Pole-sitter Jorge Lorenzo crashed out of the Aragon MotoGP just seconds into the race
The French Grand Prix returns to the Formula One calendar for the first time in a decade this weekend, though on a more poignant note, it coincides with the twentieth anniversary that this writer fell in love with the sport.
On that note, this piece is nothing more than a shameless, self-serving reflection.
It so happened that the race in question was held in France, thus it’s appropriate that the country features once more. Though the grid is visiting Paul Ricard in this iteration, memories of the event – held at Magny Cours in the nation’s previous tenure, remain vivid.
An anomaly of my introduction to F1 is that I had attended that year’s Australian GP, though at the age of six, I’m ashamed to admit that I had little interest in the action and wasn’t a fan of the screaming V10s of the day. Safe to say that wasn’t the case when I visited Albert Park twelve months later.
Back to that late Sunday evening in June 1998 and the halcyon days when Channel Nine held the F1 rights – with Darrell Eastlake and Alan Jones in the studio. The network gave the sport the heavily delayed post-movie treatment, so this discovery ushered a pilgrimage comprising nights of futile attempts to sleep in anticipation of the action to follow, which would become enshrined for many years to come.
From the moment that Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine crossed the line for a Ferrari 1-2 – unbeknownst in my uninitiated state as the first clean sweep for the Prancing Horse since 1991, I was behind the German driver and Italian marque and there has been no looking back.
Within that initial half-season as a fanatic, I witnessed a driver win a race in pit lane – Schumacher at Britain, one of the all-time great drives in F1 history – Schumacher at Hungary thanks to “twenty qualifying laps” at Ross Brawn’s behest, scenes of utter carnage on the opening lap at Belgium, and later – a driver as enraged as I’ve ever witnessed, in the German following his collision with David Coulthard.
It culminated in the emotional pendulum of the season finale at Japan, when Schumacher, starting on pole – stalled on the grid, consigning to the rear of the field, before proceeding to blitz his way into third by mid-distance, only for a spectacular tyre failure from debris which ensured that Mika Hakkinen would claim his first title.
All of this within nine races. Rising two decades on, there have been 362 Grands Prix since that evening which set me on my way, of which I’d be lucky to have missed viewing live as many as I can count on both hands.
It’s difficult to pinpoint precise recollections which have stood out over the ensuing years as each race and season blends into another, though Schumacher’s crash at Britain in 1999 is a seminal memory, as was the elation following his first title with Ferrari in 2000.
Even as an ardent fan, success for that combination became so frequent through to 2004 that no one race truly stood out from another. Certainly etched in the mind’s eye was witnessing first-hand the devastating collision between Ralf Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve at Australia in 2001, which claimed the life of a marshal, and how the marquee I was viewing from shook so violently.
I don’t think I’ve experienced such drama as the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix in the early hours of a Monday morning, with the championship snatched from the jaws of defeat by Lewis Hamilton, and Felipe Massa’s subsequent humility. Nor have I experienced such heightened disappointment as I did for Mark Webber, having come so close to breaking through in 2010, alas it wasn’t to be.
Though Michael Schumacher never was the same driver in his second stint, each race with his presence on the grid was special following a three-year absence. His ‘pole’ at Monaco in 2012, followed by third place at the European GP a few weeks later, were as cherished as any memory from the golden age.
There’s been a changing of the guard in recent times, with every likelihood that no driver will have featured earlier than 2007 entering next season, with those who debuted at the turn of the century and forming mainstays since my early years falling off the grid. But it’s a time of renewal and the next generation will make their mark as their predecessors did,
Just as the sport decides what it wants to be in the foreseeable future and continues its belated transformation from monolith into contemporary giant courtesy of its new owners, from where it was when this writer first laid eyes on it, the subsequent revolutions for better or worse and to whatever comes next, I’ll be along for the ride.