Home Formula 3Euroformula The inside story of the 2023 Pau Grand Prix

The inside story of the 2023 Pau Grand Prix

by Ida Wood

Photos: Ida Wood

One of the most iconic races in junior single-seaters was set to feature F3-level cars until just a week before, and it was an even later decision for the Pau GP to be an F4 race instead. Here’s how it played out

After two years where the COVID-19 pandemic meant the race was unable to go ahead, the Pau Grand Prix returned last year with a bold new vision centred around sustainability. The 2.76-kilometre street circuit in the south of France has been in use since 1933, but the lockdown-enforced break made it incredily hard for a 2022 comeback to be a possibility.

First there was the need to be ‘COVID-19 friendly’, then the requirement of local government approval and funding, and the usual battle against disgruntled residents of the city who don’t enjoy having their roads and park closed for four days. Then on top of that, some of the event infrastructure – such as barriers – had gone missing during the race’s absence.

But the 2022 return was a success, and featured the World Touring Car Cup, the new electric ETCR equivalent, as well as the Formula 3-level Euroformula series and the French Formula 4 championship. The latter series was running on a 100% mix biofuel from Repsol, and the event promoter put a focus on that as well as demos by the all-electric ERA single-seater and two prototype sportscars that were using hydrogen and biofuel respectively.

Formula Scout got to speak to the grand prix’s co-ordinator Joel Do Vale, who is also vice-president of France’s motorsport governing body the FFSA, and the vision was clear: biofuel and electric motors was the event’s future and would be the focus for 2023. With that message clearly publicised, it was then with some surprise that those plans fell apart this year.

After the finish of last weekend’s 80th edition of the Pau GP we caught up with Do Vale again, and started the conversation off by asking when did he and the event promoter (the local tourism board) get permission to run this year’s grand prix

“Pfftt. Too late,” he replied, chuckling. “I think it’s too late for an organiser. Here you see it’s difficult to find all the series in October [when we get clearance].

“But we had a lot of problems this year for the event. In October the WTCR stopped, then ETCR stopped, then ERA stopped, then Euroformula stopped for us [last week]. So you see.”

Euroformula announced its 2023 calendar last September, and it did not include Pau. Do Vale had instigated talks with Formula Regional European Championship representatives shortly after the 2022 grand prix about that series racing in Pau, and FREC dropped its round in Monaco. But talks did not progress as expected.

“Yeah, we were in contact with them, and I know them. But it was a little bit late to organise something, and to have [room for their paddock] for 23? But maybe next year, I don’t know.”

So Euroformula’s promoter GT Sport was then contacted in mid-January and a contract was signed for the series to host the titular race of the weekend for the third time after it had also famously raced in Pau in 2019 [pictured below]. Euroformula announced an updated calendar on January 24, with Mugello dropped for Pau. In March a deal was also signed for TCR Europe to take the spot WTCR vacated.

Then on May 5, just a week before track action begun on the city streets, Euroformula announced it was pulling out of the event and told Formula Scout it was planning a replacement round elsewhere.

Do Vale had been informed eight days before the announcement, and at least one local news outlet had figured out what was happening in that time period based on hotel room cancellations and that those help funding the event wanted a ‘low carbon’ race to promote. GT Sport cited that desire for series to run on biofuels as a technical requirement it could not meet having not tested biofuels during 2022 or in pre-season testing.

“It proved not possible to adjust the current engines of the Euroformula cars to the wishes of the organisers of the grand prix, its sponsors, and the city of Pau for a low-carbon emissions event, running on ‘greener’ fuels, a requirement that was not part of the agreement signed with the GP de Pau,” stated GT Sport.

Photo: Fotospeedy

“The studies and checks conducted showed that adapting the engines safely and effectively would require further engineering work, costly modifications, and testing.”

Do Vale thinks “it was a misunderstanding” that prompted GT Sport’s late decision.

“Because we wanted for the first time to have some fuel or some e-fuel [for the titular race], but it was impossible. Well they said it was impossible. No time to check the engine, or something like that,” he said.

“But we speak [back and forth] – and suddenly they decide to not come. But I think for me it’s not fair. It’s not really fair, because maybe the why [behind their decision is] they haven’t got enough cars, but they have to say earlier.”

Would he have let Euroformula race using standard fuel then? “Yeah, yeah. For example TCR Europe have not e-fuel, but they come.”

The touring car series does actually use biofuel, but a low percentage mix “which for me, is nothing” in Do Vale’s ambitions for the event. Particularly as French F4, which ended up adopting grand prix status for its Sunday race, uses 100% biofuel. And Do Vale confirms it was only on the week of the race the decision was made to promote the entry-level series to title billing.

“I’m vice-president, so it’s very easy for me to discuss with them [to make this decision]. But we had to change the regulations, because we have to have a race for 30 minutes, for example for it to be called the grand prix.

“Because I don’t want a race of 20mins. If I had a race of 20 minutes today, I would only really have had a safety car-led race! So we had to change the regulations, we had to change also the free practice and qualifying to accommodate 26 cars. It’s a little bit too much for us.”

Formula Scout corroborated Do Vale’s words with information from Euroformula sources, and it became apparent that the biofuel requirement was not included in the January discussions. This failure to mention it was possibly a major form of miscommunication on the organisers’ part given it was clear that the event’s desire to be a shop window for sustainable fuel was well known, and maybe almost didn’t merit mentioning to a series that had been present in 2022.

Then going the other way there was also a likely misunderstanding. Euroformula planned its 2023 calendar sans Pau as it didn’t use biofuel and presumed it wouldn’t be in contention to be part of the event.

Therefore when Do Vale came calling in January, it was easy to assume the reason talks were starting was because Pau deemed Euroformula to be eligible regardless.

And the key detail was the biofuel requirement was not mentioned in the contract signed that month. To Formula Scout’s understanding, only a considerable time later did the organisers reach out again asking politely about Euroformula’s biofuel plan. There wasn’t a plan.

Fuel specialists began talking to GT Sport’s technicians, and the consensus was that they couldn’t run the series’ engines unadapted on the suggested fuel without risk of breaking them. If the solution was to adjust the engines, then it posed the question of who was going to pay for the work on test beds and race tracks to deliver that. Pau hoped a solution could be found, but Euroformula said it did not look possible.

Then on April 25 the organisers contacted GT Sport and said, due to corporate and political pressure, they would be needing the titular race to run on biofuels. The financial support of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department that Pau sits in was crucial not only for this year’s race but also to ensure the event has a future, while the main sponsor whose branding was visible all around the circuit was a company called ‘Clean Fuels For All’.

That meant Euroformula would lose the grand prix, but would still stay on the event schedule with its two planned races and in the time slots those had originally been penned down for. But when that potential outcome was put by GT Sport to its teams, the feedback was pretty clear and the event was basically told: ‘thank you for that consideration, but that’s not what we agreed when we signed to race here’.

Once Euroformula’s withdrawl was announced, some local press speculated that the titular race – which was yet to be settled on as going to French F4 – would potentially run as the ‘1st Grand Prix de Pau sans carbone’ rather than the 80th Pau GP.

The local Basco-Bearnais racing club helps organise the event, and supplied 90 of the 185 marshals that were working around the track last weekend. The FFSA was responsibile in-part for sourcing the rest, with a mixture of marshals from other French racing clubs and tracks as well as “some from Spain, from Germany, and I think Britain too”.

Given the difficulty in getting more sustainable series on track this year, does the biofuel target remain for 2024? “Maybe not all series, because we don’t know if it can [be produced to the required scale]. But normally yes, we try,” said Do Vale.

In terms of planning for 2024, and discussions with the local government, the only fact that looks certain so far is if the 81st edition of the grand prix goes ahead then it will be in May as is tradition. But otherwise almost nothing is set in stone.

“I want to speak to GB3,” revealed Do Vale. “British F3 was here in 2006 and 2012, and Lewis Hamilton won here in 2005. So why not? I have to speak to them. In a little bit, but I have to speak. In fact I need to [start talks] because FFSA we have to choose something now. Not in October, choose for 2024 now.”

Aside from the French F4 drivers who were now racing to win the Pau GP, with many in contention to become the youngest ever winner of a grand prix in single-seaters, there were few who thought it was a great look for the event to not only lose its headline series so close to the race date but also then for an entry-level car racing series to adopt grand prix status.

The calibre of the series, even though there is an appeal of having a French championship headline a historic French sporting event, is so low that if it looks like it might end up with headline billing again in 2024 then the local government is going to see decreased value in allowing the event to run given the disruption it causes.

It was already reflected in the spectator numbers this year, although rain through the weekend also contributed to emptier looking grandstands and vantage points than in 2022.

Wet weather actually hit the track during the grand prix race, requiring Do Vale – who was also working as the race director – to call for red flags so everybody could come into the pitlane and switch from slick to wet tyres. Due to French F4 being centrally run by the FFSA Academy, with one engineer responsible for several cars each and mechanics also shared across the grid, it meant the only fair way for all the drivers left in the race to do a tyre change while utilising a limited number of pit crew was to stop the race and restart it.

“Yeah, because it’s difficult to perform [all those stops], but as you know it was [getting wetter] so I have to give time to change tyres, to do everything, because I can not send a young driver on track slick tyres on wet,” said Do Vale.

“It’s impossible. It’s why it was difficult to change [in-race]. I had to stop the race. But it was not so bad [for the action].”

The rain stopped, then restarted and got even worse during the 17-minute red flag period, which required less patience from fans than the previous day’s reversed-grid race where the action was paused by a 50-minute stoppage. Because of the continuing rain, the safety car led the field away for the grand prix’s restart. It ended up being out for three laps, as two drivers retired and needed their cars recovered from the track.

Despite the rain, it was noticable in the F4 and the touring car races that the track was not lacking in grip, particularly at turn two and the long turn five left-hander that led into turn six, another corner where the brave attempted overtakes.

The bumpiness of the outside line into turn one [pictured above] contained its own difficulties, particularly for the driver on pole as that was the side their grid slot was on, but grand prix winner Enzo Peugeot made an overtake there that showed the tyre grip outdid the instability caused by the bumps. It was a trackside observation that prompted Formula Scout to ask Do Vale if there had been resurfacing since last year’s event.

“Yeah, yeah. It was resurfaced here [on the pit straight], and in turns one and two, and in turn five also!” Do Vale replied. “Yeah, exactly. Just at the beginning of turn five it was resurfaced, so it’s really nice now. I think it’s better.”

Do Vale’s opinion is all well and good, but what did the drivers make of their weekend? You can read reaction to the chaos of the reversed-grid race here, with that drama actually leading to two drivers missing Sunday’s race, and the grand prix report here. Below is the first words from the top three as Formula Scout caught the trio almost as soon as they vacated their cars.

1st: Enzo Peugeot

“After the restart, I really [bedded in] my tyres, I put some temperature into them, so I got good sensation with the car and so I was confident – and just won! Incredible.

“I took Kevin [Foster for second place] on the restart, so I got good traction [on the outside of turn one] but he didn’t get good traction. And afterm with Evan [Giltaire] I just surprised him and I passed. My second win [this weekend], it’s incredible.

2nd: Evan Giltaire

“I don’t know for the moment [how Enzo got by]. On the wet, I didn’t drive [badly] like it was my first time in the wet. So unfortunately I came only in second place. I will come back stronger at Spa-Francorchamps. Surely, I will be in the front. I’m sure about that.

“In the streets, it’s more difficult when it’s your first time. The visibility was very hard [once I was] behind.

“Of course [it was hard to warm the tyres on the restart], I was close to crash. It was really difficult.

“Not happy, because Enzo was coming back like crazy. But once we have [completed] Pau, I said I would be even more strong I think. So I’m really happy about that.

3rd: Yani Stevenheydens

“At first on the dry, the three in front of me had an advantage with the new tyres, so I was just trying to stay in connection with them. And then at one point there was a safety car, started raining in-between. After that, we came in to change the tyres and after that the conditions were really difficult.

“I was sliding a lot, and you couldn’t see anything. When you’re driving behind, the spray just blocked the whole view of driving. But I think I managed it quite well, overtaking Hiyu Yamakoshi into turn two with a late-braking manoeuvre. But apart from that and after that, it was just controlling the race. I felt like there was not a lot more to gain from it.

“I was happy with my third place seeing where I came from. I was really happy with that, so I just kept it calm and finished my race.

“It was difficult to warm-up the tyres. So you needed to manage it very well, a lot of braking. With the safety car that doesn’t go fast, it wasn’t as easy as well to warm-up the tyre, because at one point it started going even slower because there was a crash in the middle of the track. So they needed to clear a car out of the way. But I think I managed it well, and in the end tyre temperature was really good.”