Monaco sounds wonderful, but Joe, please, ditch the Prius !

    I was unaware that Pironi had a close relative that also drove, all be it briefly, in F1.

    From what I have read about him, he was a bit aloof and that in his final season “went a bit odd”. I believe that was a little bit before your time as an F1 journo but did you hear similar ?

    PS – What did you have for lunch? a huge plate of Fruit de Mar would have gone well with the vista!

  7. I spent a few days in Hyeres on a camping trip when I was a teenager in the 60’s.

    I will always remember it. There was a restaurant on a concrete plinth next to the beach that had a walkway out to a pontoon in the sea with tables. The moon was fullish and it silhouette the islands (some of which I believe were nudist colonies).

    Is that restaurant still there Joe? From the look of the bottom photo it I’d say it was quite near there. I had chicken chips and salad, it’s still one of my favourites. I fact I think I’ll have that for supper tonight.

  8. Ah, days like this I really envy your job…. Not least because I’ve spent the entire day in airless office surrounded by lawyers

    Went to an excellent exhibition of Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s photos in Madrid at the end of April(“the floating world”) at the ‘La Caixa’ forum. Don’t know if its travelling, but well worth catching. He had a succession of rather attractive lady friends – I’m trying to remember which of them he would have been with in 1927….

    1. patrick,

      So was I. She was a real beauty and there are some fabulous pictures but they are at home in Paris and not with me in Monaco

  9. Regarding Jacques-Henri Lartigue’s companion, Joe, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m just not that sort of girl no matter how often you implore me to be. Live with it!
    DT

  10. So many new places to put on my list…
    If you weren’t so damn dood at the F1 stuff, I’d be telling you to take up travel writing.

  11. At last you are talking about a bit of the world I know I agree it is god’s own country and what about the wine the best in the world. Wish I could be there with you this weekend we can only dream.

  12. Hi Joe,

    A lovely piece, very envious of the drive along the Cote d”Azur. Spent a couple of holidays in St Trop pretending to be rich and know Grimaud and the rather English, La Gard Freinet quite well. It’s also a great drive through them down towards St Trop from the A8, very interesting to learn of the sporting connections.

    I remember very well Pironi’s boat accident, I’d been in the Solent the week before but was – ironically – in the South of France when I read a two day old English paper that told of the story. As one who never chose to see ‘good guy-bad guy’ in his relationship with Villeneuve, it did still occur to me that sunny August day if some would regard it as Gilles reaching out from the grave.

    Can’t remember if I’ve read anything about your views on Zolder 1982 – before your time? – but would be interested as always to hear your thoughts.

    Cheers

    Mike

  13. Joe,

    What a really lovely post, thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    Having once visited the wonderful part of the world you’re lucky enough to be pottering around, with your mate, whilst I’m stuck in the office, you conjure some wonderful emotions.

    I love the picture too – any ID on the car?

    Thanks.

    Matt

  14. Thanks for this report!
    I feel inspired to go on a trip to visit these places and would love to hear about other places to see or stop off at whilst at or en route to GP’s (and I know you don’t often get a chance due to it usually being airport to circuit, to hotel, to circuit to airport etc)

  15. Diving into the archive now Joe. Looking forward to the read. A hint for us newer subscribers (this is my second year) on past articles of interest is great. Should happen more often.

  16. Thanks for the memories Joe,
    I stayed in Beaulieu sur mer prior to my visit to the Monaco GP in ’87. I think you are right, Gods own country, quite a palette on a sunny day.

  17. Wouldn’t it have been quicker to drive non stop and eat soggy cheese sandwiches in the car? Nice piece Joe, I enoyed it.

    On a different note, are there unfortunate parallels between the Turkey and Melbourne GPs?. Both seem to have governments who don’t want to pay Bernie anymor and have populations who are losing interest, certainly in Melbourne’s case. What your opinion of Bernie’s view? Is he happy to see Melbourne be replaced by fresh fields, Russia, etc or would he really like to hang on to Aus. I presume there is a practicable limit to the no of GPs in a season.

  18. Thanks for that (on your day off, no less). I know Pironi is considered a villain by a lot of fans, but he was a hero of mine, the first autograph that I ever got. Thinking of including Hyeres on a trip next spring, glad to see your endorsement.

  19. Joe,

    Thank you for giving us such a evocative ride along the breathtaking landscape of southern France. It felt riding in the back seat of the car -well, the front seat was already taken! You have opened a window to let in the fresh air, the sunny skies and the irresistable charm of French life -traffic nightmare included. 10 years ago I read ‘A Year in Provence’ by Peter Mayle; the moment I finished the book, I promised myself to go and see the places myself. I did! Ten years on and you have sparkled the same wish again.

    I am a new comer in the world of F1. I have learnt about the races, teams, drivers, technical stuff -and not least the political/business side of it. A very personal motivation for that. Your analysis and insights are educational and inspiring for both, the expert fan and the novice.

    Big thanks to you for making F1 accesible and thanks to all the people who leave comments, share a thought, a funny remark, a criticism….. you all are a grear source for learning!

  20. Thanks for the travel diary Joe. Great to see how much one can make of a “simple trip” through a beautifull country side with a lot of memeories.

    How fortunate that F1 has this back to back GPs to make that drive!

  21. Joe,
    Remember seeing Pironi at Osterreichring in ’81. He took helmet off on slow down lap at end of the race to wave at the fans. Certainly wouldn’t happen these days

  22. Oh, Joe, a Prius! How could you sully such a lovely place, and such lovely words with such an automotive abomination?!?

    1. Forzaminardi,

      It is amazing that readers seem to think that all F1 freelance journalists live in St Jean Cap Ferrat, driver Bugatti Veyrons, drink Krug for breakfast and light our Havana cigars (rolled on the thighs of Cuban maidens) using 100 € notes. In fact we pay $40,000 a year in travel costs before we even start earning to pay the mortgage and drive what we can afford. I can afford a free Prius!

  23. You got it right about the Prius, silverstone79, but it’s very Joe, aka Andy Prius. Can’t see him in a Maserati, and at least you know that the Toyota will get us from Barcelona to Monaco without recourse to AA Relay…

  24. David T,

    You say that the Prius is very Joe……you mean cant hear him coming ?

    Enjoy Monaco.

  25. I didn’t expect you to drive an Enzo, Joe. If the Prius is free then that puts a different perspective on it and it is undoubtedly fairly cheap to run if you drive carefully. It’s just not very exciting is it?

  26. joe I am sure you have been told this many times, but you would make a brilliant travel writer.

    How about a book for F1 fans, essentially a Lonely-Planet F1, which tells you about the hotels, surrounding towns, things worth seeing, etc, for all the F1 races? again, maybe its been done before, but surely there would be a few customers who would love that? there are so many people who post on forums looking for where to stay, how to park, wheres, best to watch, and far more interesting things like wheres best to eat, if its part of a weeks holiday, what to include etc. Surely there is a travel book in there, which you could write using the years of experience of all these places! Plus the added bonus of being a travel writer is that (this is pure speculation I dont have a clue) all the hotels would love to have you, and offer extra-special service?

    In fact, I am becoming more and more excited about this F1 travel guide. It could be amazing in the right hands.

  27. I have just googled “f1 travel books” and nothing comes up. At least, nothing that looks remotely like what I would imagine. just think how many people from around the world travel to different venues for the sport, and how many of them will want reliable, useful, information. The Lonely Planet could make a killing.

    Also, the book wouldn’t have to necessarily include every venue; what i mean is that it could be sold as a whole volume, or split into ‘European F1 travel’ and ‘Asian F1 travel’ etc etc.

    I do apologise for blathering on and on. After my last finals exam tomorrow I am going to subscribe to GP+ to reward myself! 🙂

  28. Prius, eh? And there I was imagining Joe and DT storming across the motorways of Europe in an Aston Martin.

    1. BiggusJimmus,

      It is a question of poverty rather than taste. An Aston Martin would be very nice, but I don’t suppose that David Richards is going to give me one to drive around. I am not one to ask…

  29. Joe, this is a great story with a nice old fashioned human touch. I would have thought the message was clear enough that it doesn’t matter how fancy a car one uses for a journey but what one makes of it.
    Anyway, you clearly demonstrated in 2009 that you are quite capable of succulent reporting after a journey in a Ferrari. 🙂

  30. Really interested to know the Beaulieu-sur-mer racing connections! My parents in law lived there until recently which is handy for the GP weekend!!!

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