Formula Oui? Paris Motorsport
It was always just a matter of time before Formula E reached Paris. Now in its second full season, the ground-breaking motor-racing championship brings its high-speed, electric-powered cars to the City of Light for the first time in April. As the national capital of a country renowned as one of the original pioneers of the automotive industry, it’s an apt choice of location.
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Travel writer Ben Lerwill hails from the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and has channelled his wanderlust into creating articles for National Geographic Traveller, The Independent, Wanderlust, Rough Guides, Time Out and BBC Countryfile and more.
The race itself, which will mark the seventh instalment of an eleven-race season, is set to be one of the most visually spectacular on the calendar – thanks in large part to the backdrop. Organisers have designed a 1.2-mile track that makes a full, fourteen-turn circuit of the domed military complex known as Les Invalides, a landmark originally built in the 17th century and still home to the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.
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Unsure of what Napoleon would have made of twenty racing cars powering around the complex perimeter at speeds of up to 140 miles per hour is anyone’s guess, but the visual contrast between old-world history and cutting-edge technology will be a striking one. The drivers themselves will be more concerned with the task in hand, and with teams such as Renault, ABT Schaeffler Audi and our partners Mahindra Racing battling it out, the occasion has the potential to be truly dramatic.
For France itself, it marks the latest development in the nation’s centuries-old relationship with motor cars. It’s now almost 250 years since a military engineer from the Lorraine region created what many still believe to have been the planet’s first true automobile, and even today the country remains one of Europe’s most significant car manufacturers. We’ve taken the opportunity to look a little closer at France’s long legacy.
The Early Years
The name Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot may not be a universally familiar one, but the northern engineer is widely credited with building the world’s first truly self-propelled vehicle. His twin-piston steam-powered tricycle was primarily designed to haul artillery when it was constructed in 1769, but was as heavy and unwieldy as it was ingenious.
Thirty-eight years later, meanwhile, a Paris-born inventor named Francois Isaac de Rivaz published an 1807 patent for the first hydrogen-powered internal combustion engine. He even constructed a large four-wheeled “car” of sorts to go with it.
Cugnot and de Rivaz were among the earliest front-runners in an industry which, by the end of the 1800s, had developed almost beyond recognition. The main catalyst for this, of course, was the development of the gasoline engine, which had benefited from the various efforts of French, Belgian and German engineers.
The Arrival Of The Titans
The period around the turn of the century saw the emergence of French names which have since become world-famous. The bespectacled son of a metalworker who started out in bicycle production before turning his hand to cars? Armand Peugeot. The three big-thinking brothers who founded an automobile company in 1899? Louis, Marcel and Fernand Renault. And the Parisian father-of-four with a passion for engineering? André Citroën.
These, and other brands, helped France to become the top automobile producing country in Europe at a time when cars were becoming increasingly commonplace, if only among the higher echelons of continental society. The country’s progress was further aided by the tyres produced by a rubber factory in central France – run by a pair of siblings by the names of André and Edouard Michelin.
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The 20th Century
As automobile use became more prevalent – and more widely affordable – production boomed. French manufacturers were constructing some 253,000 cars a year by 1929, a figure that had grown to around 1.3 million by 1960. The intervening period produced some of the most stylish cars ever built, including the streamlined Bugatti 57 Atlantic, the humble Renault Dauphine and the nippy Citroën DS, a model once named the most beautiful car of all time.
At the same time, of course, France found itself up against increasingly strong international competition from other automotive heavyweights, most tellingly the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. In later decades, Japanese manufacturers also heavily impacted the global picture.
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The Modern Day
France still acts as a powerful force in the industry, despite having now fallen out of the Top Ten of global car-producing countries. Its motor-racing heritage is strong, and the country is still associated with events such as the Le Mans 24-hour race and the Monaco Grand Prix. On a more sedate level, even sightseeing tours of Paris can these days be arranged in iconic Citroën 2CVs.
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The prestige of the Michelin brand also lives on, of course, with more than 70 restaurants in the capital alone bearing the company’s stars for culinary excellence. And while today’s French cars – as fine as they are – might not be the most dominant vehicles on the market, the nation itself remains firmly at the heart of automotive history.