Accidentally traveling on a French Grand Prix circuit

The Reims-Gueux circuit deserves a stop on your next automotive pilgrimage to Europe.

Finding the Reims-Gueux Grand Prix circuit is akin to accidentally walking on stage during a Shakespeare play in progress and somehow finding yourself in the lead role. Not that you should ever just find an abandoned strip of racing history in the middle of a French two-lane road. But if and when you do, and you just might, treat it as a link to your automotive passion that you can’t believe still exists. Because it’s hard to believe this place still exists.

Approach Reims-Gueux — the Western Wall of an epoch of bygone motor racing — as a living museum, and come prepared to be astounded. Reims-Gueux was originally a street course of about four to five miles in length. Formula 1 raced here. Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio set lap records here. “Here,” by the way, is a strip of road just outside the city of Reims, in the Champagne region of northeast France. There’s a famous cathedral that once crowned kings, and the surrounding area is pastoral, quiet.

Today, Reims-Gueux is canonized among the world’s most remembered street circuits because of the generosity of the people of France to preserve its memory. The course was established in the mid-1920s and saw racing action until the late ‘60s, and what remains today is a simple stretch of two-lane road, the former front straight now more commonly known as D27, (or Route Touristique du Champagne). What distinguishes it from any other stretch of French secondary road, however, is the pit lane and the ancient grandstands that flank either side. The community of Gueux has inadvertently created every young, newly licensed driver’s dream: two-lane blacktop that briefly turns into a race track, cheering section and all.

Despite its reliance — like so many circuits from those bygone days — on public roads, it’s remarkable that any of the Reims circuit still exists, even in a country with such strong roots in racing both past and present. About a quarter-mile of history is preserved here in a way that only Europe can pull off, complete with several familiar motorsport logos from days past: Elf, Marchal, Zenith. It’s maintained, yes, but with the goal of capturing a moment stopped in time. It’s like a temporary installation you might expect to find at the Goodwood Revival, only it remains indefinitely. A painted sign on the far end of pit lane reads something to the effect of (pardon my French): “The town of Gueux and the Friends of the Circuit of Gueux welcome you!” Picture that kind of slogan plastered on a billboard at an abandoned NASCAR track in North Carolina. You can’t.

When you arrive, park your car and get out and walk around a bit. The paint is peeling in some places, sure, but it’s easy to imagine there’s a guy whose job it is to smooth over the imperfections and keep it looking as original as possible. There are fences surrounding the grandstand, but there are also ways around them. Climb the booth above pit lane and look across the straight, where it’s equally easy to imagine Fangio and Briton Stirling Moss and American Phil Hill wheel to wheel at 150 mph before thousands of roaring fans.

WHEN IN REIMS…
As for the six McLarens shown here? Reims-Gueux happened to be a waypoint along a trans-European route that connected McLaren’s factory in Woking, England, to the Geneva Motor Show. A shorter and certainly more boring itinerary would have directed the group of 570S and 650S coupes along the highway as quickly as possible, but everything made sense once Reims-Gueux came into view. If you’re going to visit a memorable racetrack, after all, it helps to show up in a memorable car — or six.

Just prior to our arrival early on a weekend morning, a local club of Mini owners had arranged a meet at the far end of pit lane. Under other circumstances, and in any other location, they might have been puzzled to see four 570S coupes flanked by two persimmon 650S coupes in an effort to stage a photo shoot, Not here, though. This is a place for memorable cars to congregate, and with the troupe lined up against the wall facing the grandstand, it felt heroic. Bruce McLaren himself earned a win at the Reims circuit in 1962, seven years before the track was relegated to the local citizenry.

Reims-Gueux is the United Nations of road courses, international ground that remains unaffected by the rest of the world and the passing of time. It’s not a memorial. It’s real life, with a past, present and future. Visiting the open remnants of a historic circuit is as much the duty of any automotive enthusiast as exploring caves is to the occasional speleologist. Go there, as soon as you can.

As we departed the circuit to resume our journey to Geneva, the collective howl of 48 cylinders ricocheted against the grandstand and carried for who-knows-how-far into distance. Heroism takes many forms.

Roaring exhaust notes, exeunt McLarens.

McLaren provided the test vehicle as part of a first-drive program.

2016 McLaren 570S
3.8-liter biturbo V-8, 562 horsepower, 443 pound-feet torque
7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
16 mpg city / 23 mpg highway
Base price: $184,900 (excluding destination charge)