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Reims still reigns

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On a chilly Monday in May, when on a vacation in the Aisne region, we made the short trip to Reims. The rest of the week would be filled enjoying the sight of castle ruins, cathedrals, '14-'18 memorials and petites villages. This morning would be entirely devoted to the derilict track of Reims-Gueux. That is, the track is still in use as public road but the pit buildings and grandstands are in a sorry state, as we learned from Darren Galpin's World Track Database at GEL Motorsport. But at least they are still there, as opposed to what we found - or rather, did not find - during our visit to Rouen-les-Essarts. Darren's track page also told us how to locate the track at the west of the city, although knowing its shape it is pretty easy to find on any Michelin map, since it's basically a huge triangle comprising of the N31 route nationale from Soissons to Reims, the D27 connecting the villages of Thillois and Gueux and a newer section of permanent circuit stretching towards Muizon which became open road by the name of D27e after the track closure in 1970. That's the Grand Prix circuit. Then there's the old circuit, which ran through Gueux village before bowing back to the North, crossing the later permanent track section at the Virage de la Houette before reaching Thillois straight (that's the long and ultrafast N31 bit) a bit further to the east at the Virage de la Garenne. This piece of road became a shortcut to the Grand Prix circuit once the passage through Gueux was cut off. It then became commonly known as the circuit d'essais or practice circuit. Today it is the D26 from Gueux to Châlons-sur-Vesle and Trigny.

Coming from our cottage near the Chemin des Dames - part of the '14-'18 front - we drove through Fismes to approach Reims from the West, driving on the N31. So at one point we were bound to be driving straight onto the 'circuit'. Our eyes jumping back and forth between the Michelin map and the surroundings we passed Muizon village and started looking for the road-side trees that made Virage de Muizon famous. On the right we saw some road blocks but did not pay any attention until we crested a brow and ducked steeply onto a flat plain. 'Hey, I know this!' I screamed, looking around while trying to keep my eyes on the road at the same time. It was not until we saw the restaurant La Garenne looming in the distance that we realised that those trees had been cut down - and it must have been very recently since the road sides were covered with piles of sand. There was some serious construction going on here... 'Oh no, not again...' Mariëlle sighed. But yes, as in Rouen, it seemed progress was rapidly catching up with the track.

Then, with La Garenne and Thillois corner in immediate vicinity: more road blocks. They had blocked the track! We could do nothing but drive straight on and follow the yellow Déviation signs to Gueux. Looking in our mirrors the red-and-white road blocks did not go away - they had actually put a huge barrier between us and the finish straight! Passing onto the D227 backroad around the east side of Thillois village to Gueux we snooped into Thillois itself and tried to find our way back to the track. Surely, there would be another way onto the D27. There wasn't. Leaving Thillois westward we ran onto another one of those wretched Route Barrée signs, followed by more road blocks. It looked like they did a good job of destroying the view on what was once a great corner - and a great photo opportunity as well, since the shots from inside the corner, with the restaurant in the background, are true classics in their genre. We got out of the car and walked past the barrier to take some pictures before thinking that there was no objection to becoming a bit naughty. Was anyone looking? Did anyone care? Hell, we had an AWD Subaru and hadn't come all this way for nothing. So we got back in, steered the Scooby onto the soft shoulder of the road and ploughed our way past the road block. Two seconds later we had an empty Reims finish straight in front of us.

Another minute later, parking the car in the middle of the track in front of the grandstands, we started to appreciate the detour that the French had laid out for the rest of the folk. With no-one around for miles there was an eerie silence enveloping the place. Would they have blocked the road because of the possible danger of pit buildings and grandstands collapsing under the weight of too many motorsport pilgrims? Feeling some of the concrete crumbling away under our feet we realized we couldn't really argue against that. We stayed around for a few quiet, almost solemn moments, imagining the sound of Mercedes, Maserati, Alfa and Ferrari V8s blasting across the finish line. Then we set out to follow the Gueux bypass to see where that led us.

To even more road blocks! With the village on our left we passed two more connecting roads - both blocked off - before bumping onto more barriers at the Virage de la Houette, which is in fact a crossroads of the permanent circuit section of the later Grand Prix track and the old circuit leaving Gueux towards the Virage de la Garenne. Across the road were more barriers, these ones even stretching across the road sides. The D26 however, which was part of the old circuit, was open for road traffic. It was beginning to look like it had been decided to block almost the entire Grand Prix circuit rather than just the start/finish straight. So the safety argument with regard to the ruinous, ramshackle pit complex wasn't the one responsible for all this. Could this mean another safety argument? Could this mean...? No, impossible. Reims pilgrims are hardly the sort of blokes to go speeding around the circuit, are they? But then again, there could be some reasoning behind blocking a crossroads in case a bunch of road racers on a hot lap would not be giving way all too readily...

Anyway, we turned the car and rallycrossed our way past another set of barriers blocking the exit of the Grand Prix circuit that follows the old circuit into Gueux. There we found that 'the old circuit' is really nothing more than a town street, with several fresh roundabouts curbing speeds that don't need curbing. Following through across the crossroads we had just approached from the other side we drove up to the N31 again to find the building site surroundings of the Muizon and Garenne corners. I could bring myself to take but one picture before getting in to say goodbye to a track that I fear is going the same way as Rouen very shortly. If you haven't seen Reims-Gueux yet, go there quickly, before it's too late.

The control tower is a former shadow of itself

They used to honour their greats

As is also proven by the name of the adjacent grandstand

On our way for a lap of Reims-Gueux

The Grand Prix track bows to the right, while the old circuit went straight on

The old circuit came into town from the right to continue straight on into the distance

Looking back to Gueux with the permanent Grand Prix section coming across from the left

The continuation of the permanent track towards the Virage de Muizon

Reconstruction fever has totally demolished the look of Muizon and Garenne corners

Just crested the hill, approaching Thillois corner

And this is where we came from: a view back onto the Thillois straight

The famous view of the restaurant de la Garenne at Thillois corner

The final blast to the finish

To the cheering of the fans in the Shell grandstand

One last view of the pit complex before we say goodbye