Reims Experience. 1966 French Grand Prix.
It wasn’t a pilgrimage as such, my wife and I were holidaying in Champagne, but I was well aware of the old circuit outside Reims, and as an Australian, the special place it holds in our motorsport heritage.
I was too young to ever witness Jack Brabham race in his prime, but a life long passion for motorsport and a keen interest in particular historical aspects and eras had enlightened me to the incredible achievements of ‘Black Jack’.
The 1966 French Grand Prix at Reims was his first championship Grand Prix victory in a car bearing his own name, powered by an engine engineered and built half a world away in Australia. He had defeated Ferrari – and Sir Jack always liked beating Ferrari – and was on his way to clinching the Drivers and Constructors World Championships. It has to be one of the single greatest Australian motorsport moments of all time.
The enormity of the feat is astounding in that Jack was able to communicate with Repco and convince this relatively small engineering company – in ultra conservative 1960s Australia – to develop an engine for Formula 1 racing. This was a time before the internet, before fax machines or teleconferences – Europe must have seemed so far away.
I had done a little research prior to leaving Australia and had a basic idea on the location of the buildings that remain on the site of the old circuit.
We had driven in and around Reims for a few days, and despite keeping a keen eye out, there was no obvious indication or sign that the circuit had ever existed.
A visit to the Musée Automobile Reims-Champagne and the obvious question had us armed with a photocopy of a rudimentary map and directions to the circuit.
It was quite an emotional moment as we drove down the hill and parked along side the old pit building. Gazing across into the grandstand, strolling around the paddock area, it’s all very quiet, which only makes it easier to imagine the people, cars, colours and sounds of a Grand Prix.
To me the spirit was palpable, the green and gold Brabhams await Jack and Denny, there’s a Cooper-Maserati warming up, drivers chat, flags wave and race mechanics roll tyres past like only race mechanics can. I can feel the elation spilling from the crowd, and visualise Jack with winners wreath and Champagne in hand.
The fact that it’s not a museum seems to add to the experience. Only those of us enlightened enough bother to stop, the rest of the world is oblivious to the history or significance. While my wife was patient and accommodating, I’m yet to meet anyone since our visit to Reims that can really relate to the experience. But, Australian or not, I know you’re out there, reading this with an understanding nod.