In a vain attempt to make the French Grand Prix pay at the Paul Ricard circuit on the desert-like plateau in the hills behind Toulon and Bandol, the organisers opt for a date in April instead of their usual July date at the height of the holiday season. It is a misguided move as few people in France or other European countries are interested in making a long journey to the featureless Paul Ricard circuit to spend the day on the dusty plateau to watch not very much. There is nothing wrong with the entry for it is very full, with 29 drivers and 42 cars filling the pit-lane garages and with all the major teams having spent a lot of time at the circuit during the winter, everyone seems ready to go. There are two changes to the scene, one being the addition of a second March-RAM driven by Jean-Louis Schlesser who has made his Formula One debut at the Race of Champions and the other the absence of Alan Jones from the Arrows team. Jonesey has agreed to drive the Arrows at Long Beach and Brands Hatch, acting as a sprat to catch a mackerel, the mackerel being represented by a big, wealthy sponsor who would pour vast sums of money into the Arrows team purely on the knowledge that Alan Jones would be driving for them. With the team’s known record it is not surprising that no sponsor comes forward, even allowing for the known qualities of Alan Jones; and that was that, Jones steps out of his commitment and the Arrows cars are unsponsored apart from some small local advertising. It would look as though the sea has dried up as far as mackerel are concerned, leaving only a few basking sharks! Just in case anyone in a half-decent car should fall ill, or have an accident, Alan Jones is in the pits with his driving equipment not far away. On the car front Renault are looking strong with new RE40 cars for Prost (RE40/01) and Cheever (RE40/02) and the 00 prototype as stand-by and Lotus are looking equally strong with two Renault-powered cars for de Angelis and two Cosworth-powered cars for Mansell. The Lotus 93T/1 has the latest RE40 engine installation and the Lotus 92 cars were running with normal suspension in place of the computer-controlled hydraulic suspension as its advantage seems to have disappeared and its weight disadvantage being too much of a handicap.
Mansell has one of the new Cosworth DFY engines available, which he usesfor the first time during the second day of practice. The Williams team has a DFY engine but it doesn’t use it, though they have a brand new car as a spare for Rosberg (FW08C/09). The McLaren team has two new DFY engines, and one is installed in Lauda’s car for the second day of practice and the other in Watson’s car for the final hour. These engines have different bore and stroke to the DFV, the 90 mm. bore allowing larger valves and a better shape of combustion chamber which has filled in some of the deficiencies in the power curve in the middle range without increasing the r.p.m. or making much difference to the peak power output. They have been described as shortstroke screamers suggesting that the shorter stroke has allowed more r.p.m. and more power, but in fact they should be called big bore boomers to be more exact. The Toleman team adds a third car to their strength and Alfa Romeo has to build a fourth turbo V8 car to replace the one that Baldi crashed at Long Beach. The Brabham team is running carbonfibre disc brakes on all three of their BMW-powered cars, and McLaren also has carbonfibre discs on their MP4/1C cars. Ferrari has converted their three cars to external air-starters in place of their electric starters and has saved a lot of weight elsewhere and Theodore (Ensign) is robbing bits off the old original carbonfibre composite monocoque car to keep their two new ones going. Ferrari, Ligier, Alfa Romeo and Renault have equipped their cars with quick-action refuelling fillers on the right-hand side of their tanks in preparation for refuelling stops like the Brabham team, the Ferrari refuelling equipment looking like a space satellite made in galvanised iron standing ready for launching, while the Renault equipment is small and neat. With the recently introduced car-weighing procedure during afternoon qualifying the double entry and exit to the fantastically long pit lane at the Paul Ricard circuit cannot be used and everyone has to enter by the first entry and leave by the far exit, which causes a few qualms as anyone in a hurry could be doing 130 m.p.h. by the time he reaches the end of the pit lane!
Practice and qualifying, held to the normal format of an hour-and-a-half in the morning for testing and an hour in the afternoon for qualifying for the grid, take place on Friday and Saturday in clear, fine but cool weather and was totally dominated by turbo-powered cars, which is not surprising when you appreciate that Brabham, ATS, Lotus, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Toleman-Hart are all using 1½-litre turbo-engines. Those teams stuck with the obsolete Cosworth DFV and the not-so-obsolete Cosworth DFY engines could barely hope to get in the top ten on the grid. Apart from spot-check weight measurements during the two qualifying periods, and of course the limit of only two sets of tyres to each driver, there is some severe scrutineering immediately after qualifying on each day, during which weights are taken, bore and stroke measurements are checked and detail regulations are checked. One of these checks on Friday reveals that the on-board fire-extinguishers on the Alfa Romeo 183T/02 of de Cesaris are empty, so his qualifying time is disallowed, which is unfortunate for the Euroracing Alfa Romeo team as he has made fastest lap of the day. On the second day all three Renault cars have to suffer the indignity of close scrutiny at their own Grand Prix, but all is well, nothing is found amiss. The Ferrari team has a terrible time during both days of practice, or to be more precise half of the team do, for while Arnoux has a trouble-free time with 126C2/064, Tambay has more trouble than you would imagine possible with 126C2/065 and the T-car 126C2/062. If the engine doesn’t go wrong, the electrics of the electronic fuel-injection go on the blink, and when that is put right turbocharger bearings break up, or the turbines seize. On two occasions Tambay’s car goes wrong before it leaves the pit lane, and on other occasions he has to abandon a car out on the circuit. It stretches his cool debonair demeanour to its fullest extent and nearly drives Forghieri, and his engineers and mechanics up the wall.
It never seems to be the same thing twice so diagnosis is impossible and there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of new engines coming from the transporter. In comparison the Toleman team has an easy time, but to them it seems nothing but trouble. On Friday afternoon Warwick has barely started when the fuel pump seizes and he has to abandon the car out on the circuit. The spare car is really only a standby in case of a major catastrophe, so Warwick has to wait until Giacomelli has finished and then use his car to record a time. Tyres are still confusing a lot of people, which is not surprising with as many as six different types to choose from. The Pirelli firm has literally been working round the clock on eight-hour shifts to complete a whole new series of tyres for Lotus, Toleman and March, and Goodyear has flown 1800 tyres over from Akron. The Brabham team seems unable to generate any serious temperatures in the Michelins on the front of the arrow-like BT52 cars and has to resort to the drastic measure of bolting 11 kilogrammes of lead into the nose to assist the front aerofoil in its job of pressing the front tyres onto the road. In spite of the practice and qualifying pace being pretty fast and furious and the 1983 regulation cars not being as stable as the 1982 cars there are surprisingly few excursions off into the rough or the catch-fences, the only spectacular one being that of Serra on Saturday afternoon when a rear tyre fails on his Arrows at high speed through the esses after the pits. The car is badly damaged, but the driver got away unharmed and once the catch fences has been rebuilt he continues his qualifying in the spare car. During the two days of practice the weather has been comfortably warm, or cool, depending on what you were used to, and the Mistral wind has kept away, appearing as nothing more serious than a gentle, friendly breeze, while the sun shines most of the time. On Sunday the whole area is grey and overcast, but thankfully it keeps dry and an estimated 30,000 spectators paid to watch the event while Chinese, Mongolians, Indians, Peruvians and Zimbabwians gather round their television sets to watch, if we are to believe the TV moguls.
The regulation Sunday morning warm-up half-hour is not without its excitement as various teams practice rapid wheel changes, managing 15 seconds from stop to start with all four wheels. Ferrari is still in trouble with their KKK turbochargers, this time on Arnoux’s car, and Tambay has elected to race the T-car. In the Brabham team BT52/2 has some trouble with its monocoque and rather than make a hurried repair Gordon Murray installs Patrese in the T-car, and Piquet is doing some last-minute fuel consumption checks. Both McLarens are planning to race with their DFY engines, as Mansell is with the Lotus 92 and the pit layout has reverted to the double entry and exit with the Ligier team being moved beyond the central exit hump as their long cars would ground. The RAM- March team has packed up as neither of the drivers qualify, but Osella is looking happier with one of their cars destined for the starting grid. The trick started last year by the Brabham team of running the race in two halves with a pit-stop in between, to take advantage of running light with half a tank of petrol and using 100 mile life tyres, is being copied by Ferrari, Renault and Williams but Alfa Romeo decides to opt out of the pit-stop race. The object is to take advantage of the lighter weight and stickier short-life tyres, to pull out sufficient lead in the first half to allow for the pit-stop and then to run hard again through the second half, this strategy is estimated to be better than running non-stop at a lower speed. It certainly presents an interesting situation with Ferrari, Williams, Brabham and Renault all in neighbouring pits and the feeling of the other teams at the opposite end of the pit lane is that it is a good idea to put them all together, though Ken Tyrrell thinks differently as his pit is in the middle of all the refuelling teams. In true French style the race is not due to start until well after lunch time and before the cars leave the pit lane disaster strikes the Lotus team when their mechanics inadvertently run a car over Nigel Mansell’s left foot and crush his toes.
In spite of being in severe pain the plucky Midlander agrees to start the race and keep going for as long as he can. All 26 cars are ready to go and most of the spectators seem to be wandering about freely on the inside of the circuit, while in excellent Indianapolis style the whole pit area has been closed to everyone except team members engage on a specific job, and at one end of the pit lane that job is refuelling and wheel changing about half way through the 54 lap race. With turbocharged cars in the first 11 places on the grid those doubters who still think there is a future in the unsupercharged 3-litre engine and who can see no future in forced induction racing engines, doesn’t have much to be hopeful about. There are in fact two distinct races to be run, one for the factory teams and one for the private teams, with those like Williams and McLaren just able to bridge the gap. From the word go Alain Prost in the pole position Renault RE40 drives away as he has wished, building up a commanding lead while his new team mate Cheever hangs on to second place as best as he can but he is harassed by the BMW powered Brabhams of Piquet and Patrese, with the two Ferraris of Tambay and Arnoux following. Driving as hard as he knows how Rosberg is not only hanging on to the second Ferrari but is actually challenging it, after having passed the Lotus- Renault of de Angelis. Apart from the lone Williams with Cosworth power it is turbocharged cars all the way for Winkelhock in the ATS-BMW and de Cesaris in the first of the turbocharged Alfa Romeos are leading the rest of the field. On the opening lap there has been trouble at the back of the field for Watson has crumpled the nose of his McLaren on the back of Baldi’s turbo-charged V8 Alfa Romeo and both cars have gone into the pits, the McLaren for a new nose-cone and the Alfa Romeo for a new pair of rear tyres.
On lap 4 Watson’s new Cosworth DFY, which has been installed the previous afternoon, blows up and then Mansell is forced to give up as his foot injury is giving him too much pain. The two Renaults dominate the scene until lap 18, when Piquet forces his Brabham by Cheever into second place, but a long way behind the flying Prost. In fourth place is Patrese in the second Brabham, then comes Tambay a fair way back followed at an even greater distance by Rosberg and Arnoux and Laffite in the second Williams, de Cesaris, Winkelhock, de Angelis, Lauda, Alboreto and the rest. Warwick has collected a puncture in his left-rear Pirelli and after a stop to change tyres he only goes a couple more laps before his Hart engine breakes. Next to go is Patrese, whose BMW engine begins overheating due to a serious loss of water and by lap 20 it is all over, with Prost out on his own, Piquet second followed by Cheever, then Tambay a long way behind followed by Rosberg, Arnoux and Laffite, but the interest lays in the fact that all seven of them are due to make a pit stop for new tyres and a half tank of petrol. Between lap 25 and lap 34, in other words either side of half distance, all seven make pit stops and when it is all over the race order is exactly the same, which suggests that the whole pit-stop routine is really rather a waste of time as it gives no-one an advantage. Each of the seven have chanced the possibility of their team making a nonsense, but such is the professionalism of the leading teams in Formula One that nobody makes any serious mistakes so the outcome of the race is completely unchanged by the pit stop routine. Arnoux is the first to come in, and apart from nearly running over the Renault mechanics who are waiting for Cheever, the Ferrari is refuelled and new wheels and tyres fitted in 15.71 sec.
Cheever’s stops for similar treatment by the Renault team takes 17.59 sec. and then Rosberg speeds into the pits for tyres and fuel, but the left front wheel baulks slightly on being fitted and the Williams is stationary for 26.15 sec. Then Prost appears in the pit lane and while he is there Piquet goes by into the lead, but it is to be a short-lived lead as he is due to stop. The Renault is stationary for 24.18 sec. due to Prost stalling the engine and letting his foot off the brake pedal before the right rear wheel is tightened, all of which waste precious seconds. Then Tambay is in and away with new tyres and half a tank of petrol in 15.66sec., the Ferrari team once again proving that the days of comic opera at a pit stop by the Maranello team are long gone. Piquet relinquish the lead of the race back to Prost when the Brabham stops for 16.07 sec. for new tyres and petrol and the last one to come in is Laffite. Before he arrives the Goodyear people had inspected the tyres of Rosberg’s car and decides that Laffite can go right through to the finish on his original tyres, so he is merely refuelled in a very swift 13.78 sec. He rejoins the race just ahead of Rosberg, but the reigning World Champion doesn’t intend to run as the second Williams and soon slices his way ahead. After all that excitement in the pits that only a handful of spectators actually witness, the outcome of the race is unchanged suggesting that it really is a waste of time and effort, but it has been interesting. With the order being Prost (Renault) Piquet (Brabham-BMW), Cheever (Renault), Tambay (Ferrari), Rosberg (Williams), Laffite (Williams) and Arnoux (Ferrari) it is just a matter of everyone keeping station for the second half of the race. Of the seven drivers that stop, Arnoux has lost the most ground and is actually down to eleventh place before he gets back into his stride and pulls back up to seventh place ahead of Alboreto’s Tyrrell which is running through non-stop.
The only happenings are those that cause retirements, such as the contact between Winkelhock’s ATS and Baldi’s Alfa Romeo which puts the Italian car on to the loose gravel on the left of the pits straight from which it spans right across the track and into the guard-rail on the right of the track, wrecking its right-rear corner. Lauda drops out with something seized at the rear of his McLaren, and Winkelhock goes out with broken suspension. Giacomelli retires the second Toleman with transmission failure and de Cesaris loses a lot of time at the pits with a deranged gearlever linkage. Sullivan’s Tyrrell blows up its engine in a pretty spectacular manner and Guerrero’s Theodore and Boesel’s Ligier go out with engine trouble. After losing last year’s French Grand Prix to his trouble-making teammate, Prost makes no mistakes this year and wins at a rousing 199.866 k.p.h., only a fraction slower than Arnoux’s winning speed last year, and taking only 40 seconds longer to run the same distance, including a stop this year. The turbo-charged V6 Renault driven by the little Frenchman on Michelin tyres and using ELF petrol and oil makes it a total French victory to the relief of all concerned for the lack of results recently by the Renault-ELF team has been proving extremely embarrassing for everyone.