After a win in Monaco and a second at Zandvoort, Jack Brabham led the drivers' championship with Jo Bonnier and Tony Brooks at the head of the chasing pack. Although Cooper-Climax, thanks largely to Brabham, was at the top of the constructors' race, Ferrari was the force to be reckoned with, and at Reims it fielded no fewer than five cars on the very fast, eight-mile, undulating circuit expected to suit it.
The teams and drivers were allowed the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on the track, with the Saturday designated as a rest day before the Sunday grand prix. The Ferraris proved well-suited to the circuit and on the first day Brooks set the fastest time, reaching 186mph at one point. Nobody came close to usurping him and he was even able to sit out the Friday sessions when times were generally slower in hotter conditions. On the Saturday the temperatures soared, causing the abandonment of a scheduled 12-hour race which was intended to precede the grand prix.
Brooks, in his first season with Ferrari, headed the grid with Brabham and American Phil Hill, also in a Ferrari, next to him. Behind them on the second row were Stirling Moss in a BRM, and Frenchman Jean Behra, with Bonnier one row further back. Moss had driven so fast in practice that more than once he had opted to head down an escape road rather than try to make turns.
Even on the warm-up lap on the Sunday, drivers could see there was a major problem. It had become so hot that the surface of the track was melting and, in parts, crumbling.
Brooks, in his front-engined Dino 246, got the best start, hotly pursued by Moss, who had brilliantly braked late at the first hairpin to take second place, with the Cooper of Masten Gregory flying through from the third row to join them. By the end of the first lap Brabham had slipped to fourth.
Back on the grid there was another drama playing out. Behra had stalled his Ferrari and had to have a push start. He was having a wretched time, increasingly at odds with his team who he suspected had downgraded him following the arrival of Brooks at the start of the season. So disgruntled was he that he was reported to have complained to marshals at Reims that Ferrari had deliberately given him a substandard car. "I don't know what Behra's problem was," Brooks recalled. "Perhaps he thought he should have been appointed number one driver. For my part, I just joined the team on the understanding that I was going to get a car as good as everybody else's."
Brooks at the front had a clear run, but behind him drivers and cars were having a terrible time. Aside from the heat, they were being sprayed with dirt and grit from the disintegrating track. Graham Hill was forced to retire when a stone punctured his radiator, while Gregory soon followed with cuts to his face. Harry Schell, who finished seventh, and Brabham had to pit to change smashed goggles. One enterprising pit crew used a watering can to drench their driver to try to cool him down.
By the tenth lap an incensed Behra had stormed almost recklessly into sixth place, smashing the lap record in the process, and by the halfway mark he was challenging Hill for second - but his efforts had taken a toll on his engine and soon after he limped into the pits. As it turned out, it was to be his last appearance in F1. Seething over what he believed was another betrayal by Ferrari, he got into a heated exchange with team manager Romolo Tavoni which culminated in Behra swinging a punch. He was fired almost immediately and was killed four weeks later when his Porsche crashed during a supporting event at the German Grand Prix.
Back in the race, the conditions continued to take their toll while Brooks maintained dominance. Local driver Maurice Trintignant was in second until he spun and was forced to push-start his car; Brabham briefly replaced him before being overtaken by Hill and then by Moss. However, Moss, who was driving superbly given he had suffered from gearbox failure, set a lap record before he stalled. Despite near exhaustion, he push-started his car and finished eighth, only to be disqualified for receiving outside assistance.
Eventually victory went to Brooks - "driving with calm, assurance and authority," wrote the Times - with Hill second and Brabham third. But afterwards, Brooks admitted it had been a closer run thing than the 28-second margin suggested. "About eight laps from the end the throttle got stuck and I had to drive three or four miles switching the ignition on and off," he told reporters. "Fortunately the trouble righted itself but it was certainly nasty at the time."
Almost amazingly, many of the drivers were back in action within the hour in a 25-lap Formula 2 race which followed. Moss gained some consolation with victory in Rob Walker's Cooper-Borgward.
Brooks went on to win his sixth and last grand prix in Germany a month later, although he finished second to Brabham in that season's drivers' championship. Had Ferrari competed in the British Grand Prix - their cars were marooned because of a strike in Italy - then he might have won the title. As it was, he quit the outfit at the end of the year, preferring to drive for a British team while he concentrated on his growing garage business in Surrey.
"To my mind Brooks is the greatest 'unknown' racing driver there has ever been," Moss wrote years later. "I say 'unknown'; because he's such a modest man that he never became a celebrity, as such. But as a driver, he was top drawer."