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BARNES: France Poised to Take F1 Spotlight

By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief

A French Revolution in Formula 1 is upon us.

The racing talent that exists in France has long been considered in the upper echelon, but in Formula 1 it endured a depression of sorts.

Those days are over.

The country has enjoyed seeing the likes of Sebastien Loeb and Sebastien Ogier conquer World Rally Championships many times over, with the two combining to win the last 13 titles (Loeb 2004-’12, Ogier 2013-’16). It is quite possible that total will move to 14 with Ogier currently leading the standings by 17 points with just three rounds remaining.

In the Verizon IndyCar Series, Simon Pagenaud claimed five wins en route to the 2016 crown. While Sebastien Bourdais is a decade removed from his four consecutive Indy car titles (2004-’07), he continues to find a way to win races each and every season.

However, F1 has been a bittersweet symphony for France in recent years.

Alain Prost captured four titles (1985, ’86, ’89 and ’93), but sits as the country’s only world champion even to this day.

The return to glory looked all but assured with the Jules Bianchi. A driver with undeniable talent, he drove backmarker Marussia to their first ever points at the Monaco Grand Prix in 2014. A longtime Ferrari Academy driver, it appeared he would be the first French driver to dawn the famous rosso corsa overalls since Jean Alesi in 1995. However, Bianchi fell to the most unfortunate of circumstances and was fatally injured during the Japanese Grand Prix, just nine races after his overachieving performance in Monaco.

Romain Grojean was born in Switzerland, but holds dual citizenship and races under the French flag. He first burst onto the scene in 2009, but he became competitive mainstay in 2012. The 31-year-old has 10 podiums to his credit, but he is still searching for that elusive first victory.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing prospects is Esteban Ocon. The similarities between he and Bianchi are downright scary in many respects. While Bianchi’s path was with Ferrari, Ocon has sat patiently as the junior driver for Mercedes. His debut came last season in the Belgian Grand Prix with eight other solid performances to follow with the now-defunct Manor – formerly known as Marussia. Now driving for Force India, the 21-year-old has only failed to finish out of the points just once this season in 14 races. Ironically, that lone blemish on his year came at Monaco.

This weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix will also mark the debut of 2016 Formula 2 champion Pierre Gasly (pictured above), who replaces Daniil Kvyat at Scuderia Toro Rosso. It isn’t known yet which other races, if any, he will also be competing in this year. Also 21-years-old, Gasly is the favorite to replace the Renault-bound Carlos Sainz in 2018. He has also spent this year competing in Super Formula in Japan, and sits second in the standings with two races left to decide the championship.

When it goes lights out at Sepang International Circuit on Sunday, France will be level with Germany in having the most drivers represented on the grid with three apiece. With some lingering questions remaining about current drivers on the grid, notably Pascal Wehrlein, 2018 could see France take sole possession that claim.

The crepe capital of the world will also enjoy the return of the French Grand Prix, which last hosted a Formula 1 event in 2008. To further cement the historic nostalgia, that race will be run at Circuit Paul Ricard for the first time since 1990.

A proud country derailed by the tragedy of Bianchi and that hasn’t seen an F1 title for nearly 25 years, France looks poised to make their mark in the pinnacle of motorsports once more as their future looks as bright as ever.

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Joey Barnes is the Founder of Motorsports Tribune. He has covered auto racing since 2013 that has spanned from Formula 1 to NASCAR, with coverage on IndyCar. Additionally, his work has appeared on Racer, and Autoweek magazine. In 2017, he was recognized with an award in Spot News Writing by the National Motorsports Press Association.