French Grand Prix: Painted Lines Serve Race Utility

French Grand Prix

With every race on the Formula One calendar, fans have interesting things to say about the circuits. From overtaking in Monaco to the fake water in Miami, nothing is off limits. Even when it comes to the French, Grand Prix, it’s fair game. But for as picturesque as the Paul Ricard Circuit in Le Castellet, Southern France is, it doesn’t even show up on top track rankings from prestigious motorsports outlets throughout the world.

Why is that?

Without failure, every time the French Grand Prix comes around, Formula One social media accounts post photos of the track, and some of the top comments discuss how aesthetically confusing the paint lines are. It’s easy to understand why people would say that, but they serve a significant safety utility for the race.

For a little background, it’s actually pretty ironic that the French Grand Prix is known for its speed and eccentric lines because the land the circuit sits on was owned by Paul Ricard. Ricard was the creator of Pastis de Marsielle, a smooth cordial with eccentric notes such as anise and licorice root. The now, 90-year-old liquor was created in response to the French Government banning aniseed-based products due to their alcohol content and undermining war efforts. As a result, it was essentially a moonshine in nature, as it was tested illegally in bars throughout the Marseille region until 1951 when pastis production was authorized by the French government..

Twenty years after the rebellious pastis survived prohibition, Paul Ricard started construction on a race track. And to the surprise of the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France (ACF), it became a new favorite track in France to push speed boundaries in a safe environment.

Unfortunately, as the track aged, safety issues started to outpace the excitement of Circuit Paul Ricard’s speed capabilities.

A few decades and a Bernie Eccelstone acquisition later, the circuit returned to the schedule in 2018. Unfortunately, there were plenty of things for fans to complain about, including the stripes, however, they’re one of its most essential safety features for a reason. In 1982, one of the most violent races occurred when drivers Jochen Mass and Mauro Baldi collided on the eleventh lap of the French Grand Prix on the braking point after the Mistral straight causing Mass’s fiery car to travel across the track upside down and go through the catch fencing. While nobody was killed, several fans were injured. In a season that was horrific for the sport in terms of death and injury, something had to be done to address safety.

Here’s a clip of the 1982 crash for reference:

While the stripes might make it difficult for some fans to tell where the actual track is in some shots, the colored asphalt stripes serve to slow cars down in two zones: the red zone and the blue zone. The blue zone lines are abrasive and are the first lines intended to slow the cars. The red lines are even more abrasive and have the potential to cause major tire damage if the driver slides into this zone. It’s a relatively unique feature to the track, but considering how fresh Zhou Guanyu’s crash was at Silverstone, we know that safety is always a topic that the FIA and Formula One have to revisit–and often. After all, Guanyu’s alive today because of what was learned from crashes in the past. And while the halo wasn’t popular when it was mandated, it continues to prevent drivers from being pallbearers at each others’ funerals between races.

For regular drivers, on highways, “longitudinal grooving” serves a similar purpose, except those rough grooves are intended to increase resistance to skidding and to prevent hydroplaning.

While Paul Ricard didn’t commission the design or the new safety features, I do wish we could ask him if he appreciated them. Although, as an alcohol maker during an interesting time for the world in terms of war and prohibition, Ricard seemed like an eccentric who did appreciate risk.

With the development of modern cars and their ability to go even faster, I would like to think Ricard would have felt that his vision to create a track so conducive to pure racing that such a feature would be necessary was a triumph.

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