A very French tale

Watch GT RACER’s Magny-Cours from behind the wheels of a pair of racing E-Types, a Cobra, and a super rare Morgan Streamliner race car.

Almost halfway between Paris and Montpellier on the Mediterranean coast, between La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast and Geneva on the French-Swiss border, in the region of the Bourgogne-Franche-Compte lies Nievre, one of the original eighty-three départements created during the French Revolution.

The Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours, "one of the world’s premier motorsport facilities." Photo: Shutterstock.

A rural area known for its white wine appellation, Pouilly-Fume, Nievre has no major cities of note, no spectacular sight-seeing, and not much in the way of industry. For those who do not live in its flat countryside, there may be no reason to travel to this part of France – unless, that is, one is somehow involved in motorsport. Because Nievre is the home of the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours, a track that has hosted the French Grand Prix eighteen times.

The story of how Magny-Cours came to be is a tale that’s as French as can be. At first glance, it seems that in the early 1990s, suddenly and pretty much out of nowhere, one of the world’s premier motorsport facilities just magically appeared.  But the Magny-Cours story predates the modern era, starting in the mid-1950s and stems, as is so often seen in automotive history, from one man’s vision and passion.

Getting under the hood in a garage at Magny-Cours. Photo: Shutterstock.

In this case, that man was the young mayor of the commune of Magny-Cours, Jean Bernigaud. During a 1954 trip to watch the French Grand Prix at the Reims circuit in the Champagne region, he was fascinated by how public roads were transformed into a racetrack. He came away from the race inspired to do something similar in his region. However, timing was not on his side. In 1955, a horrific disaster had occurred in a race at Le Mans, an accident that sent large pieces of debris into a crowd, killing eighty-three spectators, including French driver, Pierre Bouillin, and injuring another one hundred-eighty people. It was the most catastrophic crash in motorsport history to that point and prompted Mercedes-Benz to quit racing until 1989.

Following the catastrophe, regulations on French racing circuits were tightened and Bernigaud’s plans stopped in their tracks. But his inspiration lingered and several years later morphed into the idea of a permanent circuit that could boost the number of visitors to the town, offer educational opportunities, and create jobs.

Now it was 1959, and karting – imported from the U.S. – was very popular. Building a karting track was the lowest-hanging fruit with the most significant chance of success. At just over a third of a mile in length, the karting track was built quickly and inaugurated on August 7, 1960, when some 2,500 spectators watched racing by twenty-four karts driven by forty-eight drivers from eight clubs. Christened the Circuit Jean Behra (after the recently killed French racing hero), Bernigaud’s plan was off to a promising start.

Magny-Cours has hosted the French Grand Prix eighteen times. Photo: Shutterstock.

The track was a popular venue and the following years saw many improvements: A mile-long motocross track was added; spectator areas grew in size, as did parking. The Winfield Racing School was established in 1963 and became famous for churning out France’s Grand Prix winners of the 1970s. The track itself was widened and lengthened; a control tower was constructed; grandstands were added.

But then, in the early 1980s, interest in racing began to wane to the point that the facility was neglected and became a shadow of its former self. But the circuit’s luck did not run out – yet another politician who was romanced by the glamor of racing came to the rescue.  Nievre happened to be the home region of none other than François Mitterrand, France’s then-president. And so it came about that “somehow” the departmental government was able to invest in the circuit with the expressed intention to snatch the French Grand Prix away from its long-time home at the Circuit Paul Ricard in Provence.

Nievre took its charge very seriously and went as far as purchasing the entire property from Bernigaud, who, until that point, privately owned the facility. Essentially the Circuit Jean Behra was bulldozed and the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours was built from scratch in its place. No expense was spared in creating the new world-class Grand Prix complex, including industrial estates for racing teams such as ORECA and racing factories such as Martini Cars and Ligier.

"If these oil cans could talk, oh, the tales they'd tell." Photo: Shutterstock.

The new facility opened in 1989, and the first Grand Prix took place in 1991 with top French names headlining. The Frenchman Alain Prost drove for the iconic Scuderia Ferrari and the beloved Brit Nigel Mansell drove for the UK-French Williams-Renault team. The first French Grand Prix at the new circuit was a great battle, with Mansell taking the victory. Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours found itself atop the international racing map from the start, where it remained for almost two decades.

Today all kinds of motorsport events take place at Magny-Cours, including historic racing. Come with GT Racer and check out the Magny-Cours track from behind the wheels of a pair of racing E-Types, a Cobra, and a super rare Morgan Streamliner race car.