Only a few years ago, in the posters of the races in Great Britain, it could often happen to read, to entice spectators to flock to the circuits:
"It will be a great show of noise and speed".
Today, however, in the midst of the current ecological campaigns, between speed limits, more or less for energy saving and worrying calculations of hair dryer, we will see less and less of these emphatic statements. Indeed, the possibility of them being literally overturned. New Zealand journalist Eoin Young worried in his regular column a few weeks earlier:
"Racing is one of the few areas of motorsport where it seems no one has made an effort to reduce noise. But we're certainly not far from it, and the laws will be tough when they come. In motorcycle racing, raucous multi-cylinder machines must lower their noise below 105 decibels; for speedboats, the limit is 95 decibels. Under the U.S. Noise Pollution Act, many of the small dirt tracks near cities are being closed, and many others must be run with mufflers. But Americans are also concerned that government legislation, in states like California, will make desert tracks off the road".
Perhaps that's why Csi is concerned, and there are many who espouse Paul Frére's thesis, which by now is already ready to take over rally and silhouette racing. All this explains the big push for the turbo, which becomes the cheapest and most powerful silencer. And that's why it will end up, as Ferrari says, supplanting atmospheric engines:
"Even I, who twenty-five years ago decreed the end of the supercharger, will have to readjust to have one studied...which is already in advanced preparation".
Nevertheless, Ford, which a decade ago subsidized the eight-cylinder Cosworth engine for Formula 1 Grand Prix in a very critical moment for the British teams, from London, on June 17, 1976, let it be known that it had decided to intervene again with an allocation of 500.000 pounds for the preparation of a new engine at atmospheric pressure able to compete successfully with the power of Ferrari. The new engine will be developed by Cosworth that will give it, as it has done so far for its DFV, to any team that requests it. Since several units will have to be set up before starting the sales, the new engine will probably only be in action at the end of the next season or at the beginning of 1978.
Moving on to the topic related to the drivers, the news that has been circulating for some time now seems to be almost a certainty: Niki Lauda could run for Tyrrell. The reason of this choice can be understood keeping in mind two things, one happened recently, the other since a long time. Let's start from the second one: it is now a widespread opinion, in the Formula 1 world, that Lauda wins because he drives a Ferrari, considered the best car in the lot of the current single-seaters. Those who know Lauda outside of racing say that the Austrian, considered a shy man, is always very shaken by these remarks.
Lauda, in order to silence these criticisms, and also in light of the results obtained in Maranello with the development of the World Champion car, has convinced himself and wants to convince himself that he (and not the car) is the winning component of Ferrari. For this reason it is probable that he will go to Tyrrell, where Depailler could go instead of Scheckter, because now with the six wheels the South African has become an estimator of Tyrrell and Gardner. Depailler would then go to Ligier, which would have found the money for the second car from Gitanes, as long as the driver was French.
Lauda would have chosen Tyrrell also because he is convinced of the validity of Gardner's chassis and of the choice of the six wheels. In addition to Tyrrell there are two news coming: the next new Cosworth engine, and/or the possibility to mount the Renault turbo. The other option would be the Williams: Walter Wolf, the austro-canadian millionaire who bought all the Hesketh to pass the material to the Williams, founding a team in his name, is obviously not happy with the performances obtained not only from Ickx, considered his biggest disappointment, but also from the inexperienced Leclére, and perhaps of the same Frank Williams, who until now has not been able to do much despite having an excellent material available.
Wolf, about whom some people have made a research at English, American and Swiss banks, has proved to be an economic power of availability, liquid and not, more than excellent. It would be Wolf who would have offered Lauda to finance a Formula 1 car made by the Ferrari driver with which he could race himself, a bit like the Fittipaldi-Coopersucar solution. Those who know Lauda well say that he has never hidden his desire to build his own car. But the possibility to pass to Tyrrell seems in truth more real, also because Lauda wants to recover in earnings. In Ferrari, in fact, to be a World Champion he receives very little money, about one third of what the two greatest showmen of the Circus, Fittipaldi and Stewart, earned with the world title in their pockets. Enzo Ferrari reportedly confided to a friend recently:
"They are trying to take Lauda from me. It's a shame, because today someone like him is hard to find".
As Lauda leaves Ferrari, who will go to replace him? With the push of his particular patron who for now pays him at March, the Ferrari star could become Peterson, the Swede who recently refused to move to Ligier. Perhaps also Regazzoni will sign up with Ferrari, and to leave him would be offered for liquidation a Fiat dealership in Lugano. Nowadays, the two who earn the most in Formula 1 are always Fittipaldi and Peterson. The latter has also been contacted by the First National City Bank, which is leaving Penske next year and has proposed to the Swede an engagement of 225.000.000 liras, the same amount of Copersucar to Fittipaldi. It must be said that before the Swedish Grand Prix, exactly on Wednesday, Ronnie and Tyrrell met in an unknown place and they talked for two hours.
About Fittipaldi, the 720 general managers of the sugar cooperative (Copersucar) have given Emerson back his confidence for next year. Despite more than disappointing results, the contract expiring at the end of the year was reaffirmed. In fact, Copersucar would have hired a designer, officially to fine tune the current car, but actually to have him make a new one for 1977. The last one, in this jumble of market rumors states that Reutemann has declared that at the end of the year he will leave Brabham, because he is unhappy. He could be also a candidate to replace the Austrian at Ferrari, while the second driver to be placed side by side to Peterson, has not been chosen yet, but he could be Brambilla, also tired of the current situation of the March.
In the days preceding the French Grand Prix weekend the drought is felt, despite the optimistic information that television continues to broadcast to calm the alarmed French. At Castellet the town hall communicates that it is not able to provide water because the reservoirs are in crisis; the drought forces the organizers to use the reservoir of the Paul Ricard circuit, but the water is absolutely not drinkable. In anticipation of the French Grand Prix, the Belgian driver Jacky Ickx, after the victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, returns on the Wolf Williams; the other Belgian Patrick Nève replaces Chris Amon on the Ensign, having been injured in the Swedish Grand Prix and therefore not being in perfect shape, after running the Belgian Grand Prix with the Brabham managed by RAM.
Just at RAM the British driver Damien Magee takes the place of Jac Nelleman. Magee's only participation in the Formula 1 world championship was in the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix, at the wheel of a Williams. A second Hesketh is also entered by Penthouse Rizla Racing for Guy Edwards, who had been missing in the world championship since the 1974 German Grand Prix, raced with a Lola from Hill's team. Also the Copersucar lines up again a second car, always for Ingo Hoffman. Henri Pescarolo also returns, with his Surtees of the Norev Team, while the Boro does not appear. Initially Ligier announced the engagement of the other French driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, coming from Shadow, on a second car to be driven alongside Jacques Laffite. Jarier had been preferred to Jean-Pierre Beltoise. However, afterwards Jarier is not confirmed, then this last participates to the Grand Prix still with the Anglo-American team.
Saturday 3 July 1976 there are twenty-two minutes to the end of the official tests, the last day valid for the search of the most valid positions of departure. On the track all the top drivers go down and check each other, but none of them manages to improve. Lauda tries desperately to get the best time, but suddenly Lauda's engine stops working and the Austrian driver sadly returns to the pits, signalling Cuoghi and Audetto, who hurriedly go to meet him. During the last tests Lauda heard a noise (a valve, he will then tell Forghieri), and he preferred not to risk a more serious breakdown, abandoning even in this way the possibility of beating Hunt for the first position.
Hunt has the satisfaction of this time set in the second practice session on Friday, the best, in 1'47"89. Lauda has been slower of only twenty-seven hundredths of a second, after that for a technical irregularity the commissioners had decided to not consider valid the times of the two Ferraris established in the first session of practice on Friday, July 2, 1976. In the first session of tests the best time is that of Carlos Pace, that with the Brabham-Alfa runs in 1'48"75, clearly leaving everyone behind. The car, with the air intakes finally bigger, to give way to the engine to breathe freely, shows itself to the height of the situation, and also the engines brought in hurry on Friday night from the blue truck of the Autodelta driven by Calloni - more pushed engines, with 525 horses at 12.500 rpm - make well in the tests.
It's a pity only that on Pace's car a water sleeve breaks, and for this reason the engine loses power, six hundred rpm less, not being able to approach the time made in the first session (losing even almost a second). Also the other Brabham-Alfa driven by Reutemann has some problems, such as the water radiators that are too small, despite the fact that the Alfa technicians and Carlo Chiti told them that they had to mount larger specifications. The result was to have the water temperature on both cars at one hundred degrees, until they were changed.
At Le Castellet the - almost - De Dion bridge of the Ferrari 312 T2 is finally seen in official test: the event is followed with curiosity and interest by all the mechanics present at the pits. However, the results provided by the tests, even if they cannot be considered definitive (it is to be believed that the development of this solution can be more advanced) are not such as to suggest the adoption of the novelty for the race. The reigning World Champion did many laps with and without the De Dion bridge with the new 05039 compound tires made especially by Goodyear for this solution. The results were in favor of the De Dion by a hundredth of a second, but given the small advantage Lauda prefers to continue with the four independent wheels, with which he has more experience. The three cars brought to Paul Ricard, including the mule, are therefore prepared with the normal suspension for the free practice on Saturday morning.
It is however a necessity, it seems, this adoption of the De Dion bridge, because also the Zeltweg tests with the Goodyear confirmed that, with the new hard compounds, the 312 T2 is not able to express itself at its best, just because its particular geometry of the suspensions (that now are being revised) does not warm up the tire in order to guarantee the full stability and use of power to the wheels. Lauda's best lap with the De Dion bridge is 1'49"87, without 1'49''88. However, these times will then be first cancelled, both for Lauda and Regazzoni, who had turned in 1'50''20.
At Ferrari they try various types of ailerons, to choose the most suitable for the characteristics of the circuit. The three ailerons are those marked with the initials Q7, Q10, while the third one does not yet have an identification code. The real novelty, however, is the presence on Lauda's car, in the first official tests, of partial fairings on the front wheels, which had already been seen at the time of the presentation of the T2 at Maranello, and which had already been considered not fully compliant with the rules on appendages having an aerodynamic function. Mauro Forghieri tries to pass them off as air intakes for cooling the brakes, but the version is not accepted.
At the end of the day, the first in view of the French Grand Prix, Hunt improves and takes the lead of the time classification, with 1'47"89 that will allow him to start on the first row. Behind Hunt follow Lauda and Depailler, who struggles to set up the car according to his needs, then Regazzoni who improved the time (cancelled) of the morning by turning in 1'48"69, and that he will not be able to beat on the last day of practice. Andretti, with his Lotus, obtains the sixth time: the Italian-American is happy with the car and the performance obtained, even if he honestly says that he expected something more. Andretti also confesses that the engine at Anderstorp was broken due to the failure of a valve. The same defect that appeared on the Tyrrell of Depailler (who had the same engine as Anderstorp) after just two test laps at the Nurburgring.
Peterson, who in the morning had run three laps before breaking the engine, managed to run in the afternoon and set a pretty good time, 1'49''29, which earned him the seventh position. Scheckter, with the second six-wheeler, breaks an arm of the right front suspension and cannot try. Gardner and Tyrrell change as a precaution all the suspensions to both cars, because they judge the breakage due to metal fatigue. Reutemann, Watson, Laffite and Jarier follow Scheckter, while Stuck, who had problems first with the gearbox and then with the engine, cannot do better than 1'50"31, which gives him the thirteenth position. Behind him are Mass and Brambilla. The driver from Monza, very fast on the Mistral straight, has problems with the set-up in the mixed track and he has to load the car aerodynamically to stay on the road. Vittorio will try to do better in the last tests on Saturday, and he will succeed.
Fittipaldi (who, his friends swear, believes that the Copersucar has been made a macumba) is only nineteenth, with the usual problem of the car that has an unstable rear axle. The Brazilian driver is unable to improve a mediocre time, and the fault is certainly not his. Merzario, after the exciting Swedish race, has a poor engine performance in these first tests, but it is replaced in the evening, in view of the last day of tests. Ickx breaks the engine, while Hoffmann has problems with the Copersucar and closes the list of the thirty participants for the twenty-six places at the start of the race. In the last hour of Friday practice, after the technical protest of the stewards towards the Ferrari for the too aerodynamic air intake, suggested by Ligier and brought forward by Crombac, the Ferrari tries with the regular air intakes and, as said, improves the time that will be then, with a debatable decision, cancelled.
The nervousness in the Ferrari box is present not only in the drivers, but also in the managers and in the mechanics, to the point that, while a group of journalists is talking to the engineer Forghieri, who is defending his front brakes from Crombac's attack, they are all thrown out by the mechanics. Shortly afterwards Cuoghi too throws himself on the journalists present, and invites them with very brusque manners to go and disturb somewhere else. In the non timed tests on Saturday, which last an hour and a half, despite the strong heat, the best time is obtained by Lauda turning in 1'48"2; behind him Regazzoni, with 1'48''9, while Hunt obtains a time of 1'49"1. Merzario obtains the same time as Reutmann with Martini-Brabham, 1'50"2: the car is okay and Arturo hopes a lot in the tests valid for the line-up. Depailler and Brambilla run in 1'49"4, Scheckter in a tenth more, while even with a full tank of fuel Lauda is the fastest, with a time of 1'49"94. Stuck breaks the oil pump of his March and the mechanics set to work to change the engine, hoping to make it for the last hour of timed practice.
Also Andretti is victim of a breakage: the pinion splits after not even one practice lap, and the Italian-American driver will be forced to miss the whole session, after he had changed the whole car compared to Friday's practice to try to have a Lotus even more competitive than the already good one of the first practice. Pace, with the Brabham-Alfa runs in 1'49"5, showing once again that the power of the Italian engine is a reality, while Reutemann with some small problems cannot do better than 1'50"2. In the last hour of practice it is suffocatingly hot: the thermometer reads 32° atmospheric, the track is dirty and there are many doubts about being able to do better than Friday. Few people improve, only Peterson, Watson, Scheckter, Brambilla, Nilsson, Mass, Pryce, Ickx, Merzario, Fittipaldi, Hoffmann and Ertl.
Brambilla, who breaks his engine at the end of the practice, is on the sixth row next to Nilsson, who is slowed down by multiple gearbox and engine problems. Better than Nilsson is Andretti, who is on the fourth row with a time of 1'49"79. Mario is convinced of the possibilities of this Lotus and seems to have convinced Chapman to postpone the debut of the new car, which will be presented at Brands Hatch. Ligier was in crisis and hoped to make a good impression on this home circuit. But new and unresolved problems for Laffite, who is perplexed because he doesn't recognize his car, relegate the team to the seventh row, alongside Mass.
In the last rows there is Ickx, who seems to be able to run his hundredth Grand Prix (and in the meantime he consoles himself with his new passion, the bicycle, winning a race and the 2.000.000 lira prize on the circuit of Castellet), followed by his companion Leclère. Fittipaldi is always in crisis; followed by Pescarolo, Lunger, Neve who substituted Amon who still has pain after the exit in the last Grand Prix, and Edwards. The two Brabham-Tissot driven by Magee and Kessel, the Copersucar driven by Hoffmann and the Hesketh driven by Ertl are not classified for the start, but they will be able to start anyway. At the end of the tests, according to Ferrari's sporting director, Audetto, Lauda's lack of pole position was due to Ferrari's failure to have tested on this circuit as the others had done. Goodyear would have invoked as an excuse the safety asked of Ferrari to test at the Nurburgring and in Austria, which the Maranello team did. Jackie Stewart states:
"Yes, Hunt went strong, I went to see the cars along the course, at the end of the pit straight, undoubtedly at the S the McLaren is the most stable ever. This does not mean that the race will be won by Ferrari".
Undoubtedly this is the general opinion at the end of the tests, not because Hunt's is a lonely exploit (McLaren is competitive and has demonstrated it, even if after Spain it has fallen very low), but rather we are surprised by how the Ferrari's advantage over its adversaries, that for two years now has often come close to a second, has now almost disappeared. In fact, now there are even some cars that are faster in testing, and it is no coincidence that at Paul Ricard McLaren presents its cars with the side radiators no longer parallel to the axis of the car, but inclined with convergence towards the front (the displacement of the oil radiators located under the rear wing by less than an inch had significantly compromised the air flow, diminishing the aerodynamic effect of the airfoil).
The British teams are not surprised by this, and a quick investigation reveals that the British have worked hard on aerodynamics in recent times, partially gaining the disadvantage in engine power that they had until recently against Ferrari. Waiting for the new Cosworth engine, for now super secret, the teams competing with Ferrari try to gain by working on aerodynamics. For its part, Ferrari works on new solutions, such as the De Dion bridge, which very soon, as soon as Goodyear will provide the required tires, will be mounted on the front axle. Lauda, finished the tests with about twenty minutes to spare, will say in view of the race:
"It will be very important not to have understeer, in the race, after ten laps they will all be understeering cars, who will have less will win".
In a long discussion with Forghieri, Lauda will decide to start with a lot of oversteer, in order to have as little understeer as possible after the ten laps. Hunt, on his part, has no doubts:
"I will win, we have tuned the car as in Spain, and we are stronger. Moreover, my engine suffers less the heat than the Ferrari's one".
While Patrick Depailler talks about the excessive disturbance coming from the wind:
"We couldn't improve in the last round of practice, too much heat and too much wind in the Mistral straight".
Carlos Pace, finally fifth with his Brabham-Alfa, analyzes the situation saying:
"After Friday's engine, to which unfortunately a water sleeve broke with relative small seizure, I haven't had an engine like that anymore. In the other tests I had up to six hundred laps less than the first engine. Now I think the car is very competitive, we improve every Grand Prix, and soon we will be competitive with the top guys."
Ronnie Peterson, who follows in sixth place, admitted:
"I couldn't test much because the first day I broke the engine right away, in the last hour of practice. In the Mistral straight, depending on whether the wind was high or low, my March tended to rise in speed. If I hadn't had this mishap I think I could have done even better".
While Mario Andretti, who will start from seventh place, confesses:
"I thought I would start further ahead, but the differential broke in the penultimate practice and I could not set the car up for the last decisive hour".
Brambilla, in the pursuit of a time up to his possibilities, hit the kerb at the chicane and flew in the air for a good meter, falling back and restarting in an instant:
"My time could have been better if in the last minutes I hadn't broken the engine, just when there were few cars on the track and we could have tried to make a good time. It's a pity, because my March is very fast, even if I had to load it a little bit because I was very fast in the straight - 312 km/h - but then I had no grip in the mixed race".
Arturo Merzario, only twentieth with his March, says:
"They wanted to remove the air intake, and from that moment on, even though I wanted it, they didn't put it back on, with the result that the engine was quite good, but it didn't work very well".
And finally a desperate Emerson Fittipaldi talks about the enormous problems encountered with the development of the Coopersucar:
"The usual problems, the rear of the car goes away from me from all sides, we changed all the suspension geometries, and even with those at Interlagos, nothing...I just don't know."
From the point of view of the tires, during training Goodyear makes people try different tires on the first day, but then imposes those type 14 for the second and for the race, for safety reasons, since there had been cases of tread separation. So, hard compound tires, as in Brazil and South Africa. In the interlude between one test and the next, Brabham wins against Shadow the second round of the Marlboro Goodyear Pit Stop Competition, consisting in changing the four Formula 1 tires faster. Brabham with its mechanics takes 20.94 to change the tires, beating also the record set in Sweden by Brabham-Tissot which was 30.09.
The Brabham team receives a prize of about 400,000 liras from Gitanes. With this exploit, Ecclestone's team qualifies for the final whose prize is £ 3.000.000. The next race will be held at Brands Hatch, and McLaren and Wolf will be competing. Amidst the hilarity of the moment, an Italian journalist, a close friend of engineer Chiti, lends his Benelli Caddy mini-bike to Bernie Ecclestone, owner of Brabham. Ecclestone, while starting the race, raises the front wheel and falls ruinously to the ground, injuring his right leg.
Ickx wins also his Grand Prix...in bicycle, in front of a swarm of colleagues and of James Hunt that arrives to the finish line on foot with the bicycle in shoulder, after having cut the circuit covering the shortest stretch. Ickx wins £ 1.800.000, but perhaps his colleagues did not know that the Belgian is seriously thinking of racing as a professional on two wheels. In fact, when he can, he trains with an Eddy Merckx. During the trials, riders and pit men were continuously flown over by low-flying competition planes. On board were air pilots training for the upcoming Aerial Grand Prix, which will take place at the circuit in a couple of months. The planes will have to follow the track from above and cut certain milestones.
In France, Sante Ghedini is missing, and in this regard various Ferrari personalities give different versions to justify the absence: from illness to tiredness, from family commitments to work commitments for the modified Fiorano track. In reality, Ghedini seems to be tired of being at Ferrari, and if he hasn't left already, he will very soon. After the confirmation of the Canadian Grand Prix, even though it has been postponed for a week, the possibility of holding the Formula 1 Research Grand Prix in Imola, the week after the Italian Grand Prix, has disappeared. The intercontinental transfers of the Circus dampened the hopes of the Imola organizers. On the other hand, at the autodrome, despite the heat, work was being done to complete the long-standing work on the track and the plant, while waiting for the final visit of the CSI inspectors.
It is exactly 15:00 on Sunday, July 4, 1976 when the traffic lights of Castellet, in rapid succession, starts the French Grand Prix, the eighth round of the Formula 1 World Championship. There is a threat of rain in the distance, on the side of the Mistral straight, but then the wind changes and the threat of rain is dispelled. The marshals are slow to clear the starting straight, and when all twenty-seven cars start there are still people on the track on the right side who almost get run over by Laffite's Ligier, who throws himself all the way to the right to gain some positions.
Lauda, with his 500 horsepower released on the ground with a perfect accelerator dosage, is immediately ahead of Hunt, his direct rival. The order of the passages, at the end of the first lap, is as follows: Lauda, Hunt, Regazzoni, Peterson, Depailler, Watson, Scheckter, Laffite, Pace, Reutemann, Mass, Brambilla, Andretti, Stuck. Unbelievable but true, they start in twenty-seven instead of twenty-six, because there is also Ertl, who was the third reserve and was ready to eventually take the place of someone who had not started at the last minute.
At the edge of the track they are waiting for the events, because in a long speech before the start with Hunt, the nice blond had confided that at the start it would have been Lauda to have the upper hand, because he had chosen to start with old tires that had already done fifty laps, slower at the beginning but better balanced in the context of the race. Lauda's advantage is really impressive in the first laps: the Austrian repeatedly lowers the lap record until he sets, on the fourth lap with a full tank of petrol, the best time of 1'51"0. The top positions are unchanged since the first laps. Only Scheckter has passed Watson.
During the first lap Peterson passes Depailler at the end of the long Mistral straight, as does Jody Scheckter with Laffite. The following lap the South African also passes Watson, while Laffite loses another position, to the advantage of Pace. Shortly after at the fifth lap, Mass stops at the pits because he has touched Reutemann and has to change the front nose: the German was in eleventh position. Also Ertl's race ends at the fifth lap for a transmission failure, before the black flag is shown. Lauda's advantage increases visibly: the Austrian spares nothing of his Ferrari, running an average of 1'51"0 against Hunt's average of 1'52"0. At the ninth lap the shock: it's exactly 3:18 p.m. and during the ninth lap Lauda doesn't pass under the finish line, because he has broken the engine at the chicane ending his race with a spin caused by the sudden stop of the engine. Angry Lauda will reach the pits with his feet.
At the 10th lap Hunt has an advantage of 1"6 on Regazzoni, followed by Peterson, Depailler, Scheckter, Watson, Pace Laffite, Brambilla, Stuck, Reutemann, Andretti, the two Shadow and Merzario, who with the March has gained several positions. During the eleventh lap Depailler takes back the third position to the detriment of the Swedish driver of the March; few laps later he will be passed also by the other Tyrrell driver, Jody Scheckter.
Lap 18: it's 3:36 p.m. when the same thing happens to Regazzoni as to Lauda. Suddenly the engine stops, and also the driver from Ticino is victim of a spin, stopping at the edge of the track. In less than half an hour the two Ferraris are out of the race. During the two days three engines broke down: it had not happened since time immemorial. We have to go back to the German Grand Prix of 3 August 1975 to find a Ferrari engine failure: on that occasion, it happened to Regazzoni. For Lauda, we have to go back even further: Niki's last engine broke at Monza, as did Clay, in September 1974. The last time Lauda retired in a Grand Prix valid for the World Championship was on 27th April 1975, on the occasion of the unfortunate Spanish Grand Prix.
Hunt leads the race, with a considerable advantage over Depailler and Scheckter. The two Tyrrell are proving once again to be competitive. Follows Peterson who is doing a great race, helped by a good March, very fast and stable. Also Carlos Pace is doing a remarkable race with his Brabham, followed by Laffite, Stuck with his March finally in order after two days of very troubled tests, Reutemann with road holding and ignition problems, Pryce, and Merzario who still gained positions and passed Jarier in difficulty for the grip.
The leading positions remain frozen until the twenty-ninth lap, when Watson passes Ronnie Peterson, author of an unfortunate attack on Scheckter, while Vittorio Brambilla stops because of the engine failure. The following lap Laffite, who is seventh, makes an error that forces him to spin. He thus loses several positions. On lap thirty-three Hunt's time, which on average is just under 1'52"0, on this lap is 1'52"71. Peterson is making a magnificent run and passes Watson. The race at this point lives on the magnificent comeback of Peterson and Watson: the swedish driver at the thirty-fifth lap passes also Scheckter, and he is unleashed turning faster than Hunt and all the group of the first positions.
At the forty-first lap Watson is fourth, after having passed Scheckter who has problems with his engine that loses strokes, perhaps due to a spark plug wire that came off. The South African of Tyrrell continues bravely, but loses many positions. Hunt, with an advantage of fourteen seconds on Depailler, continues to run very fast, also because the Frenchman seems to be content (rightly) with the second position. At the forty-ninth lap both John Watson and Pace overtake Jody Scheckter, penalized by a technical problem.
It seems all over, but when three laps are missing to the end Peterson passes signaling that he has some problem, and the following lap he fails to transit: then it will be known that the petrol pump is broken, and the Swede's car remains desolately stopped along the path. Always in the same lap Mario Andretti passes Scheckter and goes up in fifth position. At this point Watson is third and the positions do not change until the end. Hunt wins, who crosses the finish line ahead of Depailler and Watson. Fourth is Pace with the Brabham-Alfa that this time has finally worked properly, even if at the end the Brazilian driver will complain saying that he had no oil pressure.
In fifth position is Andretti with the Lotus, not perfectly at ease on this track due to an accentuated oversteer. Scheckter follows, who managed to reach the end with an engine that was not fully functional, Stuck, author of a good, fast and combative race, Pryce, who did not do any overtaking and concluded a mediocre race, and Merzario, who was very fast, even though he did not risk much in the final part of the race because the oil pressure was at zero in the right turns.
There are undoubtedly two key moments in this French Grand Prix, and both concern Ferrari and its drivers' retirements, first and second when their engines broke down. It had never happened that Ferrari broke three engines in two days, Lauda in practice and both Lauda and Regazzoni during the race. Maybe Lauda, in the heat of the race in the first nine laps, pushed too much? Many people ask: actually the Austrian's advantage was very high, even if afterwards at the pits he clarified that he had not gone very fast and that he had not forced the car too much. But the results of the first laps prove him wrong. In fact, the lap record is his, in fourth, with a full tank of gasoline. Moreover, from the official readings it is clear that Lauda actually pulled against Hunt and his teammate Regazzoni, who on his part did not spare anything.
Lauda was always faster than Hunt, his direct rival, until he inflicted about seven seconds on him and thirteen seconds on Regazzoni. This shows that the Austrian drove very hard, pulling at the maximum, just as Regazzoni will do against Hunt in his pursuit, resolved with another broken engine for Ferrari. Ferrari were defeated once again, after the disappointment of Sweden, which was foreseeable, but they were not beaten. If in Sweden the defeat was effective, due to multiple causes and in a certain sense logical, on the track of Paul Ricard we are witnessing a real accident, of those that can happen and that do not affect the actual quality of cars that are still very good and that will still have the opportunity to prove it.
James Hunt won, and it was a nice thing, and the Ferraris did not arrive. Two engines that stop suddenly, almost at the beginning of the race, are indeed unpleasant, but precisely because the incident happened so suddenly, and with such identity for the two cars, it must be interpreted for what it exactly is: a weakness of any part, which has not withstood the strain, and which will probably say at the examination that it was defective. The Ferraris have missed the expectations of many people that not only from Italy had come to see them win, for the rehabilitation after the Swedish events. People were mortified, but it was not a defeat, because when Lauda had to stop, after zigzagging on the straight with the wheels blocked, he was clearly in the lead, and when Regazzoni stopped, after the blocked wheels in the curve had thrown him into the protection nets, he was close to Hunt.
The race was won by James Hunt, who in practice and in race was the only real opponent for the Ferrari. The man is good, and even if recently his personal problems had become complicated, it seems that he has regained high morale, which helps a lot. In practice and in the race it was the Ferrari and McLaren that impressed the most, for their road holding and for the relative ease they gave to the drivers. The others all had some negative aspect, in a scale of values that goes down to the incredible Williams, that forced their drivers to the strangest things.
He says, Hunt, that he was calm even when Lauda left so peremptorily at the beginning. He says that he started with used tires, while the Ferraris started with new tires, and that the tests had promised that the tires used here could last for two Grands Prix, not just one, so he had made his choice with a specific purpose. The Ferrari's new tires, according to Hunt, would have caused imbalances as soon as they wore out. They would have altered the driving conditions, and therefore slowed down the race of the reigning World Champion. After that, he could have easily caught up with him and then beaten him. There is perhaps a little bit of presumption in these statements, and a little bit of subjective evaluation. Surely it was not possible to have the proof of how much this strategy was valid, but however the fact remains that Hunt was immediately the opponent of the Ferrari, and therefore he would have been in the first positions. The others, instead, were beaten.
Beaten are the Tyrrell cars, that here have found very varied conditions and not that uniformity of difficulty that is characteristic of Anderstorp, and that has favored the qualities of the six wheels car. Tyrrell had to look for the best compromise between pure speed and cornering support. Perhaps the least unfortunate solution was the one chosen by Depailler. Perhaps the French driver has been able to drive with greater finesse than the companion Scheckter. It is a fact that Depailler could at least not be overwhelmed by the others, while Scheckter had to pull behind for a long time Peterson and Watson, who took off on the straights but who was seen to fall back as soon as the braking and the curves began. Then Scheckter had to give up, and Peterson left. And finally Scheckter also had the engine failure, giving the green light to Watson and Pace, who were close from the beginning. What is certain is that Paul Ricard is not a very happy circuit for the revolutionary car, but it will be more formidable at Brands Hatch in two weeks' time.
The March cars were beaten, although they were good aerodynamically, as shown by the top speed readings, but at the expense of their support on bends, when grip is needed for traction and adherence for directionality. The stunts of Peterson, who was very good, and the will of Brambilla, who was recovering when he had to stop, would not have been enough. For Ronnie Peterson, then, there was the real bad luck of the failure of the injection distributor, to take away a third place that he would have deserved.
The Lotus were also beaten, but for opposite reasons. The Lotus cars, which are continuously improving, and which Andretti and Nilsson were able to drive well, now have very good general qualities, but an aerodynamics that does not allow very high speeds. And this is why Mario Andretti, who was left alone after Nilsson had abandoned, could only fight at his best, proving to be always very good and in full shape. He won the duel with Stuck, which was one of the beautiful things of the race, but he could not do more.
Beaten the Shadow, that suffer from the departure of Tony Southgate, to whom must be attributed the resurrection of the Lotus, and that continue to have a good driver only in Pryce, since Jarier is not able to leave his congenital sins. Modest the Surtees and the Hesketh, mediocre the Williams, always in a phase of an anxious pursuit of a balance that is difficult to find, and the Copersurcar. Brabham with its Alfa Romeo engine and Ligier with its Matra engine remain valid antagonists. But Ligier disappointed the many French fans, who hoped so much in the feat. Laffite was also disappointed, as he was convinced he could fully exploit the qualities of his car, which in the tests made here a few months earlier had achieved a time of 1'46''8, the best performance ever recorded at Paul Ricard.
The Ligier was faced with a problem that they were unable to solve, an unexpected inability of the engine to reach its usual maximum speed. There was no way, and it couldn't have been just because of the heat and humidity in the air. Nor was it due to the differences between the two cars Lafitte found himself driving in practice, the old and the new, which were at his disposal after Jarier's arrival had been banned from his Shadow. The mystery of the lack of complete use of the Matra engine remains, and the facts were such as to prevent Laffite from attempting in this race the great blow, that he is always waiting for.
The Brabham-Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, were good. The Alfa engines, on this track that allows them to keep the maximum revs for a long time, were able to demonstrate that they have the power, and that with adequate breathing possibilities, since this time the air intakes were proportionate, it can express itself. It is not sure if even at low speed the Alfa engines are already up to the Ferrari, but what is certain is that now they really understood the need to work on the chassis, because Pace and Reutemann had to work hard to keep the cars in line in the curves.
However, apart from Reutmann's misadventure that since the first laps he had problems with the lubrication, this time the two red cars arrived at the end and well. Pace finished in fourth place, later becoming third due to Watson's disqualification, and the result is one that encourages and helps morale. James Hunt's eyes were a little red when he got out of his McLaren, at the end of the second victory of his career in a Grand Prix valid for the World Drivers' Championship, given that, as you will remember, James' first victory was twelve months earlier in a Dutch Grand Prix in which the rain played a significant role.
"It's just a bit of a cold, I've been dragging this annoying discomfort around since Friday. I would have liked to go for a swim in the sea, here in Le Castellet, but having also had two or three lines of fever I preferred to concentrate on the race".
Judging by the result, one would say that he did well.
"Well, maybe it also depends on the fact that someone after Spain wanted to give me up before my time, and so this victory of mine sounds surprising".
Well, to be honest, from the way things were going in the early laps with Lauda, it would have taken some courage even to give Hunt only second place ahead of Regazzoni.
"Being in a tussle with Niki is something that since the beginning of the championship has attracted me. However, the advantage Niki had at the time he retired was false. In fact, while I started with tires that had already been run in to mitigate the differences in behavior between the car with a full tank and an empty one, Niki preferred to mount new tires. Evidently the Austrian thought that the characteristics of the Ferrari made it worth risking considerable oversteer at the end, if the new tires had allowed him to take a good advantage at the start. In practice, with those seven seconds that Niki gave me at the beginning, I would say that he was right, but if he had stayed in the race I would have had just as many when, from mid-race, I could have dedicated myself to his pursuit. Perhaps someone will say that this is hindsight, on the other hand I can object that having seen Niki in front of me smoke almost immediately from the exhaust I preferred to let him go, because I imagined that he would not have gone very far and therefore it was convenient for me to devote myself to Regazzoni".
Why, could Clay have overtaken you?
"I don't think so. In the laps in which he remained at my wheel, I could see that I was much faster than him on the straights and therefore, unless I made a mistake, there was little chance for the Ferrari to take the lead".
Honestly, is Hunt happier today or a year ago at Zandvoort, when Lauda finished second?
"Since we do this job to win, it's clear that if you succeed you're always happy. However, even though it's difficult for me to make comparisons, I can only say that I needed this victory. Tomorrow in Paris I can work with more grit to get my nine points back."
"Yes, the ones from Spain. If they are honest they have to give them back to me because I earned them on the track, not at the table. I have high hopes for the championship. With these of today and with those, Niki could still have problems because at Brands Hatch, in Austria at Zandvoort, at Nurburgring the McLaren has always gone well."
But it is very difficult that they can backtrack in Paris.
"It doesn't hurt to try, and then there's a record at stake. I could be the first driver in automotive history to win eighteen points for the World Championship in just two days. Besides, what would be the occasion to put the Ferrari guys to the test? After all, that's all we work for at McLaren."
The good mood is not lacking, but to win today without Ferrari on the field, did you struggle or not?
"Not very much. My car was going really well, I had managed to get the so-called compromise between the set-up for fast and mixed driving almost perfectly. The only problem I had was with the left front tire, which had vibrations, especially when braking. The first few times I felt anxious because I was afraid of a puncture, then I realized it was just a strain and I tried to adapt my riding to these conditions. A little more effort and concentration, but nothing more."
At the pits there are those who question the regularity of the Cosworth engine used by James Hunt. In this regard, the American manager Teddy Mayer, at the end of the race exclaims:
"Please, let's not talk about super Cosworths, ours is the usual engine prepared by Nicholson that doesn't take more than 10,800 revolutions. If we have won it is because our car on this track goes better than in Monaco and because in these days we have worked a lot on the suspensions modifying them in some small details. And as we have seen, they have been decisive".
Niki Lauda, returned to the pits riding a scooter of a willing man, meets Tomaini first. The Austrian whispered to the engineer: engine. Then, giving his helmet to a mechanic, he rushes to give his wife a quick kiss.
His expression is marked by the utmost tranquility, one would not say that he retired when he was leading a Grand Prix with a seven-second advantage over the second. Of course, he is used to winning, but such coldness is the last straw, one might say, if a cigarette lit by Lauda with trembling hands did not help to understand that the Austrian must have something that gnaws at him.
"I was going on the straight when I felt the car skid: the rear wheels locked up while the engine died. I reached the side of the track and got out of the car. I don't know what could have happened. I was going well, very well, the tire solution I had chosen for the setup was ideal: 12,000 laps, not one more. I wasn't pulling, I was being a cab driver, the engine was to blame".
Unfortunately there is no time to investigate this kind of self-confession, because from the loudspeakers comes the news that also Regazzoni, committed to duel with Hunt for the first position is stopped on the track. The first rumors speak of an exit from the road. Audetto is worried that Clay is hurt, because the speaker does not give any more news about the Swiss driver. But it is Regazzoni himself who dispels any doubt by walking to the pits.
"The engine stopped suddenly. I managed to control the spin and leave the car intact at the edge of the track. At the start I tried to get alongside Hunt on the curve, but James closed me down. After that, with him in front and me behind, I couldn't pass him anymore, also because he was much faster on the straight and this is the answer to the question if I could have challenged him for the first position".
Audetto, who as sports director is at his first defeat, admits:
"You all talked about that famous day when everything was supposed to go wrong: well that day has come. I don't know if that's what you were alluding to, but it's certain that it's difficult to make things go worse than this, and so all in all, at this point we're almost, in a certain sense, relieved".
Carlos Pace, voluptuously attached to a bottle of mineral water at the end of the race, automatically makes it clear how the battle has been beyond challenging:
"With a full tank my car is much heavier than the others, so in the first laps I couldn't do anything against Peterson and Watson. Then, afterwards, although I tried my best, the situation did not change because in acceleration the Alfa Romeo engine is still inferior to the Cosworth".
And Carlos Reutemann also admits about the Alfa engines:
"The engine was bad from start to finish. At the end I saw the oil pressure needle going down towards zero, so I preferred to slow down to get to the end".
Also the Tyrrell drivers speak about their race. In particular Scheckter talks about the engine problems that slowed him down:
"At one point I thought it was just a fixation of mine. From the beginning to the end I heard a strange sound in the engine: I thought of everything, a cylinder, a valve. In the long run, however, I realized that it wasn't a hallucination and that my ears hadn't betrayed me when I decided to always change gear a few meters earlier on each lap, as it turned out. Somehow, by doing that, I managed to get to the end."
While Depailler admits:
"In the first few laps I had problems with the front tires vibrating, so I had to let Regazzoni and Hunt go. Then, when Clay stopped, I was very far from James but also with a big advantage on the ones behind so, having to choose between attacking - and therefore risking - and defending my second place, I preferred to choose the second solution. Six points are always worthwhile".
Ronnie Peterson talks about the engine problem that forced him to retire with three laps to go in the race:
"I had something with the fuel pump. It's a pity, because even though the March wasn't too fast in a straight line I managed to get away quite well. When, after having been third, I fell back to fifth position, it happened because I skidded at the exit of a curve and Scheckter and Watson had no difficulty in passing me".
It is undoubtedly peculiar what happens inside the Brabham-Alfa environment at the end of a Grand Prix that finally sees them competitive. After Ecclestone succeeded in convincing Carlos Pace to get back on the car powered by the Alfa Romeo engine (who confessed to Ecclestone in front of his front door in London, on his return from a Grand Prix: "It's impossible to drive"), and after having obtained an agreement with the Italian company for the future renewal of the collaboration, provided that the car proved to be more competitive than the current one, the British manager delivered a letter to Carlo Chiti with which he distanced himself from the contract drawn up on 23 June 1976. Previously, Brabham and Alfa had agreed finding a compromise: the seven engines already supplied by Autodelta to Brabham are now in free use, but the British team must pay for the first five engines supplied in 1975, for a lump sum price of just over £63,000.
"In return for the aforementioned twelve engines Autodelta will make available to Brabham, for each race, four overhauled engines."
On July 4, 1976 Ecclestone asked for five more engines, a commitment that Autodelta could not fulfill due to the lack of employees and the continuous strikes that slowed down the working process. On the other hand, Chiti raises some points of contention, including Ecclestone's failure to put in writing the clause of hiring drivers of international value.
In the hours following the end of the race, a long tragicomic sequence of information and counter-information comes to life, which will lead to Watson's disqualification. It starts as usual with the technical checks, at the end of which it seems that the cars under discussion could be at least two, the Tyrrell of Scheckter and the Penske of Watson. Then the Tyrrell will not be discussed anymore, and also for the Penske the proposal will be considered valid, despite there was a difference of a few millimeters on a part that has no aerodynamic influence, for the purpose of downforce that gives grip.
These are the lateral flaps, the vertical bulkheads that are on the sides of the wing. Despite the fact that from the next Grand Prix there will be new measures, and that influential people have proposed to consider the sin venial, the stewards decide to disqualify the American team. And it is something that regrets because Watson would not deserve it. Especially in this race that was important for him, since he had obtained his best result in Formula 1.
On the other hand, the commissioners could not go beyond the fifteen millimeters of the irregularity, especially since they had been inflexible with the Ferraris tested on Friday with the fairings on the front wheels, which Forghieri vainly tried to pass off as air intakes for the brakes. Certainly, unless Ferrari wanted to launch an absurd challenge, or they needed to test these appendages, perhaps with a view to future solutions, it is hard to understand how engineers who are experts in technical regulations could have fallen into contradiction. All the more so because it could have been very risky, because if, by chance, in the second session on Friday and in the single session on Saturday the track conditions had prevented high lap times, this could have jeopardized the starting position.
Similarly, it is incomprehensible how a certain position would have led to the disqualification of the Tyrrell, guilty of having six brakes, while in a part of the official regulations it is written that the cars must have four brakes. The regulations were written when all cars had four wheels, and the imposition was made explicitly for all wheels to have brakes. Then came the six-wheelers, and the least that could happen is for each wheel to have its own brake. Quibbles of this sort are irritating, and quite silly. On the other hand, it is certainly not a quibble that prompted the CSI to decide to readmit the cars of James Hunt (who had come first) and Jacques Laffite to the Spanish Grand Prix, on the principle that violations of the technical regulations had not altered the performance of the single-seaters, on Monday 5 July 1976.
Sunday evening, after the Grand Prix, the McLaren men gather in the hotel to celebrate the victory but at the first light of dawn, Hunt and Mayer head to Paris accompanied by Colin Chapman, on board his private plane. The British designer will testify in favor of the McLaren team. This brings hope to the Penske for the same treatment of Watson's car; and in fact, on July 22, 1976 the French Federation of Motor racing will readmit Watson in the classification. Just Robert Langford, secretary of the Drivers' Association, had confessed before the French Grand Prix:
"I hang out with friends who know absolutely nothing about motor racing and I have to explain everything to them. I said that Hunt had been disqualified at the Spanish Grand Prix because of a technicality, and that 1.8 centimeters could not make a difference in the performance of the car. Now, however, I am constantly asked what happened to James. If that tiny difference was irrelevant, how come he hasn't gotten any results since then? It's very difficult to explain".
But the argument is simple: it wasn't the position that was favorable, but rather the subsequent shift unbalanced the car, to the point of not allowing the McLaren drivers to express themselves to the maximum. However, in the meantime, with this race the first part of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship ends. Lauda is summer champion, as he remains in first position in the standings with many points of advantage. The Austrian driver continues to be superstitious and does not want to hear about a title already conquered. However, with each passing race, things improve, because if he does not win, the winners are different. For now, however, Lauda and Ferrari can afford distractions like these. Even if these, surely, will not please the manufacturer from Modena.