For the pioneering speedhunters of the early 20th century, the dusty roads of France is where it all started. A burgeoning auto industry, plenty of long, empty roads and little concern for health and safety meant tracks sprung up all over the country, and the period between the First and Second World Wars proved to be glory years for French road racing. Reims, to the north-east of Paris, became one of its most famous tracks. A circuit built for one purpose: speed. Despite falling into disuse in the 1970s the track is being slowly resurrected, awakening memories of its epic slipstreaming battles.
The circuit of Reims-Gueux was first used in 1926 and followed the usual pattern of the time: a local motoring club would map out a simple circuit using local roads, maybe put out some hay-bales if they were feeling generous, and then invite insane racing drivers to throw their fast, fragile and lethally dangerous cars around for several hours! The Automobile Club De Champagne organised the racing at Reims – the home of French champagne production – and chose an area just on the outside of the town around the villages of Thillois and Gueux. For almost 50 years it was home to Formula One, sportscar, bike and touring car action. Its long straights produced fantastically close racing; the narrow roads and dangerous cars of the time meant it also claimed many lives. A sign of its status was the building of the impressive permanent pits and tribunes: after all, once the dust settled from the racing the circuit reverted to being typical sleepy French public roads.
I dropped in to the Reims circuit on the way back from a trip round France, and it was great to see the restoration work that had gone in since my last visit in 2005. Even the journey to get there had been somewhat of a motorsport pilgrimage, as it took me past Brands Hatch (purpose built, first used in 1928) and Lydden Hill (rallycross, 1955) in the UK, then down through Boulogne (road circuit, 1909), Rouen (road circuit, 1950), Tours (road circuit, 1923), Angoulême (street circuit, 1939), Orléans (street circuit, 1935), Montlhéry (oval, 1924) and then on to my goal: Reims.
Reims competed with the original Spa Francorchamps circuit in Belgium for the honour of being the fastest road circuit in Europe, and as soon as you arrive you see why. Despite being out of use for more than a quarter of a century, the two huge straights that formed the core of Reims' appeal are still there, although the main straight is now buried under the Route Nationale 31 dual carriageway. But you still get an idea of the speed of the circuit – and a good view of any Gendarmes in the area. Even in 1932 the race was almost 500 miles long and ran at an average speed of 92mph. The lap record rose steadily, eventually reaching an average of 145mph in the 1966 French Grand Prix.
The track is directly west of the town, towards Paris – only a couple of minutes from the main Autoroute interchange and on a main road, so it's easy to find. During its lifetime there were two main configurations. The first, used between 1926 and 1951 was in effect a big 7.8km triangle: a run from the start-line into the village of Gueux, and then a tight hairpin in the middle of the village that bought the track back on a slightly more winding route to the main straight. The quest for speed in the '30s even led to the organisers cutting down trees and widening the road – not to make the track safer, simply to make it faster. In 1952 the Gueux loop was removed and in 1953 the track extended out west to make a new 8.3km course.
Driving up from the Thillois corner to the start-line, the pit buildings on the right and the rows of grandstands on the left loom into view. The heroic work of the Amis Du Circuit De Gueux (ACG) – a team of volunteers led by the great grand-daughter of the original race organiser from the 1920s who dedicate time and energy to restoring the circuit – is clear to see. Even before the restoration work the track was evocative, but now there's shining paint and cleaned concrete you can easily imagine the pits buzzing with life and the tribunes alive with people.
The first building the ACG refurbished was the Pavillion André Lambert (Chronometrage) – originally used for the timing and scoring. The small, two-floor building was the obvious place to start: check out the link at the bottom of the page of photographs taken in 1994 to see just what poor state the buildings were in. Tons of debris and vegetation had to be removed before any kind of work could begin: but it was vital to make a start. The awesome Rouen Les Essarts circuit in north-western France was similarly abandoned in the mid-1970s, but all traces of the circuit's infrastructure have been systematically destroyed over the last 15 years: every single building and sign demolished, leaving just the swooping roads as evidence there was ever a track there. So, the Pavilion was cleaned up in 2004, the concrete repaired, the whole thing whitewashed and then the original signage repainted.
The attention to detail is great to see. These graffiti-like Shell logos are painted on the low wall linking the Pavilion to the main pits.
The biggest change since my last visit is the incredible work on the main pit-lane building. All of the pit bays have been cleaned out and repainted, damage to the concrete filled in and repaired and then all the original advertising hand-painted.
This is the four-story pit back in 2005. What a difference!
More views from 2005: looking through the back of the pits towards the tribunes and a side view of the main pit building.
Beside the buildings, major restoration work was carried out in 2008 on the petrol storage and scoring towers. Previously rusting iron gantries, they were completely stripped back, the metal repaired and then the whole structure repainted in gleaming white.
Inside some pit bays are tributes to the greats who drove (or rode) at Reims. Bay 25 carries a poster and 50th anniversary tribute to Jean Behra, a famously impetuous French driver killed in 1959 at the German AVUS circuit. He won at Reims in 1952. Motorbike races at Reims must have been stunning: the last race held at Reims, in 1972, was a 750cc bike race.
Inside the pit bays the work continues: the interiors are now cleaned up, exposing the refuelling pipes which ran underground to the fuel storage tower.
Just behind the pit-lane is the paddock building, still in a poor state of repair: it's fenced off and most of the interior floors have collapsed.
But even here are flashes of original grandure: the end garage was home to the Automobile Club De Champagne, the organising body.
This building is going to take an enormous amount of work to restore because of the extensive damage. There used to be an amazing mosaic of the BP logo on the floor of the semi-circular end room where the trophies were originally displayed, the remains of which have been removed for safe keeping.
The tribunes at Reims could hold thousands, and from the end Press stand you could see the cars hammering down the straight to the Thillois hairpin before they turned south and headed toward the finish line. It must have been an amazing sight: there just aren't any tracks left that have this kind of openness about them.
This year the tribunes had been fenced off as well, though no further restoration was apparent since the last time I was here.
Each section of the main tribune was named after a famous French racing driver: Raymond Sommer, Robert Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille.
In its heyday, Reims held many long-distance sportscar races as well a Formula One. Epic 12-hour races were held on the same day as the GP and sometimes started at midnight, running until midday.
An access tunnel under the track links the pits and tribunes.
The main spectator tribune is a huge construction: it seems in relatively good condition, so hopefully will not require too much preservation work now the vegetation has been cut back.
At the end of the tribunes, as the track rises over a crest before the run into Gueux village, are the open seating areas.
After spending several hours soaking up the atmosphere around the start-line it was time to check out the track itself: first a loop of the original GP triangle and then the 1950s extension. This is a view looking back down the main straight from the crest before the track dips and kinks into Gueux village.
There's now a roundabout where the two track configurations used to diverge. Continuing up the road into Gueux there's not much chance to get up to speed, with a central divider on the road and low speed humps. God, I hate speed humps – the curse of Europe!
The tight corner in the centre of Gueux is an iconic image of the old circuit. Classic photos show the scene has hardly changed, though monstrous Auto Union F1 cars have now been replaced by rather more sedate Citroëns and Renaults.
The track then goes through a picture of suburban calm until it breaks out of the village and into the countryside. This crossroads is where the new and old tracks cross on the return leg: the old track comes in from Gueux on the left and then goes out right, snaking uphill to rejoin the mile-long straight to Thillois. The 'new' circuit link, avoiding Gueux, continues straight ahead. So, on my second tour I took this route, firing across the crossroads and through the gently rising right-hander.
The track then drops away to the left – No Entry Except Residents? I'm a resident of the motorsport community…
But just as the track would bend further left on the final run to the hairpin at Muizon, there's no more road – although the traffic in the distance shows where the RN31 is.
When the four-lane RN31 was built, this link road became redundant, the final 50 metres were bulldozed and it has now blended into the surrounding fields.
Returning to the crossroads and the original circuit, I follow the road as it climbs uphill into a cambered lefthander on the crest: originally it would have continued straight on at pretty much the same level to meet the RN31, but now the road dips down to a roundabout with the RN31 on an overpass above; for me it's a sliproad to the right and then joining the main straight to Thillois. The rolling mile-long straight still follows exactly the same arrow-straight direction of the original, but you have to remember that originally it was a regular two-lane road – just wide enough for two cars. Even in the 50s, top speeds exceeded 180mph – in cars with no seatbelts, marginal tyres and rubbish brakes.
Where the tight Thillois right-hander once was is now a big, domed roundabout. Dodging the traffic to get to it, you can then look down both the straights of Reims, and really appreciate the power of this circuit.
Reims is an awe-inspiring place. The imposing pit buildings just ooze atmosphere and the open location, surrounded by fields, adds to the amazing feeling. You can't help but be sucked in. It brings a whole new reality to historic racing – something that can seem to have little relevance to today, but at places like this you realise the DNA that is wound into everything Speedhunters covers was born at circuits like Reims. It is truly a temple of speed.