Editor – Enjoy Part II of The Condor’s 1963 trek around Europe (Note: If you haven’t read Zandvoort ’63 yet, I recommend you do so before reading this piece)
Our involvement in the ’63 French Grand Prix began earlier than expected. We had an early start leaving Amsterdam on the Monday after the Dutch GP and arrived at the Belgian-French border around midday. As we pulled up, we were surprised to see the two Team Lotus trucks on the roadside with their drivers looking dazed and confused. The inability of visitors being able to speak the French language had two more victims in it’s grasp.
It was time for me to get into my “Jean-Pierre de Beaufonte ” mode! Armed with my pocket dictionary, I approached the customs agents to see if I could solve this linguistic riddle. With some effort I was able to comprehend what was needed and returned to Team Lotus to obtain the proper form. After getting the roadies sorted out, the three of us returned to customs with a smile and the proper paperwork in hand. Signed, seal stamped and delivered et Voila! Team Lotus was free at last.
While they were hauling their precious cargo in open air SCCA style transporters directly to Reims, we were off to do some regional touring before arriving at the Capital of the French Champagne Region on the eve of the GP weekend.
After getting situated in a youth hostel in town, saving the Pit Box Bungalows for Saturday night, it was time to check out the local garages and visit the F1 teams. The atmosphere was really open house, partly because in that era everyone involved with the teams were racing fanatics. Nobody seemed to mind if we “buzzarded” around and the team members were willing to answer semi-intelligent questions.
Our translation services earlier in the week at the border were rewarded when we arrived at the garage of Team Lotus. The two roadie/mechanics pointed us out to the team manager as the guys who had helped them at the frontier. The manager expressed his gratitude and dug into his pocket to hand over some Francs, enabling us to enjoy a bottle of champagne as our pre-dinner cocktail.
The circuit at Reims was a short way from the city center. Located on public Route Nationale 31 and it’s connecting roads, it was a historic venue that had been hosting races since 1926. The configuration had changed some over the years, but in 1963 the length was 5.1 miles with two slow corners and the rest flat out sweeping bends. The slightly downhill back straight was over a mile long and ended with a major braking zone into a 30mph corner!
We were up early Friday morning raring to get out there and see it for ourselves. As we were cruising toward the circuit in our 1953 Citroen 11, I glanced into the side view mirror and saw something unusual coming up behind us. I commented to my passengers, “You are not going to believe what’s coming up the motorway!”
Sounding like low flying aircraft, a good portion of the F1 entries were being driven on the highway by the team’s mechanics. BRM’s, Cooper’s, Lotus’s and Brabham’s all blasted by us in team formation. That was amazing!
La Belle France will not give up the tradition of a Saturday market day for anything, so Friday was qualifying day. As an added bonus for this event, there was the addition of a major European championship sport car race. This made for an interesting qualifying fact: Jim Clark [Lotus] and Mike Parkes [Ferrrari 250P SC] had almost identical lap times in their respective qualifying runs! How they both got to that number was anything but identical. Clark, of course, was quick through the corners and late on the brakes. Parkes was all top end. The 250P’s 4.0 L. engine was made for the back straight and he hit 312 KPH (194 mph!) before hitting the binders to make the slow last turn. That speed was mega in 1963.
Without any track activities on Saturday we toured the area during the day and returned to the track that night. Like Zandvoort, when we arrived nobody was around so we helped ourselves to two laps of the circuit and went into the racing paddock with our car. They didn’t leave a light on for us, but we had our choice of pit box to call home. This time we did not oversleep and we were out of the box before the team’s arrived to set-up shop.
On race day we thought it would be fun to see how long we could remain in the pit area before getting the boot. We were able to do a pit walk, say hello to Dan Gurney and check out the wives, girlfriends and groupies. We lasted longer than we imagined before a clever official was able to connect us to the illegally parked Citroen in the paddock and he kindly asked us to leave. The timing could not have been better! Just as the F1 cars were lining up for their morning warm-up, our car was positioned at the head of the line. As I started my drive to the exit, I soon realized that the track was green and I had the likes of Jim Clark and Graham Hill following me. The Citroen proudly led the entire field the length of the paddock! When I reached the exit, I waved the cars past me and watched them disappear out onto the circuit. I’m sure some of the French in attendance were proud to see the classic Citroen lead the way.
For the race we made our way over to the last turn area at the end of the back chute. Jim Clark was the victor followed by Tony Maggs [Cooper], Graham Hill [BRM], Brabham, Gurney [Brabhams} and Jo Siffert [Lotus-BRM]. Typical of the times, many cars retired and only the first five were on the lead lap. Jim Clark went on to be World Champion winning seven of the ten races, G.Hill won two races and John Surtees won one for Ferrari. In all 52 drivers and 31 teams entered at least one GP that year.
Very different from today’s really big show. The cool thing about the good old days was the lack of security which allowed the Joe Average to get much closer to the action. I felt much more a part of the event, more involved and more connected.*
*Editors note – when you pace the F1 field through the paddock before FP1, I would say you are more involved!