With Fabio Quartararo, France finally has its very first world champion in the premier class, but anyone who thinks that our cousins from across the Alps were not well represented in the big-car categories is mistaken.
In fact, when the 500cc class was considered first class, it was overtaken by Formula 750, with its overpowered two-stroke four-cylinder engines which, ironically – when Yamaha with the 750 TZ became dominant in the series – has decreed its end.
Barry sheene was one of the first protagonists, in 1973, but it was only in the last three seasons that the fight really exploded: the American Steve Baker won it in 1977, then it was the turn of the Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto then Patrick Pons, the fastest French rider, triumphed.
We can say that Pons, who was then tragically killed at Silverstone the following year, when he was hit by his friend and compatriot Michel Rougerie, was the first world champion in the maximum displacement category and Fabio Quartararo, last Sunday, followed in his footsteps with dignity.
But if it is true that in recent seasons, the world championship has not produced many French champions – the last one was Johann zarco who dominated Moto2 in 2015-16 – There were years when the Marseillaise was very often heard on the podiums.
Friend and teammate of Pons, Christian Sarron, 250cc world champion in 1984, preceded by Jean-Louis Tournadre in 1982 and Olivier Jacques in 2000, twice finished third in the half-liter world championship, riding a Yamaha 500 in the colors of the Gauls in 1985 and 1989. These years were by no means mediocre: there were all the Americans. post-dominated years Kenny Roberts, from Lawson to Spencer, to Mamola, Rainey and Schwantz. Christian, who is often seen in the paddock, won only one Grand Prix, in 1985 at Hockenheim in the wet, where it was very difficult to beat him.
At that time strong French cavalrymen, who were mainly in classes 250 and 350, there were plenty representing more than a third of the grid.
A few names in addition to Christian’s: Hervé Guilleux, Thierry Espie, Eric Saul, Jean François Baldé, a unique and very fast rider who raced with the Yamaha Chevallier and the Kawasaki, vice-world champion in 1981. And by the way: Alain Chevallier, the brilliant chassis builder in 1983 finished second in the constructors’ championship behind the Iwata manufacturer after mourning the death of his driver three years earlier. Brother Olivier, a talented rider.
But the list of runners is long: Jacque Bolle, Patrick Fernandez, Jean Luis Guignabodet, Guy Bertin, Bernard Fau, the elegant Christian Estrosi, who then also moved to 500, still wanted with the beautiful Catherine by her side, invariably enveloped in a cloud of Opium scent. And by the way : Estrosi is currently the mayor of the city of Nice!
And the number was even bigger: Dominique sarron, brother of Christian, Sibille – and I apologize for not citing them all – they were numerous and formed a very close-knit group, like the Spaniards today.
In those 80s, the French were strong: Raymond Roche, who would later win the Superbike World Championship in 1990 with Ducati, finished third in the 500cc World Championship with a Honda behind Lawson and Mamola, not exactly new kids on the block. To find another French champion, SBK had to wait until 2014 with Sylvain Guintoli.
Little by little, and we have not yet discovered the reasons, the number of French riders has decreased, to the point of becoming very rare. Arnaud vincent won the 125cc world championship in 2002, Mike di Meglio did the same in 2008, both riding an Aprilia.
These are the ones I remember, but I can’t fail to mention Alain Michel, although to win his world title with his LCR Krauser in 1990 he needed three wheels and the company of Simon Birchall and Jean-Marc Fresc in the basket’. Besides, the sidecar category has long been part of the liturgy of the world championship where we proudly declared ourselves to belong to the Continental Circus !.
Photos from the Internet, authors unknown.