When Nogaro opened in 1960 as France's first purpose-built circuit, it was little more than a short and twisty club venue. Over the years it has been extended several times and the facilities developed to bring up to international standards.
Also known as the Circuit Paul Armanac after one of its founders, the track is relatively flat, the circuit features several long straights coupled with tighter twisty sections at each end.
Though it has rarely captured the attention of the major world championships (save for a short period as host of the French Motorcycle Grand Prix in the late 1970s) it has nevertheless always had a busy programme of events. In recent times it has hosted the FIA GT and Blancpain GT series, while today it continues to host the major French championships, including the Superbikes and FFSA GT Championship.
Racing had first been organised around the streets of the town in the Gers region in the early 1950s, under the auspices of the Sports Association of Armagnac (ASA). The events were road races held against the clock, similar to Italy's Mille Miglia, and attracted a number of the top French stars of the day. Victors included Claude Storez, Henri Oreiller and local ace Paul Armanac. As the decade wore on, it became increasingly difficult to gain permission for racing on public roads, prompting the club's founder, Robert Castagnon, to begin considering building a permanent circuit – France's first.
A solution appeared to close to home in all senses; Paul Armanac's father Jean had founded the aerodrome on land outside the town in the 1930s and was happy to cede some of it to build a circuit. Unfortunately, the town's mayor – as landowner – was initially against the idea and much political wrangling was required to make the project a reality.
Bulldozing the way ahead
Castagnon was undeterred and, if local folklore is to be believed, waited until the mayor was out of town one weekend in 1959 and promptly hopped onto a bulldozer to begin carving out his circuit in the earth. His gamble was that once the project was a reality on ground, the mayor's attitude would change. Whatever the truth, Castagnon announced a race for September 1960 and, sure enough, the views of civic leaders changed, such that the mayor even provided railway sleepers to form boundary walls for the track.
At the suggestion of Paul Armagnac, Castagnon had carved out a layout loosely inspired by the Sebring racing circuit, as Armagnac had enjoyed his racing experiences there. Given the relatively small parcel of land available, it was inevitably much tighter and twister than the Florida classic – at a mere 1.089 miles it doubled back on itself in a rough U shape. For racers more used to the wide open roads of Rheims or Rouen it must have been quite a shock...
The rush was on to complete the circuit in time and the Association came up short, postponing the first event until October. Facilities were fairly rudimentary still, but Bruno Basini became the first victor when he cross the lined in first place in the inaugural Nogaro Grand Prix, run to Formula Junior regulations.
By 1962, the circuit was to honour one its local aces in sad circumstances, Paul Armagnac having been killed in an accident during practice for the 1000kms at Montlhéry, Paris. The track was renamed the Circuit Paul Armagnac in his memory.
By the end of its first decade, Nogaro had carved out a credible niche on the French racing calendar, but its founding father was in dispute with the racing authorities. Castagnon was suspended for four years after questioning the decisions of the French Federation, so he passed the running of the circuit over to the local authority, with the ASA continuing to organise the actual race events, albeit under the new presidency of André Divies.
A new tradition began in 1968, with Easter Monday events proving wildly popular with the fans. So many turned up that first year that the circuit was somewhat overwhelmed, with many enjoying a full day of race action without having to pay! Subsequent events would be better organised as the ASA sought to get the circuit under proper financial control, with the Easter Cup races the annual highlight.
New owner extends the circuit
Key to improving the financial security was resolving the ownership, which formally passed into the hands of the Department of Gers in 1971. Almost immediately plans were put in place to extend the circuit and by 1973 a new loop was added, consisting essentially of to two flat-out blasts connected by a medium speed hairpin. This brought the lap distance up to 1.939 miles but created a circuit of two halves, making set up decisions a challenge.
The extension did manage to attract the attention of the wider racing world, however. Formula Two arrived between 1974 and '78, with victories falling to Patrick Tambay, René Arnoux and Bruno Giacomelli. In 1974, the then unknown Alain Prost swept to victory in the Formula Renault Europe event.
Motorcycles too became a part of the fixture list – firstly French championships and then, in 1978, the World Championship. Kenny Roberts took the victory in the top class on a Yamaha. Nogaro would host the race once more in 1982, with Swiss rider Michel Frutschi taking victory after the factory teams pulled in protest at track safety. The World Championships did not return.
Formula Two gave first to European Formula 3 and then to the European Touring Car Championship in the mid-80s. Nogaro was in danger of becoming a domestic venue only, so in 1989 the circuit was extended once again at the suggestion of the FIA. A new series of corners was added to the 1973 extension, replacing the Caupenne hairpin, while pit garages, grandstands and the paddock were all significantly upgraded.
Satisfied that the track now met its standards, the circuit was granted a place on the F3000 calendar by the FIA in 1990. The 1991 event saw a battle for the championship settled in favour of Christian Fittipaldi, who edged to victory of Alessandro Zanardi. Sadly for Nogaro, F3000 left for pastures news after only four years and the BPR Global GT series became the headline act for several years alongside truck racing, after which it did finally slip into place as a host for domestic racing only.
Once again seeking to change the circuit's fortunes, a further major upgrade was ordered 2007. A new pit lane, modern garage facilities and impressive control tower were built on the curving run to the Ferme corner, with the start/finish line relocating for the full course as a result. Significant portions of the circuit were widened, while some of the original 1960 club course corners were realigned to create more run off. In a repeat of history, the changes boosted Nogaro's profile and it has now become a home for international GT racing, first for the FIA GT Series and then its successor, Blancpain GT Series.
While Nogaro may never be the most challenging or inspiring of circuits, it remains an important hub of the French racing scene. For the paying spectator, the viewing is good, with much of the circuit visible from the grandstands, while the food and drink of the local area is second-to-none.
- SEMPA Circuit Paul Armagnac, BP 24, 32110 Nogaro, France
- +33 5 62 09 02 49
- Email the circuit
- Official website
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