Pacific Coast Highway, Stelvio Pass, Trollstigen and Great Ocean Road.
All famous roads, and I’m sure you’ll recognise at least one or two of them. But what if I said ‘D27’? I would be surprised if it meant anything to you, because it didn’t mean anything to me even before visiting this link road on the outskirts of Reims, France earlier this year.
When Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Stirling Moss and co. drove this road, it wasn’t called the D27. It was the start/finish straight for the Circuit de Reims-Gueux, which for nearly 50 years was one of the most significant race circuits in the world, and host to the French Grand Prix 11 times between 1950 and 1966.
The high speed track itself was originally founded in 1926, linking the localities of Thillois, Gueux and La Garenne with just eight turns and 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) of surface.
It underwent four major revisions from its opening in 1926 to its eventual closure in 1972, expanding to 8.3km (5.1mi) in 1953 following a bypass of Gueux the year previous. While its long straights were shorter than Le Mans’ famous Mulsanne, it became a regular venue for high speed slip streaming battles.
Unbeknownst to many, a poster for the 1954 French Grand Prix at Reims repeatedly featured in the sitcom Friends, as part of Joey’s bedroom decorations. The poster, a Danish edition, shows the #20 Mercedes-Benz W196 of German driver Karl Kling powering past the Reims grandstands, despite the #18 Mercedes of Fangio actually winning the French Grand Prix at Reims that year.
This is an Italian version of the same poster, located at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. The reason for the poster featuring the second place #20 car of Kling, instead of Fangio’s winning #18, is because the posters were pre-printed, with the results added after the race so that they could be published much faster.
The French Grand Prix in 1954 was also the debut of the Mercedes-Benz W196, a car which won nine out of the 12 races it entered and two world championships for Fangio in ’54 and ’55.
At Reims, the car wore its ‘Type Monza’ enclosed-wheel streamliner bodywork, before reverting to its open-wheeled configuration for other races, including the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, which Fangio also won.
The W196 would form the basis of the 1955 W196S, better known as the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports car, which was infamously involved in the 1955 Le Mans disaster and the deaths of 83 spectators along with Mercedes-Benz driver Pierre Levegh. The aftermath of this accident saw Mercedes-Benz abandon motorsport for more than three decades.
You might think it’s a bit of a tangent to go from Friends to Le Mans ’55, but I think it’s a perfect example of just how significant the Circuit of Reims-Gueux is. That’s just the story of one car. Now try to imagine the countless other stories and battles that this circuit saw during its 46 years of operation. It’s as significant a part of motorsport history as they come.
It’s certainly more than just its D27 designation.Champagne Country
We had spent the night before in a budget hotel not far from the D27, knowing that we were near the circuit, but surprised to find so little fanfare about the historic site. There were no pamphlets at the hotel reception, and there were no obvious celebratory signs inviting us in its direction on the road.
Truth be told, it has mostly been reclaimed by its environs, and now serves primarily as a convenient route between the villages of Gueux and Thillois. As we took the second exit at the roundabout off French National Route 31, I just barely noticed a small concrete ‘BP’ corner marker in the hedgerow to our left. At one point in time, this advertisement would have welcomed the drivers back onto the start/finish straight.
It’s a significant straight, too. Measuring in at some 2km (1.2mi) long before the braking point for what would have been Gueux/Calvaire curve from 1952 onwards. There’s no wide-open throttle and full-speed blast past on this day, instead a modest 80km/h speed limit takes us slowly towards the long since empty grandstands, as they seemingly rise out of the ground.
There’s plenty of room to pull over to the side of the road and stop in what once was a pit box. With ordinary traffic, while sparse, still passing by, your mind immediately wonders what it must have been like with Formula One cars of the era thundering past the unprotected pit area.
80km/h feels fast from a few feet away; I can only guess what 200km/h+ must have felt like for the mechanics working on cars with their backs to the action.
My first reaction after taking in my surroundings was one of surprise. The remaining stands and timing pavilion are in remarkably good condition. They look like they could hold an event today, and are in a better state than some other current racetracks which I’ve visited.
This is courtesy of the care of Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux (Friends of the Gueux Circuit), an organisation which works to protect the facilities and keep the legend of this famous place alive. Small stencilled notices are dotted around the buildings, simply stating ‘Memoire des Pilotes, Respect du Site’ (remember the drivers, respect the site) which have been wonderfully adhered to.
It’s odd to sit on the pit wall and look up into the empty stands with regular traffic passing by. A truck driver stops briefly to photograph his rig here, before getting back in and continuing with his day’s work. It would be easy to stop momentarily, get your token photo for the ‘Gram and move on without really appreciating where you are.
I wouldn’t pass any judgement to those who just take here in Reims-Gueux with a flying visit, because at the end of the day it’s just empty buildings and viewing stands. There are some leaflets hidden in one of the pit boxes in various languages, but that’s about it. It doesn’t feel welcoming. In fact, for the most part it feels like you’re trespassing once you step over the pit wall.
However, with a little imagination and a sense of adventure, the former race circuit, which featured on the inaugural Formula 1 World Championship calendar, rewards your interest and curiosity.
The hand-painted advertisements are colourful, the empty pit boxes are clean and free of debris, and it’s easy to navigate the site without fear of needing a tetanus jab afterwards. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Marchal’ black cat, which can also be seen inside the headlight of the Porsche 917.
Climbing the concrete stairs at the back of the main pit building offered fantastic views along the Thillois-Gueux main straight and of the pits below. These now empty rooms only offer minimal shelter as their glass has long since been removed.
There’s a tunnel which passes beneath the D27 to the other side of the track, and to the large grandstands which reside there. There seemed to be a basement, too, but I didn’t venture down.
On the infield, a marshal’s post remained, perhaps rebuilt or moved here from further out, along with an imposing structure which was once hosted the circuit’s timing board. In our very digital world, it seems so archaic to have to manually display a driver’s lap number, position and time, but it was the norm, and required this behemoth to do so.
There was a well-maintained former accommodation block out back, which might have housed hospitality units or small shops at the time. The official timing building, located on the actual start line, wasn’t accessible during our time exploring.
It’s a striking place to visit, and so much more than just somewhere to stop for a cliché photo on your return from the Nürburgring. It’s a site of utmost automotive significance, which would have blended into the scenery if not for the care of the aforementioned Les Amis du Circuit de Gueux.
The paddock might now be silent and the grandstands will likely remain empty. The fervour of a race day might never visit these roads and fields again. But there will always be a part of me that chooses to imagine Fangio and co. pulling up to the start line at the André Lambert timing pavilion, before being waved off towards the horizon and out into champagne country at average speeds of over 185km/h (115mph).
I understand that it might be difficult to feel any sort of attachment to somewhere which enjoyed its heyday before a lot of us were even born. It’s been closed longer than it was active, but the Circuit de Reims-Gueux is a bonafide temple of speed.
It’s only by celebrating these places, by recording and retelling their tales, that we keep places like Reims-Gueux alive and refuse to let them become just memories.
Even now, as you read this, someone is commuting home down the start/finish straight, unaware that they’re being chased by the ghosts of Fangio, Kling, Ascari and more.Bonus Video