Setting out on the road to Rouen - a Page holiday

| 23 Apr 2013

The Page family holiday will this year take us once again to Normandy, a favourite destination for many reasons. On our last visit, my wife feigned interest as we spent a day touring the WW2 landing beaches, small child in tow.

This time around, we will have two small children in tow so, with one eye no doubt on preventing me from carrying out any more history field trips, Mrs P booked accommodation considerably further east.

“It’s over here,” she said, pointing to a map, “near Rouen.”

Her reaction when I told her that we’d be able to go and have a look at the old Les Essarts circuit cannot be repeated here.

This majestic layout consisted solely of public roads until the mid-1970s, when the construction of an autoroute at its northern end forced the shortening of the track and the use instead of a small, purpose-built link section.

It had first been used on July 30 1950, with Louis Rosier winning in a Talbot. Two years later, Rouen Les Essarts hosted its first French Grand Prix.

In 1957, Juan Manuel Fangio won that race, in the process providing the circuit’s enduring image as he effortlessly drifted his Maserati 250F through the ultra-fast downhill sweepers to the famous cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin.

Those corners, plunging steeply away into the valley, were a stern challenge. David Purley – not a man lacking in courage – used to scream into his helmet as he went past the pits towards the first in the sequence of turns, willing himself to keep his right foot planted.

They were also deadly. Jo Schlesser died at Six Freres near the bottom of the hill during the 1968 GP, the last to be held at Rouen. Major F2 races continued to visit, but the circuit gradually fell into decline.

By the early 1990s, its closure was imminent, and Dad rightly decided that we should see a race there before it shut for good.

We therefore travelled over for a national F3 meeting, camping on site having arrived via public transport. We went to the Belgian GP and Le Mans in similar style.

Although we also watched from the grandstand at Nouveau Monde and the new section at the top of the circuit, those sweeping lefts and rights that formed the first section of the lap were the best places to spectate.

A chicane had long since been installed at Six Freres, which removed most of the danger there – but not all. During a Renault 5 race, someone got the exit wrong and, with the car having tapped the barrier and almost come to a stop, toppled into two or three barrel rolls. I’m still not sure how it had the momentum to do that.

As well as the F3 cars and Renault 5s, there were grids for touring cars and smaller single-seaters. And as if the place wasn’t dangerous enough in those, there was also a spirited demonstration of gearbox karts by drivers who were clearly lacking any sort of imagination.

The sense of history was everywhere, from the fading grandstands to the nature of the circuit, little changed and instantly recognisable from its heyday. We even happened upon the old podium and Dad took a photo of me on the top step.

We stayed to watch the feature F3 race, before hitch-hiking back into Rouen itself to catch our bus. To my eternal shame, I was apparently snobbishly reluctant to accept the offer of a ride from the driver of a battered old Renault 4 – a car that I would now love to own.

We were dropped right outside the bus station, which was just as well. We’d got our timings wrong and had only five minutes to catch ours, rather than one hour and five minutes.

As the years have passed, I’ve become more and more pleased that I saw motor sport at this historic venue. It finally closed in 1993 and, three years later, the local authority invited the Automobile Club Normande to come up with a plan to save whatever buildings they thought significant.

Sadly, they didn’t, so ownership switched to the Forestry Commission under a long-standing agreement.

The pit buildings, grandstands and timekeeper’s box were demolished in 1999. The cobbles at Nouveau Monde were asphalted over, and the armco was ripped up.

There is nothing left to suggest that this was once one of the world’s greatest circuits, but that’s not going to stop me visiting it this summer and retracing its route. Whether the family like it or not…