It is a strange irony that the automobile club that ran the very first Grand Prix is today implacably opposed to getting involved in Grand Prix racing.
It was 111 years ago, in the early part of 1906 that the Automobile Club de la Sarthe was founded in the city of Le Mans. This group of racing fans went quickly into action, hosting the very first Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France a little over five months later. Even with the help of the ACF this was an impressive achievement. The event was designed to replace the ACF’s Gordon Bennett Cup, which had been the biggest international motor racing event of the year since 1900. A circuit was laid out on country roads to the east of Le Mans, running from the start-finish area near the village of Champagné, just outside Le Mans, towards the city and then going into hairpin and heading off east, down to Saint-Calais, where it turned north to Vibraye and La Ferté-Bernard, where it headed south-west back to Le Mans. It was 65 miles in length.
Grand Prix racing did not return to city until 1921, by which time club been renamed the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. There was a new road circuit was laid out to the south of the city, running from the suburbs down the RN138 to the village of Mulsanne and then turning to the west and returned to Le Mans through the forests close to the village of Arnage. This would become the basis of the circuit used for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which was held for the first time in 1923. The Grand Prix de l’ACF returned to Le Mans in 1929, being won by a Bugatti, but after that the race settled at the Montlhéry autodrome near Paris and then on the magnificent road circuits at Reims and Rouen.
The problem with road circuits is that they cost a lot of money to prepare and generate nothing between the big events. By the 1950s, the idea of having a permanent racing circuit at Le Mans, in order for the track facilities to be used more efficiently, with a racing school and for industry testing, was a sensible one. To the south of the pits and grandstand area was a great deal of land, much of it was sandy and pine-covered and so expanding the facilities was relatively simply. The project called for the pits, grandstands and the paddock, plus the start-finish straight, to be integrated into a new circuit behind the paddock. The project was supported by ACO President Jean-Marie Lelièvre, its managing-director Raymond Acat and the head of its competition committee Pierre Allanet. Charles de Cortanze (a member of a famous racing family) was also involved as was Charles Deutsch, a civil engineer with the French government’s Corps des Ponts et Chaussées, who designed the track, when he was not running his own sports car firm called Deutsch et Bonnet (DB).
Deutsch’s new circuit split from the main track just after the Dunlop Bridge with a curling right-hander that sent the cars back towards the paddock. This was followed by a long curling left-hander which went up to a double right set of corners which led on to the back straight, which headed back towards the paddock, kinking left when it arrived there and then going through some tight corners before rejoining the main circuit just before the pits. The construction work was completed in 1965 and the track was opened, being named after the great Ettore Bugatti.
Two years later, the French Grand Prix returned to Le Mans to try the Bugatti Circuit. The event took place on the weekend between two Formula 2 races, the Grand Prix de Reims and the Grand Prix de Rouen-les-Essarts. Thus the racers arrived from Reims and found that the Bugatti track had none of the gradeur of where they had been, nor where they were going. They were not impressed. It did not help that there were only 20,000 spectators (which meant that the ACO probably took a big financial hit). The fans who did attend saw Graham Hill in the new Lotus-Cosworth 49 leading the field away, before Jack Brabham got ahead of him in the Brabham-Repco. Jim Clark then passed both and Hill overtook Brabham and so it was a Lotus 1-2 until both Hill and Clark both suffered transmission failures, leaving Brabham ahead again. Second-placed Dan Gurney retired his Eagle-Weslake and Denny Hulme in the second Brabham-Repco passed Chris Amon’s Ferrari and so it ended up being a Brabham-Repco 1-2 with Amon third.
The only Frenchman in the field was Guy Ligier in a Cooper-Maserati, but he was not classified, having finished several laps down on the winners.
The Grand Prix never returned. Le Mans stuck with its 24 Hour race and ran the Motorcycle GP on an irregular basis thereafter until 2000, when it became the race’s permanent home.
But whenever Formula 1 is mentioned, the ACO firmly says no. A strange thing given that it is within easy reach of Paris and could draw a big crowd…