The COVID-19 pandemic led to the longest break between editions of the Pau Grand Prix since World War 2, and its long-awaited return last weekend looks like a goodbye to its past and a blueprint for its future
Billy Monger’s history-making win in the 2019 Pau Grand Prix renewed international focus on an event that had been the pride of a small city in the south of France since 1933, but any momentum that victory was set to deliver the race, the racing career of Monger and the Euroformula series he was in at the time got undone at the start of 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For two years there was no racing on the 2.76-kilometre street circuit due to lockdown restrictions, and once those had eased it only made the grand prix’s return a possibility rather than a probability.
In addition to convincing various parties it could take over part of the city to run a four-day event in a way considered ‘COVID-19 friendly’, the organisers Basco-Bearnais racing club and Crea-Sud Communication had to – along with their promoter, the local tourism board – overcome their usual challenges of building a racetrack and event space that was not too costly to the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department the city sits in, not too disruptive to the local population and be up to standard for Formula 3-level racing in the form of Euroformula’s return. And that last one required extra work.
“It was really hard to rebuild the track after two years, because they lost some pieces, barriers, some bits,” says Joel Do Vale, the grand prix co-ordinator and vice-president of France’s motorsport governing body the FFSA, of the fate of the grand prix infrastructure that went into storage or everyday road use three years ago.
“It was very hard [to get them all] so after two years it was crazy, but we tried to revive it now.”
During the grand prix’s absence there was municipal elections and initially some fear that the pandemic-enforced cancellations would provide fuel for the grand prix’s opponents to get it permanently ended should the political make-up and leadership of the commune’s council change. But the mayor was re-elected, and Do Vale says “nothing changed for us”.
“They all supported. It is the same because it’s the 79th grand prix. So it’s a whole, as we say ‘une vieille dame’ in French, an old lady. 79 years of age.”
Allowing a 79th edition to go ahead provides the clear promotional benefits of then being able to reach the 80th birthday landmark in 2023, but the upfront cost of bringing the circuit back would increase as more work had to be done than usual to bring it back to race-ready state.
Most of the track ended up being resurfaced, and it was a decision made by the organising team to cover the course in new asphalt rather than those who are responsible for the roads the other 50 weeks of the year.
“It was I who asked, I had to because it was pretty… shit,” Do Vale admits.
“It’s because there was a lot of potholes, and because it’s open, it’s a city. So after three years, you see the new bus, the big one. It’s very heavy, and passes here [with a stop on the pit straight]. So [the track surface] was not good for F3.”
The move away from internal combustion engines for many urban vehicles such as buses and lorries has had a positive impact on air quality, but their increased weight has degraded the road surfaces quicker than before. The new asphalt got put down six weeks prior to the grand prix, meaning even more days of disruption for those in the city, but the improvements do then get to be enjoyed by road-users from now on.
And those with reasons to smile about that could actually show it as the seven-day average on COVID-19 infection rates in France had been continually dropping and the grand prix had the good fortune of being able to go ahead with no restrictions whatsoever. Many did choose to wear masks and maintain social distancing in the park-based paddocks, but there were no requirements to.
For Do Vale “it’s pretty cool to see” an event running sans restrictions again, with it having been “very, very, very hard” for the FFSA operating at conventional circuits through 2021 with strict in-paddock limitations.
“And the weather is good too! For one time it’s good, because sometimes it’s not. It’s raining normally here.”
The lack of requirement for social distancing didn’t just improve the experience for fans, but made it massively easier and more efficient to run the event. Shipping containers and trucks could be used as offices, production suites and race control, catering could be provided in enclosed spaces too, and it made it simpler for Pau’s rapid marshalling team to do their work.
“Thursday and yesterday was a little bit hard [getting back into action], but I think today is nice so we can be ready and move on,” was Do Vale’s verdict on Saturday prior to a Twin’cup crash that caused a lengthy red flag period.
“We have five to 10 digital panels for safety [supporting the flag wavers now]. I think we are really quick here, very fast first of all to remove the car. That challenge this morning was after turn eight so we had no crane so we had to put the safety car out [and wait a long while for a driver to catch the queue]. But four laps is nothing, for us, hahaha.
“And after we had two Euroformula cars in turn two and they [removed yellows] in two minutes, 40 seconds.”
From the point of Drivex’s Nico Pino and Motopark’s Frederick Lubin coming to a halt after they collided and crashed into the barriers at that corner, it actually only took 2m20s for both cars to be craned over the outside fencing. Most of the marshals are FFSA-contracted, with a group of around 70 working on the event, but with others called up from the rest of Europe.
It’s calculated 100,000 people spectated the weekend’s action, many watching for free from the Boulevard des Pyrenees that overlooks most of the circuit and the mountain vista opposite, and the enthusiasm was unsurprising given how many of the city’s cultural events have had to be missed during the pandemic. But they came to watch just 12 cars in the grand prix.
“It was really hard for the competitors because we decided we would renew this grand prix in October, November, so it’s quite late to have some cars here. So we discussed with the World Touring Car Cup and eTouring Car World Cup, okay, but then we had to have some more. So Euroformula too, and Formula 4 is not a problem [to add] because I am in charge of F4 in FFSA. But it was not so good to decide so late [to run the event].”
While the Euroformula grid gained the debuting combination of Effective Racing and Vladimir Netusil, it lost Drivex School’s Alex Peroni as his sponsors prioritised putting their cash into his sportscar commitments, and interested drivers from the FIA F3 Championship were denied the chance to enter as that series “reminded teams that none of their drivers can make cameos in other series if not entered for the full season”.
The supporting French F4 championship however had a capacity entry list of 24 cars, and its new-for-2022 use of Repsol biofuel turns out to have been entwined with its grand prix presence.
“I was in discussion with Repsol because Repsol is one of the partners here [of the grand prix], and I was discussing with the number two of Repsol in Paris, and I said:
‘Oh, what is your new fuel?’
And he said what [Repsol was working on].
‘Your fuel [choice], would it go ethanol and hydrogen and is it green’
‘Yeah, we’re maybe interested for the F4, why not?’
‘How many litres do you need’
“We took 38,000 litres and here we are. We tried 70% and 100% [biofuel], and 100% was running so we tried 100% new biofuel.”
Three races ran for F4 and they were full of entertainment, although drivers got a little impatient late on and caused typical street circuit multi-car standstills at hairpins. The recently introduced second-generation F4 cars are larger than their predecessors, and even larger than them are Formula Regional cars which could be seen on the streets of Pau next year.
“We have the FRegional European Championship asking me maybe to come next year,” Do Vale reveals. “So it’s nice, just because there’s 32 cars there I think. A big grid. It would be nice. And I’m in discussion now because I think with all spectators and the city is very happy, so I think we will have a view into 2023, [about] a new grand prix. So [interested series] are calling me, and we are interested for.”
Formula Scout understands that if FREC was to race in Pau next year, then it would drop its support slot at Formula 1’s Monaco Grand Prix and FIA F3 would plan to take its place there for its sole street circuit round.
“I try to get the best [cars] that we can have, because we are only an FIA Grade 3 circuit. Sometimes it’s difficult. But why not GT4 France, maybe if they go to biofuel. The problem is here because now they chose to put biofuel here [in promotion of the event], so I think Euroformula is the last one to race with not any kind of [non-alternative] fuel. So everything you can see, even the Twin’cup. The Renault Twingos, it’s [adapted] fuel. It’s not really biofuel, but [it’s in that direction too].”
Two weeks after the Pau GP the ‘Classic’ equivalent will run for historic cars, and there’s occasionally been rumours a Formula E e-prix could one day run in the city as well. FFSA president Nicolas Deschaux lauded the Pau GP for being “100% orientated towards energy transition”, and 24km north-west is the Pau-Arnos circuit which hosted WTCR and ETCR last year in absence of the street circuit’s usability and tries to promote itself as a hub for electric motorsport. Could FE run in Pau?
“No I don’t think so, because FE is really expensive. We know that,” Do Vale says initially. “It was in Paris, so it was not in Pau and Paris is not the same. Na, I think… why not, why not… just the financial part [is the deterrent].”
The alternative route to a Pau GP return
After getting the joy of commentating on Billy Monger’s 2019 win, unfortunately I did not get to do the same on Vlad Lomko’s 2022 triumph but I did get to go on a big adventure.
In addition to the biofuel-running series and ETCR, there were other parts of the Pau GP weekend that highlighted a more climate-friendly future for cars. First of all there was the demo of the all-electric junior single-seater that will be used by the soon to debut ERA championship, which you can read more about on Formula Scout soon, then there was also the hyrdogen Mission H24 prototype sportscar and a Ligier that did laps using biofuel power.
With a desire to reduce my own carbon footprint, and also make sure I didn’t run over my costing for the week at £50, I walked the 39km route from Tarbes–Lourdes–Pyrenees Airport to Pau and back. That was just one element of what ended up being a big adventure with appearances on BBC Radio 2, getting very sunburnt, potential accidental trespassing on a French ministry of defence site and learning about the merits of rabbit casserole for breakfast.
You can find most of that craziness on Twitter, and also hear all about it on our latest podcast which also analyses the Pau GP itself and the star of the weekend who somehow failed to win. Listen to it below, or find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.