As home of the first grand prix circuit, the sedate town of Pau turned one driver into an excited Mr Toad
It was a quiet morning in a dignified provincial French town. Old ladies watered their geraniums on ornate balconies. Others sipped coffee in the sunshine and watched groups of young men strolling to the local pelote court – something of an obsession here in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I was with the local deputy mayor, Marc Jubault-Bregler, who is also schoolteacher, fellow of the veterinarian society, devoted father and all-round bastion of society.
He pointed out the features of his town: the castle where Henri IV lived, the best restaurant in town – also called Henri IV – and the casino. Nothing tacky about this hall of gambling, however: it is an exquisite wedding cake of fin de siècle architecture, set in a delightful park. “Ah ha!” said Marc, indicating a vehicle by the roadside. “Here’s my car. Let’s take a look at Pau’s main attraction.”
We got into his car – a perfectly ordinary family man car, a bastion-of-society car – and motored steadily to the railway station. This is where the grandees of Pau decided, more than a century ago, to indulge themselves in what would become known as le grand prix. We reached a spot where, unusually, there are the white lines of a racing grid painted on the road.
And then it happened. There was a roar from the engine and we leapt forwards, almost immediately braking hard to squeal right and accelerate up a hill. Above us were the hanging gardens of the Boulevard des Pyrénées, where English aristocrats used to promenade in Victorian times.
Marc’s hands were gripping the wheel. “I did the grand prix for touring cars three years ago,” he says, a determined gleam in his eye, “and I did not do well.”
He’s making up for it now. I’m pinned to my seat by G-forces as we brake left under the ornate cast-iron Pont Oscar and take the gorgeous long curve around the casino. These streets are also the oldest city racing circuit in the world, scene of the first grand prix, in 1901. Frenchman Maurice Farman won it in a Panhard. This is Pau, an elegant town with a guilty secret: it is addicted to speed. It is France’s Mr Toad, the aristocratic amphibian who can’t resist the thrill of wild acceleration. Pau, pronounced Po, should really be “Pow”.
We rip around the casino and it seems fast, but we are nothing compared with Lewis Hamilton, who managed 260kph round here when he won the Formula Three in 2005. I’ve always had respect for Formula One drivers, but this experience is making me aware of just how much faster they go than is advisable.
“Pau last ran a Formula One grand prix in 1963,” Marc tells me as we roar past the Grand Prix Hotel – with the best view in town – and start the steep, twisting descent back to the starting grid. “Jim Clark won it. Before that we had everyone – Juan Manuel Fangio won twice here.”
He could have mentioned René Dreyfus – one of the great victories of Pau. In 1938 Dreyfus, a gifted baker’s son from Nice, got himself into a racing duel with the almighty German Silver Arrows. The Nazi-funded machines were smashing all before them in a pre-war Europe that was in thrall to their technological and organisational superiority. And Dreyfus was a Jew. At Pau, a circuit more exciting than even Monaco for knuckle-whitening acceleration, Dreyfus in a Delahaye overtook the Mercedes twice to finally humiliate the Nazis hands down. Eighteen months later war broke out, taking the heyday of Pau with it. The first grand prix circuit gradually sank from favour. After Clark’s victory in a Lotus in 1963, it fell through the formulas to touring cars and finally, by 2010, nothing.
But 2011 will see its renaissance. Vintage racing cars will take the trip, and there will be Formula Three too, for the first time since 2006. For my money, Pau knocks the sterile modern circuit into the straw bales. There is simply no contest from the point of view of an observer, not least because you can get out there and have a spin yourself when the races aren’t on.
Until the mid-19th century, Pau had been a relatively insignificant French provincial town. Then the English came and the boom began. Villas with huge gardens sprang up everywhere. The Boulevard des Pyrénées became what it is today: a kilometre-long stroll in the shade of palm trees with magnificent views of snowcapped peaks. And though those outsiders professed to want the tranquilité, they brought with them the toys of the time: hot-air balloons, cars and, later, aeroplanes.
After our lap, Marc and I sit at one of many open-air cafes and sip the local Jurançon wine. I’m still zinging with adrenaline. “It must be great to drive around the circuit in an old racing car,” I say. “What a thrill!”
Marc frowns. “You could,” he says with genuine concern. “Just get hold of the right car and enter our historic cars race.”
It’s like that moment when Toad hears the poop-poop of a distant horn. A shudder passes through me. I had honestly not considered such a possibility, but now it was here in front of us and not to be ignored.
“Money,” I say.
“Ebay,” he says.
Later I slip into a car hire office. “Do you have anything a bit sporty?”
Next morning, up early to miss any traffic, I am at the starting grid. It is perhaps unfortunate that all they had available was a Renault van, but what the heck. I wait for a youth on a motorbike to finish his wheelie. The French, it has to be said, take a sporting attitude to their roads. Then – slam! – my foot goes down and I’m away, rising steeply up the hill with Murray Walker’s voice ringing in my ears. The town’s ample collection of English villas from the Victorian era flash past. Then I’m up to the casino, where there is a T-junction, and I haven’t the nerve to streak across like they do when the grand prix is on.
No traffic, though. Right foot hard down and I’m muscling my way around the park with the casino at the centre, all pink frilly architecture and broad lawns. It feels quick. Jink left, right and down the snaking curves of the steep descent. Oh, my goodness it is quick. Red and white crash barriers flashing past. Chequered flag. Later in the day I have a glass of champagne, but I don’t spill any of it.
• The Grand Prix Historique de Pau is on 14-15 May, with events for pre-war, pre-1961 and pre-1966 vehicles. For tickets (€20) and track laps (€60) see grandprixdepauhistorique.com. The Grand Prix de Pau (Formula Three) is the following weekend (20-22 May). To hire a vintage car, see location-voiture-de-luxe.org in Pau. Rail Europe (0844 848 4070, raileurope.co.uk) returns from London to Pau via Paris in May cost about £238. More information from pau-pyrenees.com and uk.franceguide.com