During the 1980’s a plethora of talented French drivers came through the national racing system of their home country. Many making it to F1. Alesi, Bernard, Grouillard, Dalmas and Panis were among them.
With the patronage of companies such as Elf, Camel and Marlboro there was a golden ladder that drivers could climb, if they had the talent and dedication to do so. Until recently, French motorsport had been in a depression. Between Olivier Panis’ final F1 drive at the 2005 Chinese Grand Prix and when Charles Pic and Jean-Eric Vergne made their debuts at Melbourne last spring, there was just an up and down two-year spell for Sebastien Bourdais in 2007/08 to represent an expectant populace. Since 2008 there has also been no French Grand Prix. For a nation that invented the sport when Monsieur Fossier got impatient for a ‘bit of sport’ between Neuilly Bridge and Bois de Boulogne in 1887, these were lean times.
All of this though was a world away for Didier Artzet, a driver who should have been included in the list of 80s and 90s hopes mentioned in the first paragraph. ‘Didi’ was instead, watching the Pacific Ocean wash over the rocks on Noumea beach and upon the southern tip of New Caledonia, an island 1000kms east of Australia. A special French collective island, New Caledonia is an idyllic place with open vistas, sensational beaches, seafood you could only dream of and a water sports mecca for thrill seekers and travelling gap year hobos.
Now, Noumea is home to perhaps one of the most naturally gifted drivers from that era of great Gallic expectation of the 80s and early 90s. Artzet was championed by many of his previous generation, notably Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and with very good reason.
Born and bred in Nice, ‘Didi’ had an early aptitude for balance and reflex skill, honed by riding motorbikes through the streets of his home city. After a brief acquaintance with French Formula Renault in 1985, Formula Three came easy, incredibly easy. In his second ever F3 race he qualified on the front row at Monaco, ahead of Modena, Caffi, Alesi and Donnelly, among others. A year later he did the job properly (see below), wiping the floor with the fierce competition. A virtual unknown, he left seasoned single-seater observers open-mouthed with his commitment and balletic skill at the wheel on the intricate streets of the Principality.
What should have become an incendiary rise up to F1 became a stagnant and frustrating fight against the more fashionable Alesi and Bernard, who became Camel and Elf’s chosen ones for a shot at Grand Prix glory. Artzet became a cliché. The fighter, who was great on the streets but was not, refined enough for F1. That was rubbish, primarily because he never got a chance.
‘Didi’ had a crack at F3000 but was still on the frayed shoestring of a budget that stymied him throughout. With indifferent machinery run by an inexperienced Apomatox team in 1990, he was still able to transcend the tools at his disposal. Qualifying 8th at Pau and finishing 3rd at Birmingham were typically gutsy performances. Bare-knuckled, reactive and full of flair his driving suited his character, as he admitted to Sniffer Media last month that he ‘maybe said what I thought too much and upset the bullshitters!’
By 1992 he’d had enough. The F1 promises never materialised and the promise of a sports car campaign with Toyota only amounted to a handful of races and the French F1 gravy train had reached a terminus in the shape of Loi Evin, who passed a bill in the French parliament in 1991 prohibiting alcohol and tobacco advertising, thus consigning who knows how many French talents to the outer reaches of the sport and beyond. Exasperated by ‘the bullshitters’ and the lack of chances to even test an F1 car, he got a one way ticket to Noumea and began his new life.
Didier still gets his fix over at Eastern Creek on his Superbike (he often gets close to the WSB lap records!), doesn’t hold grudges and enjoys the thrilling water sports and a lot of sunshine. He also catches the odd Grand Prix on the box as well. He particularly enjoys the street races!
Race of My Life – Didier Artzet
Monaco F3 Grand Prix, Monaco, May 30, 1987
This article first appeared in the 14th February edition of Autosport magazine
The 1987 Monaco F3 race was a huge breakthrough for me. Of course there were all the F1 bosses watching on the Saturday afternoon and I felt sure that I would have a chance in F1 after that weekend. As it turned out that was not to be but there are a thousand stories like that in racing!
The weekend was very intense because the previous year I had qualified on the front row and unbelievably it was only my second ever race in an F3 car. In fact I had only been racing in anything at all for less than a year. It seemed to come so easy and naturally on the streets of Monaco for me. I loved it there.
My team was called Monaco Sponsoring but really it was KTR (Keerbergs Transport Racing) and had lots of local Cote d’Azur companies helping with the budget. I was born and raised in Nice so there was a lot of interest because it was the home race for people that invested in the team. The pressure was really big, especially as Jean Alesi was on my arse all weekend!
The big boost for the team was that Jacky Eeckelaert was leading the engineering on our Ralt and he was a very strong guy when it came to understanding what I needed from the car. I ended up qualifying on pole by two-tenths but there was a big psychological battle with Alesi because as everyone knows he was very quick at street circuits and just about everywhere else too. But I was good as well and if you look through my career I had great results at Monaco, Pau and also at Birmingham in F3000 when I was 3rd there in 1990.
Even all those years ago the Monaco F3 race was still all about the start and how you got off the line. I was concentrating like crazy on the perfect clutch release but it was not perfect and Alesi got a slightly better start. At Saint Devote he was very close. We may have touched slightly but I shut the door and led up the hill. From then, every corner of every lap it was me and Jean together, doing crazy qualifying laps all the way to the chequered flag. We were at and over the limit by a big margin and touching the barriers every lap at Casino and Rascasse. On one occasion I remember laughing in my helmet when I saw him sideways coming out of Mirabeau.
Really good drivers like Herbert, Larini, Bernard and Schneider were also there that year but may as well have been in a different race to Jean and I. After the race I spoke with Jean and it turned out that we had quite different set-ups because he had a slight amount of oversteer, whereas I was more comfortable with a small amount of understeer. I did the fastest lap on the last tour and by the end I won by just over a second. That final push ‘broke’ Jean and I remember the relief of powering out of La Rascasse and seeing him slightly further away in my mirrors. On the podium our eyes were bulging and we were still in the moment. Great times.
The team was delighted and of course all the local business that we had as our partners had a big night of partying. For me, I was focused on trying to get an F1 chance and I spoke with a few team bosses. Ken Tyrrell was especially interested, but of course he needed some money and I just didn’t have access to any. Looking back I feel a small amount of disappointment but to be honest not that many people can say that they won at Monaco and did it by beating a future Ferrari driver at the same time.