On the Dijon mini-circuit - a track more suited for go-karts than Formula 1 cars - the French Grand Prix takes place on Sunday, July 7, 1974. It's the ninth event of the World Championship, and the season is progressing towards its conclusion: seven races remain, yet no driver has asserted dominance. However, four names have emerged: Fittipaldi, Lauda, Regazzoni, and Scheckter. The Brazilian leads the World Championship standings with 31 points, the Austrian and the Swiss have 30 and 28, respectively, and the young South African is at 23. Marcello's team is in a prominent position with two men at the top and cars that have proven their competitiveness, especially on challenging circuits like Zandvoort. The theme of this French Grand Prix, which marks a series of celebratory events for the eighty years of the French Automobile Club, is expected to revolve around the following question: Can Lauda and Regazzoni, or at least one of them, surpass Fittipaldi in the World Championship standings? The task might be more challenging than anticipated due to the unique characteristics of the Dijon track, which tends to equalize the playing field and bring drivers and cars closer together. Fittipaldi is calm and draws parallels between football and racing.
"Now, I'm the only one who can offer Brazil a world title".
Emerson refers to football championships: on Wednesday, July 3, 1974, he cheered and suffered in front of the television, supporting the Cariocas.
"The Dutch were too strong. We started well, then referee mistakes upset the team. Fortunately, in Formula One, there are none. But, to be honest, I'm afraid I've found a superior opponent this year too. Ferrari seems like the Netherlands".
Diplomatic remark or a candid admission? Regardless, Lauda and Regazzoni playfully respond to the Brazilian.
"We do everything to be Cruyff".
Intensive work has been done at Ferrari to perfect the cars. It's not an easy task because the combination of straightaways and rapid succession of right and left turns requires technicians to delicately balance understeer and oversteer of the 312-B3 and find the best compromise between top speed and grip. At the beginning of the practice sessions, Regazzoni even thinks he has a serious issue with the rear suspension, but it turns out to be a matter of adjusting the car-tire combination appropriately. Both Lauda and Regazzoni do not spare criticism for the Dijon circuit. The Austrian claims it's a foolish track, as one struggles to get the car in order, gives maximum effort, and ends up being together with everyone else. The Swiss emphasizes the difficulties of overtaking and the ease of going off track. At Dijon, Apart from Pace being in a spare works Brabham, run under the Hexagon banner, everything is more or less in order and as before. Team Lotus have made the decision to use their old Lotus 72 cars as the first-string team cars, and to relegate the new Lotus 76 cars to the role of development vehicles for the rest of this season. The bally-hoo with which the Lotus 76 was introduced at the beginning of the year as the John Player Special has turned out to be the non-event of the winter, but everyone has a head turn now and then and the Lotus 76 looks like being Colin Chapman’s worst effort so far. The old Lotus 30 and Lotus 40 sports cars are not exactly high spots in the Lotus story, but the 25, 49 and 72 have been so fantastic that they more than make up for the failures. The 76 is not written-off and some of its features, notably the rear suspension, have come up to scratch and will be retained in the design-book at Hethel. It is just unfortunate that the Lotus team went to such vast expense and trouble to introduce the 76 before it was ready. The Type 72 in its 1974 form is still one of the best-looking Grand Prix cars on the circuits today, and as usual Peterson is all set to do his utmost with 72/R8, while Ickx is not saying much about 72/R5. As 1T the team has JPS110 for Peterson to test, this normally being Ickx’s car, but the pedals and so on had been altered so that the Swede could drive it, as JPS/9 is undergoing sorne major alterations back at the factory.
The two Type 72 cars had been fitted with new front wishbones giving a slightly wider track, a little over an inch on each side. In the Tyrrell team all is normal, with Scheckter in 007/1 and Depailler in 007/2, while last year’s car 006/2, which Tom Wheatcroft is waiting to put in the Donington Racing Car Museum, is standing by on a trailer for emergency purposes. The Texaco-Marlboro-sponsored part of the McLaren team are using the new inclined inlet trumpet layout on the cars of Hulme and Fittipaldi, they both sharing the same spare car, while Hailwood has two Yardley-sponsored cars to himself. The Brahham team are unchanged from previous races, and have their 10-in. diameter cotton-reel rear wheels with them to try the latest Goodyear experiments, Reutemann having BT44/1 and BT44/3, while von Opel is in BT44/2, but wondering if he is ever going to make it as a Grand Prix driver. The two works March cars are driven as usual by Stuck and Brambilla, while Regazzoni and Lauda have the works Ferraris, 014 and 012, respectively, with 011 as a spare. In the BRM team peace had been reclaimed by modifying the cockpit of the original P201 so that Pescarolo could get into it, this necessitating new fuel tanks in the cockpit sides, with the access holes in the monocoque being moved from within the cockpit to underneath. All this work means that the car is a bit delayed and it arrived after practice had begun. Beltoise is in P201/02 and Migault is back in P160/10, that Pescarolo had driven briefly at Zandvoort. The Shadow team are in good form, with Pryce and Jarier in their usual cars, with the spare car with Jarier’s number on it, while Team Surtees have completely rebuilt TS16/02 into the new form as first seen at Zandvoort, with the water radiator across the back under the aerofoil and the curved monocoque sides without the flat extensions on the top, while the new nose cowling devoid of openings is fitted. This rebuilt car is for Jochen Mass and TS16/05, the Zandvoort car, is being entrusted to Jose Dohlem, from the Surtees Formula 2 team, the dispute with Carlos Pace having ended in a separation. As mentioned Jabouille joined the Williams team, alongside Merzario, and Pace joined the Hexagon team alongside Watson, the works Brabham BT42/3 having some brown stripes on it to distinguish it from the actual works team. Schuppan is in the 1974 Ensign, Kinnunen in his ex-works Surtees TS/16, Hunt has both the Hesketh cars at his disposal and Hill and Edwards have their usual Embassy-sponsored Lola cars, with a spare one in the background.
All told there were thirty drivers in the pits ready to start practice, and only the fastest 22 were going to be accept on the starting grid, leaving eight as spectators. When practice begins on Friday morning the day is superb, with not a cloud in the sky, and apart from waiting to see whether Lauda or Peterson is going to set the pace, and which of the other regular runners is going to be up there with them, much interest is centered on the new-boys to see who is going to make the grade and who is going to be left out of things. A few people are interested to see whether Carlos Pace is going to prove what was wrong with the Surtees team, now that he is in a Brabham, but even before he starts practice his team manager is explaining how Pace had been home to Brazil and had caught a bug and was not feeling too bright. Whether it was a Brazilian bug, or a flea in the ear that he caught as he left Team Surtees, is not clear, but he never got beyond being amongst the tail-enders and non-qualifiers. In the B.R.M. camp hopes are pinned on Beltoise who has the latest engine in P201/02, this having new cylinder heads with a wider angle between the inlet and exhaust valves. It does not take long for the pattern to be set, with lap times of under one minute being the aim, but surprisingly it is Fittipaldi who is fastest with 59.20s, closely followed by Depailler with 59.43s. With lap times of less than a minute, it seems more like USA oval race, and the circuit calls a for so little ability that everyone and anyone is within hundredths of a second of each other. Shortly before things come to a halt for the lunch break, by which time many drivers had put in 50 laps, Depailler does not come round. He had got off line in Tyrrell 007/2, and was holding it in a full-lock slide with the power hard on, trying to stop it spinning, when the rear wheels suddenly found grip and shot the car across the track and into the Armco, wrecking the right front corner and creasing the monocoque. The stocky little Frenchman says in all honesty that had he let it spin off into the gravel there would have been no damage done, but he tried to bring it straight with the power, which proved to be an expensive mistake. The result is that Tom Wheatcroft’s museum piece is unloaded from the trailer and made ready for the afternoon practice, as 007/2 is beyond immediate repair. It had been estimated that everyone would be lapping in under a minute, with the faster drivers down around 55 or 56 sec., but it is not to be so, only Fittipaldi and Depailler breaking the minute in the first session.
The excellent weather continues during the afternoon and as everyone gets into the swing of things more drivers join the under 1 minute clan, but there are no signs of the 55-sec. laps that had been talked about. Depailler goes out in the spare Tyrrell car, but it was nothing like as quick as the one he crashed, and he was unable to break the 1-rnin. barrier, and his team-mate Scheckter is taking a long time to get into the rhythm of sub-one-minute laps, even after more than 80 laps of practice. Fittipaldi is still going well, and briefly tried the experimental McLaren rear aerofoil that is mounted extremely low, below the normal height, so that it can take advantage of exceeding the 1-metre rearwards limit from the axle centre line, but it does not seem to offer much advantage. Stuck came walking back to the pits, having left his March out on the circuit with gearbox trouble, and he then goes out in Brambilla’s car. Though he is quicker than in his own car, he is not among the top runners, and is not even as quick as his swarthy Italian team-mate, the fire seeming to have gone out of the young German’s driving after crashing so spectacularly at Monaco and then having another accident at Zandvoort. The new B.R.M. engine is not performing well at the top end of the rev-range so preparations are made to replace it with a normal unit, and Pescarolo just manages to get in two timed laps when his modified P201 eventually arrived. Due to the wrangles of the Formula One Constructors Association and their closed shop methods, Schuppan was prevented from practising the Ensign and Kinnunen his Finnish-sponsored Surtees. There are now seven drivers in the under 60 second club, these being Lauda, who is fastest with 58.91s, Peterson, Fittipaldi, Reutemann, Regazzoni, Jarier and Hunt, though the results sheets look a bit like a British hill climb, and not like the oldest Grand Prix in history. On Saturday morning the lovely blue sky disappears and everything is grey and overcast, though it is still warm. In fact it is about ideal for fast times and when it all starts up again in the morning session, Reutemann is trying the 10-in. diameter wheels on his Brabham, Peterson is having a brief go in the Lotus 76, while Ickx is waiting for his car to be finished off. It is not long before a cloud of smoke heralds the end of Merzario’s practice as his engine blows up and he coasts to rest opposite the pits. It is proving an expensive trip for Frank Williams, as Jabouille’s engine had broken the day before.
Then another cloud of smoke sees Migault returning to the pits with oil everywhere except in the engine, and there is a pause in practice while Merzario’s car was collected. The politics had been settled and Schuppan and Kinnunen continue to practice, though neither driver showed much hope of getting into the select 22 runners who are going to qualify. The material destruction continues when Brambilla has a wheel break up on his March and the whole car is wrecked beyond immediate repair, he escaping unhurt from what was a pretty lurid accident. The wheel which failed is of a new type of construction, so someone is due to go back to the drawing board of the inspection department. There is another pause in the practice while the wrecked March is towed in, and then away they all go again. Lauda is staying in a class of his own, if driving at Dijon can be called class, in that he is the only one in the 58-sec. bracket, and before the Saturday morning session finished Tom Pryce stirs things up by consistently taking a short cut across one of the corners on the back part of the circuit, and confounds everybody by making second fastest practice time, in 59.11s. There are now eleven drivers in the under 60 club, Pryce, Hailwood, Scheckter, Hulme and Jarier joining the exclusive set. As the afternoon session is beginning a gentle shower of rain descends from the grey sky and there is a marked absence of activity, for it is obviously not going to last long and there isn’t much to be learned on the wet track. Sure enough it soon dries up and everyone starts on their final fling, either to get higher up the grid, or merely to get on the grid. A one-minute lap is going to ensure a starting position, but anything over one minute and one second is going to be too slow. Regazzoni spins off on the long fast right-hand bend leading onto the finishing straight and gets all tangled up in the wire catch fences, and there is a break in practice while the Ferrari is towed back to the pits. The damage is very superficial, and the car is soon ready to continue practice. Peterson is fastest in this final session, ousting Pryce from the front row of the grid, but not beating Lauda’s best time, so the Ferrari is on pole position with the Lotus 72 alongside. Last of the lucky 22 was Migault with the third B.R.M., just behind Graham Hill and everyone on the grid had lapped in under 1'01"0, Lauda’s fastest being 58.79s. and Migault’s 60.86s. Niki Lauda and Ferrari once again, for the fifth time in nine races, secure pole position in this exciting 1974 Formula 1 season. This is the verdict after two days of practice.
Alongside the Austrian will be the fearless Ronnie Peterson with the Lotus, still the old model as the new one has been abandoned. Behind them are the surprising Tom Price with the Shadow and Clay Regazzoni with the other Ferrari. Then, the McLarens of Fittipaldi and Hailwood, Scheckter's Tyrrell, and Reutemann's Brabham. The usual names, except for Price. However, the young Englishman (25 years old and in his third Formula 1 race) has entered this elite more with determination and cunning than with technique: Price systematically cut corners at the Dijon circuit, crossing the track boundaries with all four wheels, earning a reprimand from the race direction. Lauda is satisfied. He was the fastest, clocking 58.79 seconds.
"I have made some progress, but more than this is not possible. I would have preferred to have Price by my side and not Peterson, but still better the Swede than Fittipaldi".
It's clear that Lauda's, Regazzoni's, and, in general, the Maranello team's fixed thought is on Fittipaldi, rightly feared for his skill and McLaren's performance. Lauda sincerely hopes that the Brazilian retires.
"If Emerson doesn't score points for the World Championship, and I manage to get some, I can surpass him. Then, we'll have the Grand Prix of England and Germany on two tracks that seem tailor-made to enhance Ferrari's capabilities. It could be the decisive turning point of the championship".
Lauda, being honest, hopes that Regazzoni doesn't perform too well in the race either. It's human that the Austrian and the Swiss, while continuing to be well-coordinated and true friends, are giving their all to win a prestigious title like the Formula 1 championship. It's a credit to Ferrari to have placed its two drivers in this magnificent situation. Regazzoni set the fourth-best time and immediately went off the track at the large curve leading from the mixed section to the straight of the circuit.
"I was going slowly to cool the tires after a series of fast laps; suddenly, the car spun, I couldn't control it, and I ended up against the first row of protective barriers. Probably, I had lost concentration after managing to set a time that I consider quite good".
The impact, fortunately, had no consequences for Clay, and the car could be repaired in a few minutes: a clean-up from the gravel, a general check, and the replacement of the front nose. At the same point, in the first practice session of the day, Vittorio Brambilla also went off the track with the March. A much more violent crash (the Italian driver was traveling at 200 km/h) that forced the mechanics of the English team to work hard to get the car ready for Sunday. The cause of the incident was the breakage of the rim of the left rear wheel. The driver was unharmed. Therefore, even at Dijon, Ferrari presents itself to everyone as the team to beat. Luca Montezemolo says:
"We had some apprehension, given the characteristics of the circuit, but tonight we can be content. Of course, practice is one thing, and the race is another. Tomorrow, the most important thing will be to score some points. If we then win, so much the better".
Montezemolo is very cautious, and he is right. However, the majority of drivers and technicians express only one prediction, combining football and cars: Ferrari will win, and the Netherlands will beat West Germany. On Sunday, July 7, 1974, is bright and sunny and in the half-hour test session first thing in the morning Brambilla try Stuck’s March, as his own was not repairable, and he went a lot quicker than the German had gone, so was all set to take his place on the grid with 741/1-2. The start is scheduled for mid-day, and before that there is a nostalgic parade of old Grand Prix cars driven by old Grand Prix drivers, and once they will have all returned to their own paddock the Formula One cars will go off on a warm-up lap and then line up two-by-two on the dummy grid.
All 22 cars move forward to the starting grid and are kept there far too long, so that Pescarolo and Mass are beginning to have trouble holding their cars against the clutch. One or two engines are beginning to get a bit warm and Pryce is eyeing his temperature gauge anxiously when the starting signal is given, so gets caught on the wrong foot and makes a hesitant start. While Lauda and Peterson race for the first corner there is a bit of a shambles behind them, for Reutemann’s Brabham, while dodging about in the pack, hits the side of Pryce’s Shadow which is deflected across the track right into the path of Hunt’s car, the Hesketh and the Shadow colliding for the second time in two races. The incident causes Jarier to virtually come to a stop and also Hulme is put off his stroke, so as the field covers the opening lap a lot of it is not in the order expected. Lauda beats Peterson to the first corner and is well ahead at the end of the opening lap, so that it looks as though it is all over as a race. However, Peterson has different ideas and has his sights firmly fixed on the fleeing Austrian, while Regazzoni is in third place, followed by Hailwood, Scheckter, Ickx, Fittipaldi, Depailler, Watson, Beltoise, Merzario, Brambilla, Hulme, Edwards, Hill and Jarier, Migault already being on his own at the back. Mass lasts only four laps before retiring with a burnt-out clutch, and after the dust had subsided a bit Pescarolo can be seen walking back to the pits having parked his B.R.M. before the end of the first lap, also with a burnt-out clutch. Reutemann gets round to the pits, after his starting line accident, and though the car is sorted out a bit, it is not right and he finally gives up after lapping at the tail of the field. Hunt and Pryce are out as a result of the starting line incident, so with the race barely started the field of 22 cars is reduced to 18. The two Ferraris, with the lone Lotus between them, are pulling away from the rest of the runners, and Hailwood is gradually elbowed back from fourth place to sixth place as his McLaren feels unsteady with its shock-absorbers not functioning properly. Surprisingly, in view of the closeness of the practice times, the field soon separates into small groups and the expected jostling bunch in mid-field does not materialise. By 10 laps Lauda and Peterson have pulled away from Regazzoni, who in turn is well away from Scheckter and Fittipaldi; then come Hailwood, Ickx and Depailler, and a little while later Watson, Beltoise, Hulme, Merzario and Edwards, with Brambilla, Hill and Jarier bringing up the rear, Migault seemingly in another race altogether.
Hulme is carefully picking his way through the slower cars at the back, taking a long while to get past Beltoise, While nearer the front Fittipaldi in the other Texaco-Marlboro McLaren is wishing he can find a way by Scheckter’s Tyrrell. At the front of the procession, Peterson is closing relentlessly on Lauda’s Ferrari and on lap 17 the Lotus sweeps by into the lead with no fuss or bother, and steadily pulls away. From then until the end of the 80 laps Peterson can do no wrong, the car is running perfectly and handling perfectly, even as the fuel load diminishes and the tyres wear, so that there is nothing that Lauda can do but try and keep the black and gold car in sight. His vain hope that something would break on the Lotus was of no avail, nor was the hope that Peterson would get baulked by a slower car when lapping the back-markers. The Swede goes by the slower cars as if they were not there, and in fact, it is Lauda who gets slightly delayed on occasions. Regazzoni is in a solid third place, but losing ground to the leader and his team-mate, and behind him Fittipaldi gets by Scheckter, in fourth place, the young Tyrrell driver hanging on to the Brazilian. Hulme is up into 9th place and is closing on Depailler and Watson’s efforts to stay ahead of Beltoise are confounded when his Cosworth engine goes flat in its ignition department. By half distance complete monotony has set in for Fittipaldi drops out with engine trouble, Watson is forced to stop at the pits, and both Lolas are in to change tyres that were giving trouble. Peterson is steadily lapping everyone, and Lauda is doing his best to follow him through the traffic. With Fittipaldi gone, Scheckter resumes fourth place, and Hulme gets by Hailwood and Depailler and is firmly in sixth place behind a rather uninspired Ickx. Nothing changes before the end of the race, though Scheckter closes up on Regazzoni and makes one or two half-hearted attempts to get by at the end of the main straight; at least Regazzoni considers them to be half-hearted, and he has no intention of moving over and giving third place to the Tyrrell. The French Grand Prix, the race that the Ferrari team feared more than any other, propels Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni to the top of the Formula 1 World Championship. Ronnie Peterson won with the revived Lotus, but the Austrian and the Swiss secured second and third places, earning valuable points for the World Championship standings, especially since Emerson Fittipaldi had to retire.
The engine of his McLaren failed after a third of the race: it seems that between football and cars, this is not a happy time for the Brazilians. The overtaking operation, therefore, ended in the happiest way for this Ferrari duo that continues its positive streak from circuit to circuit. Lauda now has 36 points, and Regazzoni has 32: respectively, five and one point ahead of Fittipaldi, while, at a greater distance, Scheckter follows today in fourth place with Tyrrell, and Peterson. It's not an exceptional advantage, but it has its psychological and technical weight, tangibly demonstrating the competitiveness of the 312-B3 and the hard work of the entire Maranello team. And there's another consideration to be made immediately. This circuit was considered by Ferrari drivers and technicians as unsuitable for single-seaters. Now more favorable terrains are coming up, such as Brands Hatch and the Nürburgring: the positive momentum should continue, and Lauda and Regazzoni's position should strengthen. Moreover, all in all, the second and third places of the Austrian and the Swiss show that the cars performed well even at Dijon. In fact, if annoying vibrations in the tires had not occurred, the result of the French Grand Prix might have repeated that of the Netherlands. At least, according to Lauda's statements, he could have easily contained Peterson and the Lotus's attack. Vibrations in the tires and the entire structure of Lauda and Regazzoni's 312-B3 arose almost immediately, making it more difficult for the two Ferrari drivers to control the cars and forcing them to approach the curves less quickly due to an increasingly marked understeer. Is it the tires' fault (finding the exact combination of compounds and covers is always an exhausting problem), or have other factors altered the delicate balance? There's no need to worry too much, given how it ended. At the end of the race, Ronnie Peterson says:
"It was a fairly easy race. I started well, then immediately went sideways, and I was afraid of going off the track. Catching up with Lauda quickly charged me. After a few laps, I realized that Niki's Ferrari must not have been in the best condition, and I waited for the right moment to pass. No problems until the end, except for slight vibrations in the tires".
Niki Lauda adds:
"After about seven laps, the vibrations started. The car was very understeering, and it was difficult to drive. It's only for this reason that Peterson passed me. I don't know if I would have ended up winning, but certainly in the very early part of the race, I was easily controlling Ronnie and the Lotus. Anyway, I'm happy the same. It's the first time I lead the World Championship standings, and I really hope to stay there. Brands Hatch and the Nürburgring are two excellent circuits for Ferrari".
For his part, Clay Regazzoni says:
"My car was also understeering. The vibrations started at the start, and gradually, the situation got worse. I was afraid for a while that Scheckter would pass me, repeating the Nivelles joke, then I calmed down because I understood that he wouldn't succeed. I have the impression that by now, the most dangerous opponent for the title is Lauda".
Ferrari's sporting director, Luca Montezemolo, emphasizes:
"I think we at Ferrari should be happier today than in the Netherlands. We were afraid of this circuit, and instead... we are leading the World Championship standings with a certain advantage, and two great favorable Grand Prix are waiting for us. We are not yet at the decisive turning point of the championship, but it is certainly a moment of extreme importance".
Finally, Emerson Fittipaldi:
"It is clear that I am disappointed, especially because today I had a fantastic car that worked very well. At the start, I got caught by Pryce, losing a dozen seconds, but in a few laps, I made up for the disadvantage. But it was destined to end badly. The oil pressure dropped, and I turned off the engine. However, the fight for the title certainly did not end here. The championship remains open, and I'm sure I can make up for it soon".
At this point, it is natural to ask: if these Ferraris come second and third when they have some trouble, what happens when everything goes well? It was an interesting French Grand Prix that made the 50.000 enthusiasts at the Dijon mini-circuit palpitate under scorching sun.