I first met Philippe Gurdjian 11 years ago. The two days I spent with him, at the incredible facility he had created in the South of France, remain 48 of the most memorable and happy hours of my 13 years in motor racing.
His obituaries will speak of a circuit promoter for Paul Ricard and Magny Cours, organiser of the Spanish Grand Prix and latterly the man who helped create Sepang and Yas Marina. Few will talk of the man himself. Brightly coloured sweater draped over his shoulders, atop his immaculately fitted grey suit. That voice, gravelly and ever so French, yet warm and somehow familiar. That quiffed, slicked back head of grey hair. Standing before you with the stature of a man of tremendous importance and yet beholden of the humility of one on the bottom rung of a seemingly never ending ladder. And that smile and humour… so full of silliness, naughtiness and childish, impish innocence. A man so full of joy.
My first meeting with Philippe was on my first visit to Circuit Paul Ricard for an article I was writing for F1 Magazine. He was the first person I met, in the reception area of the Hotel du Castellet. He would become my personal tour guide over the next two days. Over the following years, he would become someone I got to know well. And came to like immensely.
In my article I described him as a Willy Wonka character, and the more I think of the man, the more I think that comparison to be a fair and accurate comparison. With each passing room on the tour his excitement grew along with his pride in what he had created. On arrival at the restaurant, I genuinely half expected him to announce he’d developed lickable wallpaper. With Philippe, anything and everything seemed possible.
He worked 20 hour days at Ricard to ensure everything was perfect. From the hotel to the airport to the go kart track to the circuit itself… everything HAD to be right. The pitlane featured strips of grass, pulled from the lawns at Biggin Hill. Those pink and blue lines were his idea, drawing from a passion and a talent for art. From the manner in which the trees were trimmed to the menu in the restaurant, Philippe oversaw everything.
He seemed to have an almost overwhelming need to find perfection. Was it obsession or simply passion? Perhaps it was a bit of both. His eccentricity was what made him so loveable, for without that mild tinge of madness, that beautiful creative element, he might have seemed a ruthless and relentless taskmaster rather than the glorious, visionary artist he truly was.
What he created in Malaysia set the tone for every new racing circuit we have seen in the last 15 years. What he went on to build at Circuit Paul Ricard pushed those boundaries further still. When he was called in to ensure that those on the ground in Abu Dhabi didn’t ruin the opportunity afforded to them, you could be in no doubt that what would be created would set that bar yet higher. When first we arrived at Yas Marina, one learned colleague wrote that Formula 1 would not see a more incredible facility until it raced on the moon.
That was Philippe’s gift. That will be his legacy.
I saw him last in Barcelona. His slicked back hair gone, his body frail, his walking stick now no longer for show but a necessity. I was rushing off, late for commentary of a championship that had taken me time and again to his beautiful creation in the South of France. A place I had come to call my second home. My happy place.
I wish, so dearly, I had just stopped even for a minute to embrace him and wish him well, as he always had done with me, through my days in GP2 and Formula 1, whenever we had seen each other. I promised myself that I would stop for a proper catch up when next I saw him.
I will never now have that chance.
Formula 1 lost one of its great architects today. More than that, it lost one of its great men. Aged just 69.
I liked Philippe Gurdjian very much. And I will miss him dearly.