The regulations - for now - are safe. The CSI, the body delegated by the FIA to oversee the fate of motorsport in all its myriad sectors, cannot help but eliminate the fan used on the Brabham-Alfa Romeo cars of Niki Lauda and John Watson. But it does so with a certain regret, leaving the door open for a possible modification to the decision made on Thursday, June 23, 1978, in Paris. It seems incredible that another technical study is needed on this solution adopted by the English designer Gordon Murray. The investigation presented by Alberto Rogano, former president of the CSAI, based on an analysis of the fan in relation to the Formula 1 regulations and the testimonies of some drivers (Mario Andretti, Riccardo Patrese, Carlos Reutemann) who had not appreciated the air turbulence created by the Brabham and the shower of small stones thrown by the device should have been more than sufficient. And it should be added that it doesn't take a special study to understand that the device violates the current laws of Formula 1 and is dangerous for both the one adopting it and those around it. It takes little to understand that the fan was not designed at all to cool the engine (at most, this is a secondary function) but for aerodynamic reasons. This is demonstrated by the enormous rear apron, the large size of the fan, the presence of detectors (the Pitot tube located on the car's nose to measure external pressure), and special instruments; the waiver of about twenty horsepower and the acceptance of an additional weight of about forty kilograms. All just to cool the engine? Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Brabham and the deus ex machina of Formula 1, believed he could take everyone for granted, from technicians to viewers who on Saturday, June 17, 1978, witnessed the miraculous performance improvement of the Brabham in Anderstorp at the Swedish Grand Prix. Ecclestone, once again, played cleverly, relying on the power acquired over the years, now almost conditioning the CSI and the organizers. It's absurd that the Swedish commissioners accepted the Brabham of Lauda and Watson for technical checks. If the two cars had been rejected at that time, no case would have been created. Lauda raced with an irregular car - as the CSI ultimately admits - and his victory has much less weight, at least in sporting terms. The victory remains with the Austrian, but only because the complaints against him were not formally regular.
And here we are in the ridiculous: the blatant violation is not punished, the defect of form is punished. Ecclestone's influence is indirectly confirmed by the supplementary study on the issue ordered by the CSI, the lack of unanimity of opinions within the same CSI, and the influence he continues to have on the other constructors. Ecclestone, with his business genius, has undoubtedly brought benefits to the world of Formula 1, but now he is really abusing this power, which he can exercise due to the shortcomings of the CSI. Now all we can hope for is that the decision made in Paris on August 1, 1978, is confirmed. Otherwise, even the CSI, this time forced by the controversies that arose after the Swedish Grand Prix to stand against Ecclestone, would become an accomplice to the trick attempted by the cunning English businessman. While waiting for developments in the case, another hot race of the Formula 1 World Championship awaits the Formula 1 circus. Hot in every sense. Because it is a decisive moment (it is the ninth race of the season, there are seven more to go), because the Paul Ricard circuit is practically on the French Riviera, in the South of France, and if the weather doesn't change, sunny days and hot temperatures are expected. We are also in the post-fan era, that is, we return to the regularity of the regulations, twelve days after Niki Lauda's sensational victory in Anderstorp and the subsequent decision of the CSI to prohibit, until August 1, 1978, the fan mounted on the Brabham-Alfa Romeo, pending further measures. For the moment, however, the success of the Austrian in Sweden and the nine points earned are still on the balance. And this, added to the fact that Andretti did not score points in the last race, has caused a reopening of the battle at the top of the World Championship standings. The Italo-American has 36 points, but Peterson, third in the Swedish race, is already at 30 points, while Lauda has risen to 25, getting close to the two Lotus drivers. In the battle for the title, Depailler (23) and Reutemann (22) are also still in contention. So, five men for whom the French race takes on considerable importance, with various possibilities for movements. Before saying what the various teams have done in these days to prepare for the race on Sunday, July 2, 1978, we must once again talk about the circuit that hosts the French Grand Prix. One of the most modern and also one of the fastest facilities, characterized by a long straight that puts engines under high stress.
It is a rather long track (5810 meters) that competitors will have to cover 54 times for a total of over 313 kilometers. A grueling test for drivers and cars, to the delight of the more than 100.000 spectators that the organizers expect for their race. In 1976 (last year the Grand Prix was held in Dijon, Andretti won ahead of Watson, Ferrari finished fifth and sixth, respectively with Lauda and Reutemann), the Maranello single-seaters, due to a construction defect, broke both engines, first with Niki and then with Regazzoni, just while they were firmly in the lead of the race. The lap record belongs to Jochen Mass, with a time of 1'50"0, at an average speed of 189.114 km/h, obtained in 1975. The unofficial qualifying record belongs instead to Lauda, also in the same year, with a time of 1'47"82. The Austrian won three years ago, also setting the record average speed over the distance at 187.654 km/h. These limits, if the weather remains favorable, are destined to be significantly improved. In the days before the French Grand Prix, Jabouille, with the updated Renault Turbo (in aerodynamics) and Michelin tires, set a time of 1'45"8, 0.5s above the unofficial record set by Lauda in tests conducted in November 1977. However, Renault is not the only car to appear at Paul Ricard with innovations. The Ligier-Matra, for example, has tested a car that adopts new exhaust pipes, six in one, like those used by motorcycles. In essence, the French twelve-cylinder discharges gas only through two pipes that are facing upwards. Apparently, the Brabham fan has already set a trend. Although it is not certain that Lafitte's Ligier will take to the track with this novelty, the results seem to be satisfactory. The exhaust gas shot with great power upwards would provide some, albeit minimal, assistance in pressing the car to the ground. It is incredible to think about the sophistication that has been achieved in Formula 1. The idea of the fan has triggered a whole series of realizations, of which that of the Ligier-Matra seems the most honest and successful. As for Ferrari, the men of the Maranello team, in the hope of recovering the technological gap with the other teams demonstrated in the last races, have conducted various experiments. Noses, wings, and the same side aerodynamics of the T3 have undergone very challenging tests in the past days at Fiorano. It remains to be seen what solutions will be chosen and the results obtained.
Also because the Brabham-Alfa has removed the fan, but on Friday, June 30, 1978, it continues to play a leading role in Formula 1. John Watson sets the fastest time, and Niki Lauda the third at the end of the first day of practice for the French Grand Prix. But that's not all: two years later (last season the race was held in Dijon), Formula 1 returns to the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Castellet, considered one of the fastest in the world, and immediately we get the exact measure of how much the cars have progressed, especially the Brabham. Watson sets a time of 1'44"41, exactly 6.19s faster than the track record held by Jochen Mass, who with McLaren in 1975 had set a time of 1'50"60. The Brabham driver also improves by three seconds the limit that Lauda had set with Ferrari in qualifying, still three years earlier. Driven by the powerful twelve-cylinder Alfa engine, Watson's Brabham also exceeds 200 km/h for the first time, bringing it exactly to 200.340 km/h. Behind Watson, Mario Andretti, with the Lotus, forcefully inserts himself. The Italo-American, only 0.05s behind, precedes Lauda, Tambay, Peterson, Scheckter, and Hunt in this first provisional ranking. Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve, with the Ferrari 312-T3, are in eighth and ninth positions, respectively 0.84s and 1.14s behind the leader of the provisional standings. Saturday could change the values, but it is clear that for the Maranello team, things continue not to go very well. It was said that the long Mistral straight, a kilometer and eight hundred meters to be covered at over 280 km/h, and in general the entire circuit would favor the more powerful engines, namely those with twelve cylinders. All true, but only for the Brabham-Alfa. Ferrari and Ligier-Matra have not been able to take advantage of this superiority. The clearest demonstration of how a well-balanced car can compete on any type of circuit comes again from Lotus, and from Andretti in particular. Mario goes very fast and states that his car loses nothing on the straight. Andretti is also the only protagonist of a sensational off-track excursion that, fortunately, resolves without major problems. After interrupting the hour and a half of practice in the morning due to a brief shower, at the end of the session, the Lotus driver, convinced that the track is dry, resumes his car to complete a few laps. In the corner that concludes the pit straight, the car sways dangerously, crashing into the safety barriers.
"It was my fault. I made a mistake in judgment. I thought the asphalt was perfect, but instead, it was still damp, and I found myself off the track".
Apparently, Andretti's Lotus doesn't suffer much damage, but the front part of the chassis is bent. When Mario returns to the pits, he talks to his team owner, Colin Chapman. The latter, shortly after, argues vehemently with Ronnie Peterson, the other driver of the team. Probably, Chapman asks the Swede to lend his car to Andretti (Chapman does not yet have three Lotus 79s: the reserve car is an older model), but gets a negative answer. However, the damage is later repaired, so much so that Andretti sets his best time in the subsequent practice session (one hour) in the afternoon. The results of these two and a half total hours of training have generated much satisfaction in the Brabham-Alfa camp. Engineer Carlo Chiti, who does not spare heavy remarks against Engineer Alberto Rogano (former president of CSAI and now technical delegate at CSI, who contributed to temporarily blocking the adoption of the fan used in Sweden), says that the cars are going very well and that Lauda will be able to improve further. Niki, among other things, while preparing to search for the time in the final laps, was stopped by the breakage of the terminal of one of the exhaust pipes. Engineer Chiti states, explicitly admitting that the device is not only used to cool the radiators but also and above all to increase the air depression under the car.
"Even without the fan, on this circuit, we have achieved an excellent aerodynamic solution that increases the downforce of the car".
The surprises of the Brabham-Alfa, however, do not seem to end here: in the pits of the Anglo-Italian team, an experimental model is seen that could be tested on Saturday. In this car, the rear part of the bodywork is much more streamlined. It seems that the system could provide the same result as the fan. As for Ferrari, which introduces some innovations in its cars (namely an anti-pitch and anti-roll system), no one is making bold statements. The drivers hide behind a few words. Gilles Villeneuve says:
"I had understeer".
And when Carlos Reutemann is asked to explain his problems, the answer is succinct:
Engineer Mauro Forghieri claims that definitive judgments cannot yet be made.
"The car is the same that won in Brazil and gave a second to everyone at the Long Beach circuit. Draw your own conclusions".
The engineer also talks about tires:
"Michelin is doing everything possible, but the time available is short. Here, we used the softest tires available, almost like the ones Goodyear has certainly used for a long time".
Some argue that on Saturday morning, the French team will provide Ferrari with even softer tires. Monsieur Blanchet, one of the technical managers at Michelin, says:
"We brought four hundred tires to this circuit, with many types of compounds. We haven't been able to test them all yet. We'll see".
So, all that's left is to wait. Just as Patrese must wait, who with his Arrows only set the thirteenth time, and as Bruno Giacomelli must wait, who is currently the first to be excluded, preceded by Merzario. Between the two Italians, there will be a nice fight to qualify.
All this happens on a day once again marked by bad weather, but despite this, characterized by a desperate struggle to set the best times. Coming to the Côte d'Azur was not enough to find the sun. If Thursday was almost torrid, Friday, apart from a few small intervals, the sky is always cloudy, and it rains intermittently. So much so that the twenty-nine registered competitors were able to carry out only 45 minutes of practice in the morning instead of the scheduled hour and a half, and in the afternoon, when they set off for the last sixty minutes available, they found the track still damp. This means that on Saturday morning, in the last hour of qualification, times could be lowered even further, provided the weather behaves. Meanwhile, with a considerable advance, the driver market begins. All teams try to secure the best drivers, and contrary to what happened in the past, negotiations start well before the end-of-season calendar. One of the most talked-about is Jody Scheckter, who is persistently mentioned as a candidate for driving a Ferrari. It is said that the South African has been seen twice in Maranello in the last few months. But if Scheckter is to go to work in Italy, he starts off very badly.
"I don't give statements to Italian newspapers, and I don't want to talk to anyone".
If pressed to ask if he had an interview with Ferrari, he stubbornly denies:
"I haven't been to Maranello".
A rough start for Scheckter. If the rumors are confirmed, this brusque South African would certainly not be a champion of sympathy: and today, with races also becoming a promotional event, this would have its weight. Negative, of course. On Saturday, July 1, 1978, helped by the sky, which in the last crucial fifteen minutes of practice pours another downpour onto the circuit, John Watson and Mario Andretti remain the fastest at the end of the two days of training for the French Grand Prix. The Northern Irish driver, who for a couple of seasons alternates brilliant performances with glaring mistakes, secures the first pole position of the season.
"The race will be very tough, and I don't think it will be just a matter between Brabham and Lotus. I foresee Hunt joining with his McLaren because on this track, James has always been one of the most competitive. My car is set up, and the engine can give me a certain advantage on the long straights. Everything will depend, however, on the start. If I get it right, it could be the right time to win".
Andretti's second time apparently restores peace to the Lotus team. On Friday evening, after the Italian-American had gone off the track, seriously damaging the car, the two drivers had come to a clash. Mario Andretti had said:
"If my car is not repairable, tomorrow I will take Peterson's because by contract I can choose the better car".
While Ronnie Peterson had replied:
"Mario can say what he wants, but he won't get on my car".
However, Colin Chapman and his technicians managed to fix the car for the last day of practice. Mario Andretti now says:
"It wasn't perfect, but it could be driven. Of course, I could have done better, but the car had many small problems caused by yesterday's flight. I will make up for it in the race, although it won't be easy because Brabham is very strong on this track".
Riccardo Patrese is particularly awaited for the retest, after what he had shown in Sweden. However, the Italian driver has not met expectations so far:
"I couldn't complete a good lap because when I put on the old tires, which last one or two laps, I found myself in front of Rebaque, who, like in Sweden, did everything to obstruct me. Even though he was going slowly, he stayed in the middle of the track, and to avoid hitting him, I had to brake hard. The car has improved, but in the end, it was the engine that showed some fatigue. With a fresh Cosworth, I could have shaved off a second".
And Bruno Giacomelli is also dissatisfied, in his second experience in Formula 1 this season.
"Every lap, I realize I'm improving, but I'm not yet completely in control of the vehicle".
It should be considered that the young Italian driver, who remained stationary along the track in the morning due to an engine failure, in the last practice session is forced to use the engine discarded by Hunt after Friday's training.
"It's a shame because when I put on the old tires on the car, it started to rain. There was nothing more to be done".
Vittorio Brambilla says:
"With the tires, it's a disaster, and it's at risk of not understanding anything anymore. Goodyear gave me three sets of completely different tires in performance. One made the car go to the right, the other to the left, while in the last one, the covers had different dimensions".
Tires, tires, always these blessed tires. Nothing else is talked about in Formula 1. On Sunday, the French Grand Prix will be held on a circuit considered one of the fastest in the world, where the engine and aerodynamics should be of decisive importance. Instead, it seems that once again, the tires will decide everything. On paper, victory should be at stake among the drivers starting in the first two rows: John Watson in pole position with Mario Andretti alongside, Niki Lauda behind with James Hunt paired. But weather conditions and tire choices could influence the race and make a surprise possible. Not to forget that the long Mistral straight will also put the engines to a tough test. Why will the tires have the chance to invalidate what has been seen in the practice of the past days? The reason is simple. All teams came to Paul Ricard convinced of finding sun and heat and adjusted accordingly, that is, they asked for and obtained tires capable of withstanding very high temperatures. However, the qualifications took place always under a cloudy sky, if not with rain. If the situation changes on Sunday, i.e., if the clear sky returns and with it the heat, the ratios, the delicate balances of Formula 1 cars will change completely, and the winner will be whoever has made the better choice of tires to use. Obviously, everything seems to favor Brabham and Lotus, to which McLaren must be added, which has returned to the top with Hunt and the young Frenchman Patrick Tambay. Watson and Lauda have shown no problems, Andretti has remained at more than competitive levels, despite clashes with his teammate, Ronnie Peterson. The unknown factor is only represented by Ferrari. The drivers of the Maranello team, in fact, cannot improve the times set on Friday and will start in eighth and ninth positions, fourth row for Carlos Reutemann and fifth for Gilles Villeneuve. In the Maranello team's box, there is a real tire dance, and it must be recognized that both the technicians, Forghieri and Tomaini, and the drivers, as well as the Michelin managers, are doing everything. Every two to three minutes, in the last hour of the available practice, Carlos and Gilles stop to change tires, to adjust spoilers and wings, to modify setups.
However, the effort is in vain: Reutemann goes no further than the time of 1'45"35, and Villeneuve does not lower his 1'45"55. It is true that the final sixty minutes of qualifying are still disturbed by water in the final part, but it is also true that, out of 29 registered drivers, 17 manage to improve their limits. Lauda goes from 1'45"02 to 1'44"71, and even better is Hunt, who reduces his time by 0.6s and rises to fourth place, surpassing Tambay, Peterson, and Scheckter. This means that no more can be expected from Ferrari unless the weather conditions change completely. While the drivers continue to mutter a few words, talking about oversteer and understeer, engineer Mauro Forghieri tries once again to explain the situation.
"We don't know the reasons for these results. We are working hard, as evidenced by the fact that, compared to the tests carried out on the same track in November, we have improved by more than two seconds. Apparently, others have gone beyond. However, I want to emphasize that this situation has not made us lose either peace or smiles. We always race to win, even if, for contingent reasons, today we would settle for a good placement".
The engineer reiterates the concepts expressed previously.
"Unfortunately, we have to work alone. We chose to race with Michelin tires, a choice we absolutely do not regret, and each race is a new experience. We got pole positions at Long Beach and Monte Carlo, on city circuits full of slow corners. So don't tell me that the car has no grip, that it doesn't exploit enough the air vacuum created under the bodywork. We have full confidence in the engine. So, the problems are different. Perhaps it's about finding better compromises, tires permitting, between top speed and cornering speed".
A speech that can also make sense. All in all, Formula 1 is beautiful for this too, for the contradictions it highlights. Contradictions that come out in every race: who would have criticized, for example, that the old Cosworth engine would resist the assault of the twelve cylinders? Yet Hunt, with the McLaren M26, a car that many consider outdated, sets the highest top speed, traveling at 294 km/h on the Mistral straight. Lauda is 10 km/h faster on the pit straight, but Andretti is faster than the Austrian on the complete lap. These are difficult data to decipher, and most of the time, even the technicians themselves cannot understand the causes of certain performances. On Sunday, July 2, 1978, in the official ceremony of the French Grand Prix, the reigning World Champion pulls the rope that raises the FIA flag on the pole. A normal gesture, almost obligatory for a driver. However, on the eve, the Austrian had announced that he would not accept the invitation from the Frenchman Balestre, vice president of the CSI. In open controversy with the federal body for the decision to suspend the use of the fan on the Brabham, Niki wanted to demonstrate his displeasure. But on Saturday, when he learned that the CSI had asked the teams that had filed a complaint against his victory in Sweden to withdraw the protest, he also did his about-face. In France, there is also a new turn in Goodyear's policy on tire supply to different teams. Responding to the requests of various less-rated drivers, the American company decides to provide the best tires to all drivers. In the meantime, the sun appears on morning and it is more like the South of France as a record crowd thronged onto the dusty plain on which the Autodrome is built. During the 30-minute test-period before lunch all manner of troubles arise. The Copersucar team have fit a rebuilt engine into the Fittipaldi F5A/2 overnight, and now it refuse to run properly, so rather than waste time in a fruitless search for something that may not be found, a change back to a known engine is made in record time. At the other end of the pits Villeneuve tries the spare Ferrari, number 035, and finds it much better to handle than 034, which he has used throughout practice so decides to use it in the race. The Williams 002 breaks bottom gear in its Hewland gearbox, so Alan Jones changes over to the spare car 001 and the Shadow mechanics are vainly trying to trace a misfire in Regazzoni’s engine. Tambay has problems with his gearbox, but they are soon sorted out. The Renault team have prepared R S01/0 2 with a new engine for Jabouille, and the second car is being rigged up with a camera on the nose for a publicity circus act.
After interminable small-saloon car races for Championships and a vast parade of Renault cars to illustrate their involvement in the sport, with the Le Manswinning Renault driven by Jean-Pierre Jaussaud bringing up the rear, the time approaches for the serious business of the French GP over 54 laps of the flat autodrome. As the 26 cars leave the pit area to do a lap round to the grid the spare Renault, with its camera on the nose, joined in, driven by Jackie Stewart. As the competitors take their places on the grid Stewart positions the Renault R S01/03 at the head of the field for the most incredible circus-act promulgated by the Elf cinema division. Half-way down the grid the Renault mechanics are looking mournfully at the smoke issuing from the exhaust pipe of Jabouille’s car, while their spare car in full health is unobtainable at the front of the field with the wee Scot strapped in the cockpit. Saying he will never drive a single-seater racing car again, Stewart is not only in the Formula 1 Renault but sitting on the grid with 26 eager racing drivers behind him. Stewart leads the field away on the pace-lap and we just hope the camera hasn’t fall off at this crucial juncture of the 1978 French (comic) Grand Prix, especially remembering Stewart’s loud words at the Nurburgring when a camera falls off a Porsche and puts Graham Hill’s B.R.M. into the bushes; but serious safety neurosis is only skin deep where money and publicity are concerned. Unkind people are saying it is the only way Renault can ever get a picture of their car leading a Grand Prix field. The Renault racing team are saying nothing, just looking anxiously at the smoke issuing from 02. Everyone arrives back on the grid safely, Stewart makes himself scarce and all eyes are on the red light, especially those of Watson and Peterson, remembering recent starts. The green light shone and the start is a superb one, with the Alfa Romeo and the Lotus on the front row matching each other on acceleration. Watson has the advantage going into the first corner and Hunt tries to follow him through, but Andretti oppes him off and so do some others. Watson still leads out onto the long back straight, but the black Lotus is right behind and before they reach the end Andretti pulls the 79 out o f the slipstream and goes by into the lead. By the end of the opening lap it is all over. Andretti and the Lotus 79 pull away into a firm lead, looking completely calm and smooth. After his good start Hunt is down in sixth place, with Peterson fifth, Lauda fourth and Tambay third, Watson still in second place. The Renault quietly expires with a broken engine, amid a lot of red faces, and Regazzoni was in the pits with his engine still misfiring.
On lap 3 Lauda takes third place from Tambay, and on lap 5 Peterson moves the young Frenchman down another place, so we now have Lotus 79 leading and pulling away, then the two Brabham-Alfas and then the second Lotus 79, with no-one else in the game for the lead. Alan Jones is driving hard, as he always does, and is holding on to the two works McLarens, safely ahead of Scheckter’s Wolf and Laffite’s Ligier JS9 and Patrese’s Arrows. Peterson is clearly not content to be in fourth place, especially with two Brabham-Alfas between him and his team-leader and he soon pressures his way past Watson and sets his sights on the back of Lauda’s car, but he doesn’t have to make much effort. On lap 9 there are wisps of smoke from the Alfa’s exhaust pipes on the left side and on the next lap Lauda slows dramatically and limps round to the pits, the engine sounding very rough and not on 12 cylinders. A quick look in the left-hand air-inlet box is sufficient; there are bits of valves, guides and other nastiness to show that the Alfa Romeo engine had destroyed itself. As the Brabham mechanics are looking at Lauda’s broken engine Tambay arrives at the McLaren pits with his left rear tyre deflated. By the time it is changed and he rejoins the race poor Tambay is down in nineteenth place, while Hunt inherits his fourth place. Almost unnoticed at this point Depailler retires with a broken engine in his Tyrrell, and Villeneuve stops for a change of Michelin tyres. Reutemann has already been in and changed his and it is unbelievable to see the two Ferraris running last and next to last. Before their stops they have been an unspectacular thirteenth and fourteenth, at the back of the mid-field runners; now they are not even in sight of the rabbits. Still smarting from being carved-up on the opening lap Hunt is now giving it all he’s got and closing on Watson’s Brabham quite quickly. By lap 16 he passes the Ulsterman without any trouble and pulling away, though not closing on the two Lotus cars in the same way. Meanwhile, his young French team-mate is picking up places in a most impressive manner, his smooth style being very suited to the geometric curves of the French Autodrome. In fifth place is Alan Jones with the Williams, flying the Saudia Airlines colours well, and fending off attacks from Scheckter and Laffite. When Hunt gets past Watson it puts renewed vigour into Jones and he draws away from the Wolf and the Ligier and begins to attack the Brabham, fourth place being well worth fighting for.
While the two Lotus cars have command of the race, with Peterson closing up relentlessly on Andretti, Hunt is hanging on to them in a spirited and heroic drive, shutting the mouths of those who have rubbishing him recently. The battle between Watson and Jones has reached stale-mate, as has that between Scheckter and Laffite, while Peterson is now right up behind his team-leader. The way the seventy-nines set on the road makes you cheer or cry, depending whose side you are on. At half-distance, which is 27 laps, Andretti leads Peterson by a few lengths, Hunt is still in a fighting third place, Watson is a tenuous fourth with Jones right behind him in fifth place. In sixth and seventh and equally close, are Scheckter and Laffite, then comes Patrese all alone in eighth place, Pironi ninth, Fittipaldi tenth and Tambay already up to ninth place, disposing of Stuck’s Shadow. Jochen Mass is leading the rest, in the order Lunger, Keegan, Arnoux, Stommelen, Brambilla and Giacomelli. The two Italians are higher up but the Surtees driver has a big spin and nearly collects his team-mate while the works McLaren lad goes straight on at the chicane at the western end of the circuit. Lapped by the leaders are Rosberg, who makes a pit stop, and the two unhappy Ferrari drivers. Giacomelli disappears on lap 29 when his engine blows up and Reutemann stops for another change of tyres, but Michelin lose their way and a set of Kleber-Colombe will be as good. Villeneuve makes a second change of tyres and rejoins the race just behind Watson, though a lap behind, he then proceeds to stay with them, at times looking as if he’d like to overtake, and with the red car fizzing about behind him Jones finds his concentration being distracted just when he is ready to attack Watson. This is most unfortunate for it really looks as though Jonesy-boy is capable of taking fourth place from the Brabham. After a slight relaxation in the middle part of the race Hunt renews his efforts and though he never gets close enough to challenge Peterson’s second place, the Swede is very conscious that the red and white McLaren is just behind him. For a few laps the first three cars are equally spaced and in sight of each other, but then Andretti begins to pull away slightly, but Peterson still has Hunt large in his mirrors, even though he isn’t looking in them, preferring to judge things from his pit signals.
In mid-field Fittipaldi is going very well, catching and passing Pironi’s Tyrrell and now he is attacking Patrese’s Arrows and disposes of him with ease, the yellow Brazilian car for once pleasing its driver and encouraging him to have a bit of a go. Alas, it is pride before a fall, for on lap 44 a nut comes undone on the left-hand rear lower suspension member and the wheel collapses inwards, leaving the Brazilian stranded out on the circuit. While Hunt is trying to worry Peterson into making a mistake, Laffite is really giving Scheckter a rough time for the end of the race is in sight. Every time the Ligier makes a move the Wolf parries it and this goes on right to the end, the two cars actually starting their last lap side-by-side, sitting it out into the first corner, but the Wolf wins, and they finish the last lap wheel-to-wheel with the French crowd urging the blue car on, but the dark blue and gold Wolf has it by mere inches. Meanwhile the leading trio start their last lap equally spaced, but the two black cars finish on their own. Hunt loses concentration on that last lap when he feels sick, and spins, but he gathers it up and finishes a safe third. Abolishing the fan, the situation in Formula 1 returns, for better or for worse, to the usual one: Lotus at the top, Brabham-Alfa struggling. And Ferrari? Unfortunately, fan or not, the Maranello team continues in its current modest standard. Blame the tires, blame the drivers, blame the technicians: who knows? One thing is certain: Ferrari fans are experiencing moments of anger. Lotus returns to victory after the Anderstorp episode, and does so with the usual Mario Andretti, who secures his fourth triumph in this 1978 World Championship. And just to emphasize their superiority, the English team also secures the second place with a highly respectful Ronnie Peterson, obedient to his team leader and team orders. Successes dampen conflicts. It's a World Championship dominated by Lotus. Andretti now has 45 points, and Peterson has 36. The closest pursuer is Niki Lauda, who is at 25 points. An abyss of 20 points separates the Austrian from the Italian-American; barring sensational surprises, the games are concluded. The new 79 model of Andretti and Peterson is significantly more competitive than their rivals, who, for one reason or another, show no signs of imminent improvement. It is very significant that Lotus won on a high-speed circuit, with a straight that should have favored the twelve-cylinder engine cars, more powerful - whether Alfa Romeo or Ferrari - than the old Cosworth eight-cylinder. It was clear that Andretti and Peterson were much faster than the competition in the mixed section of Paul Ricard but were not inferior to their rivals on the aforementioned straight.
Colin Chapman, after studies and experiments, has achieved truly exceptional aerodynamics. Credit goes to him and his designers. Brabham confirms two things: first, that the times set in qualifying have a relative value and are not always confirmed in the race, and that without the fan used in Anderstorp, Lauda and John Watson's BT46 falls back into line. Forget about the engine cooling gadget, as Bernie Ecclestone claimed in Anderstorp. Without the help of the device, the Brabham-Alfa could not shine in the French Grand Prix, and, on top of that, Lauda had to retire due to an engine failure. If he had stayed in the race, could he have attacked Andretti? Idle questions, anyway, Niki, after eight laps, already had a gap of over six seconds from the Italian-American. Unfortunately, Ferrari's performance was painful, and their cars only appear on the screens when returning to the pit or about to be lapped by Andretti. It's a situation that is becoming chronic: after Carlos Reutemann's success in Long Beach, there were the unfortunate starts of the Argentine in Monaco and Belgium, then the disappointing trials in Spain, Sweden, and now France, on a circuit that, in theory, should have offered some more chances to the Maranello team. The reasons for Ferrari's loss of competitiveness are mainly attributable to the tires. An old excuse? No, let's not forget that Michelin is in its first year of activity in Formula 1 with a top team like Maranello and, therefore, is paying for the lack of experience. The victories in Rio and Long Beach had somewhat deceived everyone. However, it must also be noted that the development of tires and the car has fallen short of expectations, that it is useless to blame the drivers for the modest results obtained (unless one wants to hint at the poor efficiency of Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve as testers), and that the atmosphere at Scuderia Ferrari has deteriorated somewhat. It is unknown how Reutemann can operate serenely knowing that he will have to leave Ferrari in a few months. It's a shame. Now we can only consider this as a transitional season, hoping for some exploits in the upcoming Grand Prix and revenge in 1979. Meanwhile, on the podium, after the third double of the season, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson laugh, congratulate each other, and hug like two brothers, while Colin Chapman observes satisfied. The disagreements of recent days seem forgotten, and an idyllic atmosphere has returned to the team with the victory. Everything is fine, and there are no problems. Mario Andretti says:
"With this victory, I have restored the right distances, and now, if the devil doesn't interfere, I really think I can hope for the world title. It was a challenging race because, after the Saturday practice, we had decided to change several things on the car, and in the morning's free practice, we couldn't verify their validity. Then, in the race, I could drive with complete tranquility. In fact, I didn't push the engine beyond 11.000 RPM to avoid the risk of overheating".
Does his tranquility come from having Peterson behind him capable of blocking opponents?
"Before the start, Ronnie and I don't decide on any tactics; each of us runs his race. Of course, having a teammate behind is definitely better than having an opponent, but, I repeat, I drove with complete confidence, and I could have pushed the pace to fend off any attacks".
In the Lotus van, champagne flows like a river. Toasts in honor of this new full victory are countless, and even Peterson warms up and joins in the celebrations.
"It was a race without many problems; only in the first laps, I don't remember if the first or the second, I had some difficulties because, in a braking maneuver, I touched Lauda and bent a bit of the front wing".
After a good chase, when he arrived in second place, did he not push to the maximum? Did he have to settle for second place to protect his teammate, or was passing Andretti impossible?
"The second place satisfies me fully, also because it was pointless to fight between us".
Despite the result, one of the worst of the season, Ferrari puts on a brave face. The drivers are visibly demoralized while the technicians show confidence. Engineer Roberto Nosetto says:
"Our collaboration with Michelin continues at an increasingly intense pace, and in perfect harmony. We trust Michelin as it has very elusive research systems, so the problems that afflict us could be resolved soon".
Mauro Forghieri continues the speech started by Roberto Nosetto:
"In these days, we have tested eight new types of tires, and only those mounted on Gilles' car at the second stop have proven to be decent. They were soft compound type 51 tires, and therefore, we feared they might not last many laps, but they turned out to be positive, and Gilles' race, which kept pace with Watson and Jones until the end, confirms it".
The French race brought James Hunt back into the spotlight, and he had a good race. Hunt was the only one who somehow worried Peterson and Andretti. The Englishman, with a regular start at the first turn, was in third place, but at the end of the first lap, he was only sixth.
"The cause of all this is to be attributed to an urgent need to digest. Before the start, to avoid the risk of dehydration, I had drunk a lot, then, during the first lap, I felt my stomach burst. I got distracted and spun".
Without Peterson in front, could he have taken Andretti?
"My car, finally, has become competitive again and has not created any problems for me. Taking Andretti would have been difficult, anyway, I had Peterson in front of me...".
Riccardo Patrese failed to repeat the exciting Swedish performance.
"Too many handling problems to hope to get involved in the fight for the top positions. In fast corners, my Arrows had a strong oversteer, while in slow ones, it became understeering. Then we had completely miscalculated the fifth gear ratio, and on the straight, I only reached 11.000 RPM. During practice, we had many problems, and we couldn't run with a full tank. In the race, we paid for this lack".
Brambilla and Giacomelli, the other two Italian drivers in the race, also had little luck. The Monza driver says:
"I had started well, and for ten laps, I kept pace with the others. Then I felt a strong vibration and had to slow down. In the following laps, while trying to understand the reason for these vibrations, I got distracted and spun".
As Giacomelli explains:
"The engine shut off, and I couldn't start it again. The cause should be in the fuel pump because, before stopping, I heard the typical sputtering of fuel shortage. Too bad because I started with the intention of finishing the race to cover many kilometers and increase my experience with this car".
As usual, on Sunday evening, after the French Grand Prix, all teams quickly prepare to return home. But, contrary to what happens after every race when there is time to comment on the sporting event, the departure is a kind of competition. Everyone looks at each other to see who can get ready first, to put away cars and tools, to hit the road back. The reasons for this speed vary for the various teams: the Lotus team is in a hurry to return to England to prepare for the race at Brands Hatch. Colin Chapman has promised his drivers, especially the Italian-American, two perfect cars. Mario has won in a big way, but his was a kind of adventure.
"I was afraid because I absolutely didn't know how my Lotus would perform. Friday's accident forced us to make repairs, and we couldn't fine-tune it. In essence, it was a leap into the unknown. Everything ended well because my mechanics, on their own, without my help, managed to balance it perfectly because I didn't have the slightest problem. The credit for this success is also theirs. Now they know more than me and the engineers, and they could do the races themselves".
It is a fair recognition and also a joke, but Andretti's statement shows how perfect harmony has returned to the English team: Peterson seems to have put his head in place and is willing to help his teammate. The Swede, after all, if Mario manages to win the world title with a certain advance, can have his satisfactions and the best cars available in the final of the championship. Other motivations drive the other teams to rush home. Everyone, more or less, has to remedy their troubles. From Renault, which despite efforts and even results in terms of speed performance, continues to break engines, to Brabham-Alfa Romeo, to Ferrari. In Ecclestone's team, which astutely continues to behave with great fair play, there is not much satisfaction. Niki Lauda makes it clear that he is not at all happy with how things are going. For one reason or another, his car stops too often. In the nine races so far, the Austrian has only managed to score points in four, and it is little for his tastes and his habits as a great regularist. Probably, the engine failure in France was caused by the need to prepare an engine to counter the superiority of Lotus. A risk paid dearly, as Lauda, with his retirement, has been clearly detached in the world ranking. However, Brabham-Alfa can console itself with Watson's fourth place, who, having a less extreme car, ran his race behind Andretti, Peterson, and Hunt. Who, on the other hand, had no chance was Ferrari, a protagonist of a race that turned into a training session, a real test for the tires. The perplexities aroused by this situation are many. How is it possible that Michelin, running on the track it knows best, on which the longest and most frequent tests have been carried out, has groped in the dark in this way? Evidently, assuming that it is only the tires to be revised, the counteroffensive launched by Goodyear after the defeats in Brazil and the United States has been heavier than expected, American-style. In two months, American and English technicians did what they had neglected to do for two years when they could sleep on their laurels without having competitors. Goodyear's technical and research potential is enormous. It may be difficult to understand why such a step backward in such a short time. Engineer Mauro Forghieri repeats:
"The sophistication of Formula 1 cars has reached such levels that the components necessary to bring a car to the top are countless. Tires are one of the determining factors. If you can't put the power expressed by the engine on the asphalt with the tires, it's over. The construction of the covers and the composition of the compounds are very complicated. Just a change in ambient temperature, a slight modification of the asphalt structure of the track can alter all the ratios. Unfortunately, with Michelin, we are in an experimental phase, and we have to pay for the inexperience. Moreover, we cannot even pretend to always be at the top. Others have had their ups and downs too".
To those who emphasize that Ferrari has rarely done so badly as in the French Grand Prix, Forghieri responds:
"Ferrari fans must have confidence as we do. We are not sitting idle. We continue the work at an increasingly intense pace. The relationship with the French tire company is very close, almost daily. We are confident that we can recover. Maybe not within one or two races, but I am sure we will return to being competitive".