Magny-Cours rose (almost literally) from nowhere, developing from a small national racing circuit in the French countryside to seemingly overnight becoming one of the world's premier facilities. Politics played their part in the transformation of the circuit into a Grand Prix host but also in its very foundation.
Home to the Formula One French Grand Prix from 1991 to 2008 and the Bol d'Or motorcycle race from 2000 to 2014 until both returned to Paul Ricard, today the circuit is best known for its annual round of the World Superbikes Championship and a strong calendar of domestic series.
The associated business park next to the circuit is home to a number of motorsport and associated firms, including French constructors Ligier and Mygale. It was also formerly the headquarters of the famed Winfield Racing School until its resurrection under new ownership at Paul Ricard, though sessions still take place at the Nevers circuit.
The idea for bringing racing to this central part of France came from a politician: Jean Bernigaud, the young mayor of Magny-Cours. Possibly the idea came to him following a trip to the French Grand Prix at Reims in 1954, where he saw that the public roads could be turned into a racing circuit.
Whatever his motivations, a dose of reality came following the 1955 Le Mans disaster, when the regulations over racing circuits were tightened and the likelihood of Bernigaud being able to secure a race around his town seemed as far away as ever. By 1959, he had turned his attentions to creating a purpose built circuit instead. The aim was to create a multi-purpose venue that could boost visitors to the town, provide employment and also offer educational opportunities.
At this time karting was starting to become popular in France, imported from the United States. The local Nivernais Karting Club was growing and so it seemed there was a meeting of minds and Bernigaud was persuaded to start his project with a kart track. In 1960 the Circuit Jean Behra (named after the French racing hero who had been killed the year before) sprang up on land next to Bernigaud's farm. At just 510 meters long and 6 metres wide, the small venue was built in pretty short order and was inaugurated on August 7, 1960. Around 2,500 spectators witnessed the 24 karts and 48 drivers from 8 clubs compete for the first event in what was to become in future years a centre for developing new French talent.
By the following year, the kart track had been encircled by a 1.2 mile road circuit, a motocross track, spectator viewing areas and on site car parks. The new track held its first event on March 12, 1961 in front of 5,000 spectators. Circuit Jean Behra was developing rapidly!
The circuit flourished and its Winfield racing school, established in 1963, soon became world famous after churning out the majority of France's Grand Prix winners in the 1970s and '80s. At the end of 1965, Bernigaud presented a six year improvement plan for the circuit, the first fruits of which saw the installation of a bridge to provide easy access to the heart of the circuit in April 1966. It was built in a record time of 8 days by the Stévenot-Routier company .
The following year saw a control tower spring up and the construction of a new building for the Winfield School. Subsequent years would see the track widened (from 7 to 9 metres) and five grandstands built before the final stage of the renovations saw the addition of a new loop in 1971, forming two inter-connected circuits and bringing the total lap distance up to 2.39 miles. The circuit was now able to cater for grids of 30 cars or 40 motorcycles.
By the early 1980s, development had slowed a little, though improvements included an asphalted paddock in 1979, large new car parks in 1984 and new offices and press boxes the following year.
The modern circuit is born
In 1986 the regional government of Nièvre decided to invest in the circuit, buying it outright from Bernigaud. The fact that the region was the home province of President Mitterrand was perhaps a factor in the sale and of the desire for the area to wrest away the French Grand Prix from its long-time home at Paul Ricard.
In 1988 the Circuit Jean Behra was no more, ploughed under at great expense to fashion the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours. Included in the new facilities was a thriving industrial estate for racing companies, including units for the ORECA team and factories for Martini Cars and Ligier.
The new circuit opened in 1989, based loosely on the old but incorporating corners that were facsimiles of others from tracks around the world. The French Grand Prix duly arrived in 1991, Nigel Mansell taking the victory for Williams-Renault, ahead of home hero Alain Prost's Ferrari.
While the new circuit was certainly a step forward from what came before, its location in the heart of rural France was never quite to the tastes of some in the F1 paddock, who preferred the more obvious delights of Le Castellet on the south coast.
Minor modifications were made to the circuit by the time of the second grand prix, with the Esses after the Adelaide hairpin removed altogether and the apex of the hairpin moved back, creating a wider exit. Modifications were also made to the pit lane in 2001, when the exit was moved to the entry of the Estoril Curve, supposedly to provide a safer re-entry to the racing line; the effectiveness of this is debatable.
In 2003 the circuit was extended in a bid to improve safety at the final corner and boost overtaking opportunities for F1. A new complex at Lycée was added, while the Chateaux d'Eau corner was re-profiled. Whether the changes made any difference to overtaking is hard to assess while the biggest complaint of the F1 teams - the cramped and narrow pit lane - was not addressed. Financial problems for the race promoter led to the circuit being dropped from the F1 calendar after the 2008 race, seemingly never to return.
Today, aside from national racing, the World Superbike races now serve as the major yearly international event.
- Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours, 5840 Magny Cours, France
- (33) 86 58 17 33
- Email the circuit
- Official website
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