#272 1976 French Grand Prix

2021-04-14 00:00

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#1976, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Livia Alegi,

#272 1976 French Grand Prix

Only a few years ago, in the posters of the races in Great Britain, it could often happen to read, to entice spectators to flock to the circuits: "It


Only a few years ago, in the posters of the races in Great Britain, one could often happen to read, to entice spectators to flock to the circuits:


"It will be a great show of noise and speed".


Today, however, in the midst of the current ecological campaigns, between speed limits, more or less for energy saving and worrying calculations of hair dryer, we will see less and less of these emphatic statements. Indeed, there is a possibility of them being literally overturned. New Zealand journalist Eoin Young worried in his regular column a few weeks earlier:


"Racing is one of the few areas of motorsport where it seems no one has made an effort to reduce noise. But we're certainly not far from it, and the laws will be tough when they come. In motorcycle racing, raucous multi-cylinder machines must lower their noise below 105 decibels; for speedboats, the limit is 95 decibels. Under the U.S. Noise Pollution Act, many of the small dirt tracks near cities are being closed, and many others must be run with mufflers. But Americans are also concerned that government legislation, in states like California, will make desert tracks off the road".


Perhaps that's why CSI is concerned, and there are many who espouse Paul Frére's thesis, which by now is already ready to take over rally and silhouette racing. All this explains the big push for the turbo, which becomes the cheapest and most powerful silencer. And that's why it will end up, as Ferrari says, supplanting atmospheric engines:


"Even I, who twenty-five years ago decreed the end of the supercharger, will have to readjust to have one studied...which is already in advanced preparation".


Nevertheless, Ford, which a decade ago subsidized the eight-cylinder Cosworth engine for Formula 1 Grand Prix in a very critical moment for the British teams, from London, on June 17, 1976, lets it be known that it has decided to intervene again with an allocation of 500.000 pounds for the preparation of a new engine at atmospheric pressure able to compete successfully with the power of Ferrari. The new engine will be developed by Cosworth that will give it, as it has done so far for its DFV, to any team that requests it. Since several units will have to be set up before starting the sales, the new engine will probably only be in action at the end of the next season or at the beginning of 1978. Moving on to the topic related to the drivers, the news that has been circulating for some time now seems to be almost a certainty: Niki Lauda could race for Tyrrell. This choice can be understood by keeping in mind two things, one which happened recently, the other a long time ago. Let's start from the second one: it is now a widespread opinion, in the Formula 1 world, that Lauda wins because he drives a Ferrari, which is considered the best car in the lot of the current single-seaters. Those who know Lauda outside of racing say that the Austrian, considered a shy man, is always very shaken by these remarks. Lauda, in order to silence these criticisms, and also in light of the results obtained in Maranello with the development of the World Champion car, has convinced himself and wants to convince himself that he (rather than the car) is the winning component of Ferrari. For this reason it is probable that he will race for Tyrrell, where Depailler could go instead of Scheckter, because now with the six wheels the South African has become an estimator of Tyrrell and Gardner. 


Depailler would then go to Ligier, which would find money for the second car from Gitanes, as long as the driver is French. Lauda supposedly chose Tyrrell also because he is convinced of the validity of Gardner's chassis and of the choice of the six wheels. In addition to Tyrrell, there are two novelties coming: the next new Cosworth engine, and/or the possibility of mounting the Renault turbo. The other option would be the Williams: Walter Wolf, the Austro-Canadian millionaire who bought all the Hesketh to pass the material to Williams, founding a team in his name, is obviously not happy with the performances obtained not only from Ickx (considered his biggest disappointment) but also from the inexperienced Leclére; and perhaps of Frank Williams too, who has not been able to do much despite having an excellent material available. Wolf, whom some have researched at English, American and Swiss banks, has proved to have a more than excellent economic availability, both liquid and non-liquid. Allegedly, Wolf offered Lauda to finance a Formula 1 car made by the Ferrari driver with which he could race himself, a bit like the Fittipaldi-Copersucar solution. Those who know Lauda well say that he has never hidden his desire to build his own car. But truthfully, the possibility of passing to Tyrrell seems more real, also because Lauda wants to recover in earnings. In Ferrari, in fact, he receives very little money to be a World Champion, about one third of what the two greatest showmen of the Circus, Fittipaldi and Stewart, earned with the world title in their pockets. Enzo Ferrari reportedly confided to a friend recently:


"They are trying to take Lauda from me. It's a shame, because today someone like him is hard to find".


As Lauda leaves Ferrari, who will replace him? With the push of his particular patron, who pays him at March for now, Peterson could become the Ferrari star, the very Swede who recently refused to move to Ligier. Perhaps Regazzoni will also sign up with Ferrari or could be offered a Fiat dealership for liquidation in Lugano to leave. Nowadays, the two who earn the most in Formula 1 are always Fittipaldi and Peterson. The latter has also been contacted by the First National City Bank, which is leaving Penske next year and has proposed an engagement of 225.000.000 liras to the Swede, the same amount as Copersucar to Fittipaldi. It must be said that before the Swedish Grand Prix, exactly on Wednesday, Ronnie and Tyrrell met in an unknown place and talked for two hours. Regarding Fittipaldi, the 720 general managers of the sugar cooperative (Copersucar) have reconfirmed their faith in Emerson for next year. Despite more than disappointing results, the contract expiring at the end of the year was reaffirmed. In fact, Copersucar apparently hired a designer, officially to fine tune the current car, but in reality to make a new one for 1977. The last news, in this jumble of market rumors, alleges that Reutemann has declared that he will leave Brabham at the end of the year because he is unhappy. He could be also a candidate to replace the Austrian at Ferrari, while the second driver to be placed side by side to Peterson has not been chosen yet, but could be Brambilla, who is also tired of the current situation of the March. In the days preceding the French Grand Prix weekend the drought is felt, despite the optimistic information that television continues to broadcast to calm the alarmed French.


At Le Castellet, the town hall communicates that it is not able to provide water because the reservoirs are in crisis; the drought forces the organizers to use the reservoir of the Paul Ricard circuit, but the water is absolutely not drinkable. After the victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in anticipation of the French Grand Prix, Belgian driver Jacky Ickx returns on the Wolf Williams; the other Belgian, Patrick Nève, after competing in the Belgian Grand Prix with the Brabham managed by RAM, replaces Chris Amon on the Ensign, who was injured in the Swedish Grand Prix and therefore is not in perfect shape,. At RAM, British driver Damien Magee takes the place of Jac Nellemann. Magee's only participation in the Formula 1 World Championship was in the 1975 Swedish Grand Prix, driving a Williams. A second Hesketh is also entered by Penthouse Rizla Racing for Guy Edwards, who has been missing in the World Championship since the 1974 German Grand Prix, racing with a Lola from Hill's team. The Copersucar also lines up a second car again, always for Ingo Hoffman. Henri Pescarolo returns too, with his Surtees of the Norev Team, while the Boro does not appear. Initially Ligier announced the engagement of the other French driver Jean-Pierre Jarier, coming from Shadow, on a second car to be driven alongside Jacques Laffite. Jarier had been preferred to Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Later on, however, Jarier is not confirmed, and then takes part in the Grand Prix once again with the Anglo-American team. Saturday 3 July 1976 there are twenty-two minutes to the end of the official tests, the last day valid for the search of the best starting positions. On the track all the top drivers go down and check each other, but none of them manage to improve. Lauda desperately tries to get the best time, but suddenly his engine stops working and the Austrian driver sadly returns to the pits, signalling Cuoghi and Audetto, who hurriedly go to meet him.


During the last tests Lauda hears a noise (a valve, he will then tell Forghieri), and prefers not to risk a more serious breakdown, abandoning the possibility of beating Hunt for the first position. Hunt has the satisfaction of setting the best time, a 1'47"89, in the second practice session on Friday. Lauda is only twenty-seven hundredths of a second slower; after that, the commissioners decide not to consider valid the times set by the two Ferraris in the first session of practice on Friday, July 2, 1976 due to a technical irregularity. In the first session of tests the best time is that of Carlos Pace, who runs in 1'48"75 with the Brabham-Alfa, clearly leaving everyone behind. The car shows that it can rise to the occasion, finally with bigger air intakes to allow the engine to breathe freely. The more powerful engines (with 525 horsepower at 12.500 rpm), brought in a hurry on Friday night by the blue Autodelta truck, driven by Calloni, also do well in the tests. It's a pity that a water sleeve breaks on Pace's car, causing the engine to lose power (six hundred rpm less), and preventing him from  being able to approach the time made in the first session, losing even almost a second. The other Brabham-Alfa, driven by Reutemann, also has problems, such as the water radiators that are too small, despite the fact that the Alfa technicians and Carlo Chiti told them that they had to mount larger specifications. The result is to have the water temperature on both cars at one hundred degrees, until the radiators are changed. At Le Castellet the quasi-De Dion tube of the Ferrari 312 T2 is finally seen in an official test: the event is followed with curiosity and interest by all the mechanics present in the pits. However, the results provided by the tests, though they cannot be considered definitive (it is to be believed that the development of this solution can be more advanced) are not such as to suggest the adoption of the novelty for the race.


The reigning World Champion does many laps with and without the De Dion tube with the new 05039 compound tires made especially by Goodyear for this solution. The results are in favor of the De Dion by a hundredth of a second but, given the small advantage, Lauda prefers to continue with the four independent wheels, which he has more experience with. The three cars brought to Paul Ricard, including the mule, are therefore prepared with the normal suspension for the free practice on Saturday morning. This adoption of the De Dion tube is however a necessity, it seems, because the Zeltweg tests with the Goodyear also confirm that, with the new hard compounds, the 312 T2 is not able to express itself at its best, just because its particular geometry of the suspensions (that now are being revised) does not warm up the tire in a way that guarantees the full stability and use of power to the wheels. Lauda's best lap with the De Dion tube is 1'49"87, without 1'49''88. However, these times will later be cancelled, both for Lauda and Regazzoni, who had set a 1'50''20. At Ferrari they try various types of ailerons, to choose the most suitable for the characteristics of the circuit. The three ailerons are those marked with the initials Q7, Q10, while the third one does not have an identification code yet. The real novelty, however, is the presence of partial fairings on the front wheels on Lauda's car in the first official tests. The fairings had already been seen at the time of the presentation of the T2 at Maranello and had already been considered not fully compliant with the rules on appendages having an aerodynamic function. Mauro Forghieri tries to pass them off as air intakes to cool the brakes, but this version is not accepted. At the end of the day, the first in the lead-up to the French Grand Prix, Hunt improves and takes the lead of the time classification, with a 1'47"89 that will allow him to start on the first row.


Behind Hunt are Lauda and Depailler, who is struggling to set up the car according to his needs, then Regazzoni who improves the (cancelled) time of the morning by setting a 1'48"69 that he will not be able to beat on the last day of practice. Andretti, with his Lotus, obtains the sixth time: the Italian-American is happy with the car and the performance obtained, even if he honestly says that he expected something more. Andretti also confesses that the engine at Anderstorp was broken due to the failure of a valve. The same defect had appeared on Depailler’s Tyrrel (who had the same engine as Anderstorp) after just two test laps at the Nurburgring. Peterson, who in the morning had run three laps before breaking the engine, manages to run in the afternoon and set a pretty good time, 1'49''29, which earns him the seventh position. Scheckter, with the second six-wheeler, breaks an arm of the right front suspension and cannot attempt another lap. As a precaution, Gardner and Tyrrell change all the suspensions to both cars, because they believe the breakage occurred due to metal fatigue. Reutemann, Watson, Laffite and Jarier follow Scheckter, while Stuck, who had problems first with the gearbox and then with the engine, cannot do better than a 1'50"31, which gives him the thirteenth position. Behind him are Mass and Brambilla. The driver from Monza, who is very fast on the Mistral straight, has problems with the set-up in the mixed track and has to load the car aerodynamically to stay on the road. Vittorio tries to do better in the last tests on Saturday and succeeds. Fittipaldi (who, his friends swear, believes that the Copersucar has a macumba) is only nineteenth, with  the car’s usual problem of an unstable rear axle. The Brazilian driver is unable to improve a mediocre time, and the fault is certainly not his.


After the exciting Swedish race, Merzario has a poor engine performance in these first tests, but it is replaced in the evening, in view of the last day of tests. Ickx breaks his engine, while Hoffmann has problems with the Copersucar and closes the list of the thirty participants for the twenty-six places at the start of the race. After the technical protest of the stewards towards the Ferrari for the excessively aerodynamic air intake, suggested by Ligier and brought forward by Crombac, in the last hour of Friday practice Ferrari tries the regular air intakes and, as said, improves the time that will be then, with a debatable decision, cancelled. The nervousness in the Ferrari box is present not only in the drivers, but also in the managers and in the mechanics, to the point that, while a group of journalists is talking to engineer Forghieri, who is defending his front brakes from Crombac's attack, they are all thrown out by the mechanics. Shortly afterwards, Cuoghi too throws himself on the journalists present and invites them with very brusque manners to go and disturb somewhere else. In the non-timed tests on Saturday, which last an hour and a half, despite the strong heat, the best time is obtained by Lauda turning in 1'48"2; behind him is Regazzoni, with 1'48''9, while Hunt obtains a time of 1'49"1. Merzario obtains the same time as Reutmann with Martini-Brabham, a 1'50"2: the car is okay and Arturo places a lot of faith in the tests valid for the line-up. Depailler and Brambilla run in 1'49"4, Scheckter in a tenth more, while Lauda is the fastest even with a full tank of fuel, with a time of 1'49"94. Stuck breaks the oil pump of his March and the mechanics get to work to change the engine, hoping to make it for the last hour of timed practice. Andretti is victim of a breakage too: the pinion splits after not even one practice lap, and the Italian-American driver will be forced to miss the whole session, after he had changed the whole car compared to Friday's practice to try to have a Lotus even more competitive than the already good one of the first practice.


Pace runs in 1'49"5 with the Brabham-Alfa, showing once again that the power of the Italian engine is a reality, while Reutemann has some small problems and cannot do better than 1'50"2. In the last hour of practice it is suffocatingly hot: the thermometer reads 32°C atmospheric, the track is dirty and there are many doubts about being able to do better than Friday. Only Peterson, Watson, Scheckter, Brambilla, Nilsson, Mass, Pryce, Ickx, Merzario, Fittipaldi, Hoffmann and Ertl improve their times. Brambilla, who breaks his engine at the end of the practice, is on the sixth row next to Nilsson, who is slowed down by multiple gearbox and engine problems. Better than Nilsson is Andretti, who is on the fourth row with a time of 1'49"79. Mario is convinced by this Lotus’ possibilities and seems to have convinced Chapman to postpone the debut of the new car, which will be presented at Brands Hatch. Ligier is in crisis and hopes to make a good impression on this home circuit. But new and unresolved problems for Laffite, who is perplexed because he doesn't recognize his car, relegate the team to the seventh row, alongside Mass. In the last rows there is Ickx, who seems to be able to run his hundredth Grand Prix (and in the meantime he consoles himself with his new passion, the bicycle, winning a race and the 2.000.000 lira prize on the circuit of Castellet), followed by his companion Leclère. Fittipaldi is still in crisis; followed by Pescarolo, Lunger, Nève who substitutes Amon (who still has pain after the exit in the last Grand Prix), and Edwards. The two Brabham-Tissots driven by Magee and Kessel, the Copersucar driven by Hoffmann and the Hesketh driven by Ertl are not classified for the start, but will be able to race anyway. At the end of the tests, according to Ferrari's sporting director, Audetto, Lauda's lack of a pole position is due to Ferrari's failure to test on this circuit as the others had done. Goodyear offered as an excuse the precautionary tests it had asked Ferrari to undertake at the Nurburgring and in Austria, which the Maranello team had indeed done. Jackie Stewart states:


"Yes, Hunt went strong, I went to see the cars along the course, at the end of the pit straight, undoubtedly at the S the McLaren is the most stable ever. This does not mean that the race will be won by Ferrari".


Undoubtedly this is the general opinion at the end of the tests, not because Hunt's is a lonely exploit (McLaren is competitive and has demonstrated it, even if after Spain it has fallen very low), but rather we are surprised by how the Ferrari's advantage over its adversaries, that for two years now has often come close to a second, has now almost disappeared. In fact, now there are even some cars that are faster in testing, and it is no coincidence that at Paul Ricard McLaren presents its cars with the side radiators no longer parallel to the axis of the car, but inclined with convergence towards the front (the displacement of the oil radiators located under the rear wing by less than an inch had significantly compromised the air flow, diminishing the aerodynamic effect of the airfoil). The British teams are not surprised by this, and a quick investigation reveals that the British have worked hard on aerodynamics in recent times, partially regaining the engine power disadvantage that they had until recently against Ferrari. Waiting for the new Cosworth engine, for now super secret, the teams competing with Ferrari try to gain by working on aerodynamics. For its part, Ferrari works on new solutions, such as the De Dion tube, which will be mounted on the front axle as soon as Goodyear provides the required tires. Lauda, having finished the tests with about twenty minutes to spare, will say in view of the race:


"It will be very important not to have understeer, in the race, after ten laps they will all be understeering cars, who will have less will win".


In a long discussion with Forghieri, Lauda will decide to start with a lot of oversteer, in order to have as little understeer as possible after the ten laps. Hunt, on his part, has no doubts:


"I will win, we have tuned the car as in Spain, and we are stronger. Moreover, my engine suffers less the heat than the Ferrari's one".


While Patrick Depailler talks about the excessive disturbance coming from the wind:


"We couldn't improve in the last round of practice, too much heat and too much wind in the Mistral straight".


Carlos Pace, finally fifth with his Brabham-Alfa, analyzes the situation saying:


"After Friday's engine which unfortunately had a water sleeve break with its related small seizure, I haven't had an engine like that anymore. In the other tests I had up to six hundred laps less than the first engine. Now I think the car is very competitive, we improve every Grand Prix, and soon we will be competitive with the top guys".


Ronnie Peterson, who follows in sixth place, admits:


"I couldn't test much because the first day I broke the engine right away, in the last hour of practice. In the Mistral straight, depending on whether the wind was high or low, my March tended to rise in speed. If I hadn't had this mishap I think I could have done even better".


While Mario Andretti, who will start from seventh place, confesses:


"I thought I would start further ahead, but the differential broke in the penultimate practice and I could not set the car up for the last decisive hour".


Brambilla, in the pursuit of a time up to his potential, hit the kerb at the chicane and flew through the air for a good meter, landing back on the ground and restarting in an instant:


"My time could have been better if in the last minutes I hadn't broken the engine, just when there were few cars on the track and we could have tried to make a good time. It's a pity, because my March is very fast, even if I had to load it a little bit because I was very fast in the straight - 312 km/h - but then I had no grip in the mixed race".


Arturo Merzario, only twentieth with his March, says:


"They wanted to remove the air intake, and from that moment on, even though I wanted it, they didn't put it back on, with the result that the engine was quite good, but it didn't work very well".


And finally, a desperate Emerson Fittipaldi talks about the enormous problems encountered with the development of the Coopersucar:


"The usual problems, the rear of the car goes away from me from all sides, we changed all the suspension geometries, and even with those at Interlagos, nothing... I just don't know".


From the point of view of the tires, during training Goodyear makes people try different tires on the first day, but then imposes the type 14 for the second and for the race due to safety reasons, since there had been cases of tread separation. So, hard compound tires, as in Brazil and South Africa. In the interlude between one test and the next, Brabham wins the second round of the Marlboro Goodyear Pit Stop Competition, consisting in changing the four Formula 1 tires faster than the opponent, against Shadow. The Brabham mechanics take 20.94 to change the tires, also beating the record set in Sweden by Brabham-Tissot, which was 30.09. The Brabham team receives a prize of about 400,000 liras from Gitanes. With this exploit, Ecclestone's team qualifies for the final whose prize is £3.000.000. The next race will be held at Brands Hatch, and McLaren and Wolf will be competing. Amidst the hilarity of the moment, an Italian journalist, a close friend of engineer Chiti, lends his Benelli Caddy mini-bike to Bernie Ecclestone, owner of Brabham. Ecclestone, while starting the race, raises the front wheel and falls ruinously to the ground, injuring his right leg. Ickx wins also his Grand Prix… on a bicycle, in front of a swarm of colleagues and of James Hunt, who arrives at the finish line on foot carrying the bicycle on his shoulder, after having cut the circuit and covering the shortest stretch. Ickx wins £1.800.000, but perhaps his colleagues did not know that the Belgian is seriously thinking of racing as a professional on two wheels. In fact, when he can, he trains with an Eddy Merckx.


During the trials, riders and pit men are continuously flown over by low-flying competition planes. On board are air pilots training for the upcoming Aerial Grand Prix, which will take place at the circuit in a couple of months. The planes will have to follow the track from above and achieve certain milestones. In France, Sante Ghedini is missing and in this regard various Ferrari personalities give different versions to justify the absence: from illness to tiredness, from family commitments to work commitments for the modified Fiorano track. In reality, Ghedini seems to be tired of being at Ferrari, and will leave very soon, if he hasn't left already. With the confirmation of the Canadian Grand Prix, albeit postponed for a week, the possibility of holding the Formula 1 Research Grand Prix in Imola the week after the Italian Grand Prix disappears. The intercontinental transfers of the Circus dampened the hopes of the Imola organizers. On the other hand, at the autodrome, work is being done, despite the heat, to complete the long-standing work on the track and the plant, while waiting for the final visit of the CSI inspectors. It is exactly 3:00 PM on Sunday, July 4, 1976 when the traffic lights of Castellet, in rapid succession, start the French Grand Prix, the eighth round of the Formula 1 World Championship. There is a threat of rain in the distance, on the side of the Mistral straight, but then the wind changes and the threat is dispelled. The marshals are slow to clear the starting straight, and when all twenty-seven cars start there are still people on the track on the right side who almost get run over by Laffite's Ligier, who throws himself all the way to the right to gain some positions.


Lauda, with his 500-horsepower released on the ground with a perfect accelerator dosage, is immediately ahead of Hunt, his direct rival. The order, at the end of the first lap, is as follows: Lauda, Hunt, Regazzoni, Peterson, Depailler, Watson, Scheckter, Laffite, Pace, Reutemann, Mass, Brambilla, Andretti, Stuck. Unbelievable but true, they start in twenty-seven instead of twenty-six, because Ertl, who was the third reserve and was ready to eventually take the place of someone who had not started at the last minute, is there too. At the edge of the track they are waiting for the race to unfold because, before the start, in a long talk with Hunt, the nice blond had confided that Lauda to have had the upper hand at the start. This was because he had chosen to start with old tires that had already done fifty laps, slower at the beginning but better balanced in the context of the race. Lauda's advantage is really impressive in the first laps: the Austrian repeatedly lowers the lap record until he sets, on the fourth lap with a full tank of petrol, the best time of 1'51"0. The top positions are unchanged since the first laps, only Scheckter has passed Watson. During the first lap Peterson passes Depailler at the end of the long Mistral straight, as does Jody Scheckter with Laffite. On the following lap, the South African also passes Watson, while Laffite loses another position to Pace’s advantage. Shortly after, on the fifth lap, Mass stops at the pits because he has touched Reutemann and has to change the front nose: the German is in eleventh position. Ertl's race ends on the fifth lap too due to a transmission failure, before the black flag is shown. Lauda's advantage increases visibly: the Austrian spares nothing of his Ferrari, running an average of 1'51"0 against Hunt's average of 1'52"0. On the ninth lap comes the shock: it's exactly 3:18 PM and on the ninth lap Lauda doesn't pass the finish line, because he has broken the engine at the chicane, ending his race with a spin caused by the sudden stop of the engine. An angry Lauda will reach the pits by foot.


On the tenth lap, Hunt has an advantage of 1"6 on Regazzoni, followed by Peterson, Depailler, Scheckter, Watson, Pace Laffite, Brambilla, Stuck, Reutemann, Andretti, the two Shadow and Merzario, who has gained several positions with the March. During the eleventh lap Depailler takes back the third position to the detriment of the Swedish driver of the March; a few laps later he will be passed also by the other Tyrrell driver, Jody Scheckter. Lap 18: it's 3:36 PM when the same thing that happened to Lauda happens to Regazzoni: suddenly the engine stops, and the driver from Ticino is victim of a spin too, stopping at the edge of the track. In less than half an hour the two Ferraris are out of the race. Three engines failures over two days: an event unseen in decades. We have to go back to the German Grand Prix of 3 August 1975 to find a Ferrari engine failure: on that occasion, it happened to Regazzoni. For Lauda, we have to go back even further: Niki's last engine broke at Monza, as did Clay’s, in September 1974. The last time Lauda retired in a Grand Prix valid for the World Championship was on 27th April 1975, on the occasion of the unfortunate Spanish Grand Prix. Hunt leads the race, with a considerable advantage over Depailler and Scheckter. The two Tyrrells are proving their competitiveness once again. Peterson follows; he is doing a great race, helped by a good March, very fast and stable. Carlos Pace is doing a remarkable race with his Brabham too; he is followed by Laffite; then Stuck with his March finally in order after two days of very troubled tests; Reutemann with road holding and ignition problems; Pryce; and Merzario who still gained positions and passed Jarier in difficulty for the grip. The leading positions remain frozen until the twenty-ninth lap, when Watson passes Ronnie Peterson, author of an unfortunate attack on Scheckter, while Vittorio Brambilla stops because of the engine failure.


On the following lap Laffite, who is seventh, makes an error that forces him to spin. He thus loses several positions. On lap thirty-three Hunt's time, which on average is just under 1'52"0, is 1'52"71. Peterson is making a magnificent race and passes Watson. The race at this point lives on the magnificent comeback of Peterson and Watson: the Swedish driver at the thirty-fifth lap passes Scheckter too, and is unleashed as he goes faster than Hunt and all the group of the first positions. On the forty-first lap Watson is fourth, after having passed Scheckter, who has problems with his engine losing strokes, perhaps due to a spark plug wire coming off. Tyrrell’s South African driver continues bravely but loses many positions. Hunt, with an advantage of fourteen seconds on Depailler, continues to run very fast, partly because the Frenchman seems to be content (rightly) with the second position. On the forty-ninth lap, both John Watson and Pace overtake Jody Scheckter, penalized by a technical problem. It seems all over, but with three laps to the end Peterson passes and signals that he has some problem, and the following lap he fails to cross the finish line: it will later be known that the petrol pump was broken, and the Swede's car desolately stopped along the track. On the same lap Mario Andretti passes Scheckter and goes up in fifth position. At this point Watson is third and the positions do not change until the end. Hunt wins, crossing the finish line ahead of Depailler and Watson. Fourth is Pace with the Brabham-Alfa that this time has finally worked properly, though at the end the Brazilian driver will complain saying that he had no oil pressure. In fifth position is Andretti with the Lotus, not perfectly at ease on this track due to an accentuated oversteer. Next is Scheckter, who has managed to reach the end with a non-fully functional engine; Stuck, author of a good, fast and combative race; Pryce, who did not do any overtaking and concludes a mediocre race; lastly Merzario, who was very fast, even though he did not risk much in the final part of the race because the oil pressure was at zero in the right turns.


There are undoubtedly two key moments in this French Grand Prix, and both concern Ferrari and its drivers' retirements, when their engines broke down. Never had Ferrari broken three engines in two days; Lauda in practice and then both Lauda and Regazzoni during the race. Maybe Lauda, in the heat of the race in the first nine laps, pushed too much? Many people are wondering. In reality, the Austrian's advantage was very high, even if at the pits, afterwards, he clarifies that he had not gone very fast and that he had not forced the car too much. But the results of the first laps prove him wrong. In fact, the lap record is his, in fourth, with a full tank of gasoline. Moreover, from the official readings it is clear that Lauda actually pulled against Hunt and his teammate Regazzoni, who on his part did not spare anything. Lauda was always faster than Hunt, his direct rival, until he inflicted about seven seconds on him and thirteen seconds on Regazzoni. This shows that the Austrian drove very hard, giving it his all, just as Regazzoni did against Hunt in his pursuit, which resulted in another broken engine for Ferrari. After the foreseeable disappointment in Sweden, Ferrari were defeated once again, but were not beaten. If Sweden was a real defeat, due to multiple causes and logical, in a certain sense, on the track of Paul Ricard we are witnessing a true accident, one of those that can happen and that does not affect the actual quality of cars that are still very good and that will still have the opportunity to prove it. James Hunt won, and it was a nice thing, and the Ferraris did not cross the finish line. Two engines that stop suddenly, almost at the beginning of the race, are indeed unpleasant, but precisely because the incident happened so suddenly, and with such identity for the two cars, it must be interpreted for what it exactly is: a weakness of a part which has not withstood the strain, and which will probably be found to be defective during the examination. The Ferraris have betrayed the expectations of many people that not only from Italy had come to see them win, for the rehabilitation after the Swedish events.


People are mortified, but it was not a defeat: when Lauda had to stop, after zigzagging on the straight with the wheels blocked, he was clearly in the lead; when Regazzoni stopped, after the locked wheels in the curve threw him into the protection nets, he was close to Hunt. The race was won by James Hunt, who in practice and in race was the only real opponent for Ferrari. The man is good, and even if recently his personal problems had become complicated, it seems that he has regained high morale, which helps a lot. Ferrari and McLaren impressed the most during practice and in the race, both for their road holding and for the relative ease they gave to the drivers. The others all had some negative aspect, in a scale of values that goes down to the incredible Williams, which forced their drivers to the strangest things. Hunt says that he was calm even when Lauda retired at the beginning with no hope of rejoining the race. He says that he started with used tires, while the Ferraris started with new tires, and that the tests had promised that the tires used here could last for two Grands Prix, not just one, so he made his choice with a specific purpose. Ferrari's new tires, according to Hunt, would have caused imbalances as soon as they wore out, altering the driving conditions, and therefore slowed down the race of the reigning World Champion. After that, he could have easily caught up with him and then beaten him. There is perhaps a little bit of presumption in these statements and a little bit of subjective evaluation. Surely it was not possible to have the proof of how much this strategy was valid, but the fact remains that Hunt was immediately the opponent of the Ferrari and therefore would have been in the first positions. The others, instead, are beaten. Beaten are the Tyrrell cars, who have found very varied conditions here and not that uniformity of difficulty that is characteristic of Anderstorp which that has favored the qualities of the six wheels car. Tyrrell had to look for the best compromise between pure speed and cornering support.


Perhaps the least unfortunate solution was the one chosen by Depailler. Perhaps the French driver has been able to drive with greater finesse than his companion Scheckter. It is a fact that Depailler could at least not be overwhelmed by the others, while Scheckter had to pull behind for a long time Peterson and Watson, who took off on the straights but who was seen to fall back as soon as the braking and the curves began. Then Scheckter had to give up, and Peterson left. And finally Scheckter also had an engine failure, giving the green light to Watson and Pace, who were close from the beginning. What is certain is that Paul Ricard is not a very happy circuit for the revolutionary car, but it will be more formidable at Brands Hatch in two weeks' time. The March cars were beaten, although they were good aerodynamically, as shown by the top speed readings, but at the expense of their support on bends, when grip is needed for traction and adherence for directionality. The stunts of Peterson, who was very good, and the will of Brambilla, who was recovering when he had to stop, would not have been enough. For Ronnie Peterson, then, there was the real bad luck of the injection distributor’s failure which took away a third place that he would have deserved. The Lotus were also beaten, but for opposite reasons. The Lotus cars, which are continuously improving, and which Andretti and Nilsson were able to drive well, now have very good general qualities but aerodynamics that do not allow very high speeds. And this is why Mario Andretti, who was left alone after Nilsson had abandoned, could only fight at his best, proving to be always very good and in full shape. He won the duel with Stuck, which was one of the beautiful parts of the race, but could not do more. Shadow is also beaten, a team suffers from the departure of Tony Southgate, to whom the Lotus’ resurrection must be attributed, and whose only good driver continues to be Pryce, since Jarier is not able to leave his congenital sins. The Surtees and the Hesketh are modest; the Williams, always in a phase of an anxious pursuit of a balance that is difficult to find, and the Copersurcar are mediocre.


Brabham with its Alfa Romeo engine and Ligier with its Matra engine remain valid opponents. But Ligier disappoints the many French fans, who hoped so much in the feat. Laffite is also disappointed, as he was convinced he could fully exploit the qualities of his car, which had achieved a time of 1'46''8 in the tests made here a few months earlier, the best performance ever recorded at Paul Ricard. The Ligier was faced with a problem that they were unable to solve, an unexpected inability of the engine to reach its usual maximum speed. There was no way, and it couldn't have been just because of the heat and humidity in the air. Nor was it due to the differences between the two cars Lafitte found himself driving in practice, the old and the new, which were at his disposal after Jarier's arrival had been banned from his Shadow. The mystery of the lack of complete use of the Matra engine remains, and the facts were such as to prevent Laffite from attempting in this race the great feat, which he is always waiting for. The Brabham-Alfa Romeo, on the other hand, were good. The Alfa engines, on this track that allows them to keep the maximum revs for a long time, were able to demonstrate that they have the power, and that with adequate breathing possibilities (since this time the air intakes were proportionate) it can express itself. It is not sure if even at low speed the Alfa engines are already up at the Ferrari’s level, but what is certain is that now they really understood the need to work on the chassis, because Pace and Reutemann had to work hard to keep the cars in line in the curves. However, apart from Reutmann's misadventure, who had problems with the lubrication since the first laps, this time the two red cars arrived at the end and well. Pace finished in fourth place, later becoming third due to Watson's disqualification, and the result is one that encourages and helps morale. James Hunt's eyes are a little red when he gets out of his McLaren, at the end of the second victory of his career in a Grand Prix valid for the World Drivers' Championship, given that, as you will remember, James' first victory was twelve months earlier in a Dutch Grand Prix in which the rain played a significant role.


"It's just a bit of a cold, I've been dragging this annoying discomfort around since Friday. I would have liked to go for a swim in the sea, here in Le Castellet, but having also had two or three lines of fever I preferred to concentrate on the race".


Judging by the result, one would say that he did well. 


"Well, maybe it also depends on the fact that someone after Spain wanted to give me up before my time, and so this victory of mine sounds surprising".


Well, to be honest, from the way things were going in the early laps with Lauda, it would have taken some courage even to give Hunt only second place ahead of Regazzoni.


"Being in a tussle with Niki is something that since the beginning of the championship has attracted me. However, the advantage Niki had at the time he retired was false. In fact, while I started with tires that had already been run in to mitigate the differences in behavior between the car with a full tank and an empty one, Niki preferred to mount new tires. Evidently the Austrian thought that the characteristics of the Ferrari made it worth risking considerable oversteer at the end, if the new tires had allowed him to take a good advantage at the start. In practice, with those seven seconds that Niki gave me at the beginning, I would say that he was right, but if he had stayed in the race I would have had just as many when, from mid-race, I could have dedicated myself to his pursuit. Perhaps someone will say that this is hindsight, on the other hand I can object that having seen Niki in front of me smoke almost immediately from the exhaust I preferred to let him go, because I imagined that he would not have gone very far and therefore it was convenient for me to devote myself to Regazzoni".


Why, could Clay have overtaken you?


"I don't think so. In the laps in which he remained at my wheel, I could see that I was much faster than him on the straights and therefore, unless I made a mistake, there was little chance for the Ferrari to take the lead".


Honestly, is Hunt happier today or a year ago at Zandvoort, when Lauda finished second?


"Since we do this job to win, it's clear that if you succeed you're always happy. However, even though it's difficult for me to make comparisons, I can only say that I needed this victory. Tomorrow in Paris I can work with more grit to get my nine points back".


Nine points?


"Yes, the ones from Spain. If they are honest they have to give them back to me because I earned them on the track, not at the table. I have high hopes for the Championship. With these of today and with those, Niki could still have problems because at Brands Hatch, in Austria at Zandvoort, at Nurburgring the McLaren has always gone well".


But it is very unlikely that they’ll backtrack on what happened in Paris.


"It doesn't hurt to try, and then there's a record at stake. I could be the first driver in automotive history to win eighteen points for the World Championship in just two days. Besides, what would be the occasion to put the Ferrari guys to the test? After all, that's all we work for at McLaren".


The good mood is not lacking, but to win today without Ferrari on the field, did you struggle or not?


"Not very much. My car was going really well, I had managed to get the so-called compromise between the set-up for fast and mixed driving almost perfectly. The only problem I had was with the left front tire, which had vibrations, especially when braking. The first few times I felt anxious because I was afraid of a puncture, then I realized it was just a strain and I tried to adapt my riding to these conditions. A little more effort and concentration, but nothing more".


Some in the pits question the regularity of the Cosworth engine used by James Hunt. In this regard, at the end of the race, American manager Teddy Mayer exclaims:


"Please, let's not talk about super Cosworths, ours is the usual engine prepared by Nicholson that doesn't take more than 10,800 revolutions. If we won, it is because our car on this track goes better than in Monaco and because in these days we have worked a lot on the suspensions modifying them in some small details. And as we have seen, they have been decisive".


Niki Lauda, who returned to the pits riding a scooter of a willing man, meets Tomaini first. The Austrian whispers to the engineer: engine. Then, giving his helmet to a mechanic, he rushes to give his wife a quick kiss. His expression is marked by the utmost tranquility, one would not say that he retired when he was leading a Grand Prix with a seven-second advantage over the second. Of course, he is used to winning, but such coldness is the last straw, one might say. A cigarette lit by Lauda with trembling hands helps understand that the Austrian must have something that gnaws at him. 


"I was going on the straight when I felt the car skid: the rear wheels locked up while the engine died. I reached the side of the track and got out of the car. I don't know what could have happened. I was going well, very well, the tire solution I had chosen for the setup was ideal: 12.000 laps, not one more. I wasn't pulling, I was being a cab driver, the engine was to blame".


Unfortunately, there is no time to investigate this kind of self-confession. From the loudspeakers comes the news that also Regazzoni, committed to duel with Hunt for the first position, has stopped on track. The first rumors speak of an exit from the road. Audetto is worried that Clay is hurt because the speaker does not give any more news about the Swiss driver. But it is Regazzoni himself who dispels any doubt by walking to the pits.


"The engine stopped suddenly. I managed to control the spin and leave the car intact at the edge of the track. At the start I tried to get alongside Hunt on the curve, but James closed me down. After that, with him in front and me behind, I couldn't pass him anymore, also because he was much faster on the straight and this is the answer to the question if I could have challenged him for the first position".


This is Audetto’s first defeat as sports director and he admits:


"You all talked about the famous day when everything was supposed to go wrong: well that day has come. I don't know if that's what you were alluding to, but it's certain that it's difficult to make things go worse than this, and so all in all, at this point we're almost, in a certain sense, relieved".


Carlos Pace, voluptuously attached to a bottle of mineral water at the end of the race, automatically makes it clear how the battle has been beyond challenging:


"With a full tank my car is much heavier than the others, so in the first laps I couldn't do anything against Peterson and Watson. Then, afterwards, although I tried my best, the situation did not change because in acceleration the Alfa Romeo engine is still inferior to the Cosworth".


And Carlos Reutemann also admits something regarding the Alfa engines:


"The engine was bad from start to finish. At the end I saw the oil pressure needle going down towards zero, so I preferred to slow down to get to the end".


The Tyrrell drivers talk about their race too. In particular, Scheckter talks about the engine problems that slowed him down: 


"At one point I thought it was just a fixation of mine. From the beginning to the end I heard a strange sound in the engine: I thought of everything, a cylinder, a valve. In the long run, however, I realized that it wasn't a hallucination and that my ears hadn't betrayed me when I decided to always change gear a few meters earlier on each lap, as it turned out. Somehow, by doing that, I managed to get to the end".


While Depailler admits:


"In the first few laps I had problems with the front tires vibrating, so I had to let Regazzoni and Hunt go. Then, when Clay stopped, I was very far from James but also with a big advantage on the ones behind so, having to choose between attacking - and therefore risking - and defending my second place, I preferred to choose the second solution. Six points are always worthwhile".


Ronnie Peterson talks about the engine problem that forced him to retire with three laps to go:


"I had something with the fuel pump. It's a pity, because even though the March wasn't too fast in a straight line, I managed to get away quite well. When, after having been third, I fell back to fifth position, it happened because I skidded at the exit of a curve and Scheckter and Watson had no difficulty in passing me".


What happens inside the Brabham-Alfa environment at the end of a Grand Prix that finally sees them competitive is undoubtedly peculiar. After Ecclestone succeeded in convincing Carlos Pace to get back in the car powered by the Alfa Romeo engine when Pace confessed to Ecclestone in front of his front door in London, on his return from a Grand Prix, "It's impossible to drive" and after having obtained an agreement with the Italian company for the future renewal of the collaboration (provided that the car proved to be more competitive than the current one), the British manager delivered a letter to Carlo Chiti with which he distanced himself from the contract drawn up on 23 June 1976. Previously, Brabham and Alfa had agreed finding a compromise: the seven engines already supplied by Autodelta to Brabham are now in free use, but the British team must pay for the first five engines supplied in 1975, for a lump sum price of just over £63.000. 


"In return for the aforementioned twelve engines Autodelta will make available to Brabham, for each race, four overhauled engines".


On July 4, 1976 Ecclestone asked for five more engines, a commitment that Autodelta could not fulfill due to the lack of employees and the continuous strikes that slowed down the working process. On the other hand, Chiti raises some points of contention, including Ecclestone's failure to put in writing the clause of hiring drivers of international value. In the hours following the end of the race, a long tragicomic sequence of information and counter-information comes to life, ultimately leading to Watson's disqualification. It starts as usual with the technical checks, at the end of which it seems that the cars under discussion could be at least two, namely Scheckter’s Tyrrell and Watson’s Penske. Then the Tyrrell is no longer discussed, and the proposal will be considered valid for the Penske too, despite there being a few millimeters difference on a part with no aerodynamic influence, for the purpose of downforce that gives grip. These are the lateral flaps, the vertical bulkheads that are on the sides of the wing. Despite the fact that there will be new measures from the next Grand Prix and that influential people have proposed to consider the sin venial, the stewards decide to disqualify the American team. And it is something that causes regret because Watson does not deserve it. Especially in this race that was important for him, since he obtained his best result in Formula 1. On the other hand, the commissioners cannot go beyond the fifteen millimeters of the irregularity, especially since they had been inflexible with the Ferraris tested on Friday with the fairings on the front wheels, which Forghieri vainly tried to pass off as air intakes for the brakes.


Certainly, unless Ferrari wanted to launch an absurd challenge (or they needed to test these appendages, perhaps with a view to future solutions) it is hard to understand how engineers who are experts in technical regulations could have fallen into contradiction. All the more so because it could have been very risky: if, by chance, the track conditions had prevented high lap times in the second session on Friday and in the single session on Saturday, this could have jeopardized the starting position. Similarly, it is incomprehensible how a certain position would have led to the disqualification of the Tyrrell, guilty of having six brakes, while in a part of the official regulations it is written that the cars must have four brakes. The regulations were written when all cars had four wheels, and the imposition was explicitly made for all wheels to have brakes. Then came the six-wheelers, and the least that could happen is for each wheel to have its own brake. Quibbles of this sort are irritating, and quite silly. On the other hand, it is certainly not a quibble that prompted the CSI to decide to readmit to the Spanish Grand Prix the cars belonging to James Hunt (who had come first) and Jacques Laffite, on the principle that violations of the technical regulations had not altered the performance of the single-seaters, on Monday 5 July 1976. Sunday evening, after the Grand Prix, the McLaren men gather in the hotel to celebrate the victory but at the first light of dawn, Hunt and Mayer head to Paris accompanied by Colin Chapman, on board his private plane. The British designer will testify in favor of the McLaren team. This brings hope to the Penske for the same treatment of Watson's car. In fact, on July 22, 1976 the French Federation of Motor racing will readmit Watson in the classification. Robert Langford, secretary of the Drivers' Association, had confessed before the French Grand Prix:


"I hang out with friends who know absolutely nothing about motor racing and I have to explain everything to them. I said that Hunt had been disqualified at the Spanish Grand Prix because of a technicality, and that 1.8 centimeters could not make a difference in the performance of the car. Now, however, I am constantly asked what happened to James. If that tiny difference was irrelevant, how come he hasn't gotten any results since then? It's very difficult to explain".


But the argument is simple: it wasn't the position that was favorable, but rather the subsequent shift which unbalanced the car to the point of not allowing the McLaren drivers to express themselves to the maximum. However, in the meantime, the first part of the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship ends with this race. Lauda is summer champion, as he remains in first position in the standings with many points of advantage. The Austrian driver continues to be superstitious and does not want to hear anything about an already conquered title. However, with each passing race, things improve, because if he does not win, the winners are different. For now, however, Lauda and Ferrari can afford distractions like these. Even if these, surely, will not please the manufacturer from Modena.


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