There was never any doubt that the French Grand Prix was going to happen, the only question mark was whether Bernie’s Boys were going to join the three manufacturers teams that had entered. All the fines imposed on the drivers for their misconduct in Belgium have been paid, so everyone is in order to compete, provided they have a suitable car. The week before the event has been rife with interesting rumour, that Bernie was not going to allow his FOCA teams to take part. that certain sponsors like ELF, Marlboro, Parmalat, Gitanes and Goodyear were getting a little tired of all the nonsense, that the French would run the race with seven cars and Renault were saying they could enter a third car if another French driver could be found willing to break ranks and join Jabouille and Arnoux. The teams of Ligier, Tyrrell, and McLaren were fingering their contracts. In the end it all turned out happily ever after (or so we are told) and the FOCA teams climbed down and everyone turned up at the wind-swept and dusty Paul Ricard racing complex in time to start practice on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. It is just after 11:00 a.m. before it all gets under way, for at the last moment the medical helicopter, which is the province of the Gendarmerie Nationale, is called away because the French farmers are threatening all sorts of dire things in the locality. Eventually another medically-equipped helicopter is hired and the game begins. There are a few changes here and there along the pit lane, though none of great significance. The young Swiss Driver Marc Surer is now fit after his accident in South Africa and has returned to the ATS team, which means that the forceful little Dutchman Jan Lammers is out of a job, so Morris Nunn snaps him up for the Ensign team, having dropped Needell and Gaillard. In the Williams team the mechanics have added MBE under the name of their number one driver, following the Australian’s Royal award, and everyone fusses about their gear ratios because the Mistral is blowing along the straight at a very helpful 10-15 knots and the dust is swirling into the clean blue sky.
After all manner of sideshows and exhibitions on Sunday morning with the wind getting up again the half-hour warm-up before the 54 lap Grand Prix takes place just after mid-day. The ELF people have checked and analysed the petrol that Renault have been using and found nothing wrong, and anyway it has been the same as Ligier and several other teams are using, so Renault re-set the boost a little lower on the two new engines installed in the RE23 and RE24, for Jabouille and Arnoux, respectively. In the Arrows team Patrese is using the long tail on his car. while Mass is using the short tail. Lotus and Williams are using the new 15" diameter front tyres from Goodyear, though Brabham and Ligier are on the 13" Goodyears. Piquet is about to try both on his car and the spare, with different suspension settings redo a direct comparison and Laffite is destined to use the spare Ligier, for his own car had sprung a petrol leak within the monocoque overnight and it was not instantly repairable. The spare Ligier has been re-set to as near the race-car as possible but there is insufficient time for fine adjustments. Depailler was happy to use the experimental car with the lower engine, and Villeneuve is just going to drive as hard as he can and enjoy himself regardless of the outcome. The wind is becoming really tiresome as the starting time of 3:00 p.m. drew near, but thankfully the sun is shining, though the air is dusty. All 24 qualifiers set off from the pits to drive round to the grid and when all are assembled they are given the off for the parade lap, which Laffite leads at a pretty fast pace. Back on the grid they are held for a long time before the green light came on and released them. Laffite has made a scorching start from pole position leaving everyone standing.
Jabouille’s Renault have broken its gearbox as the car started to move and Daly and de Angelis have cooked their clutches in the long delay and had trouble getting going. Laffite is waiting for no-one, not even his team-mate, and pulls out an enormous lead on the opening lap, but from the word go Piquet (Brabham) and Villeneuve (Ferrari) have been scrabbling past other cars in the burly-burly of the opening lap. Pironi is in second place for a lap, but then Arnoux is by, in spite of being down on power, and then Jones; Piquet scratches past Reutemann to take fifth place, while Prost passes the Williams number two on the next lap making the order after three laps Laffite out on his own, Arnoux, Jones, Pironi, Piquet, Prost, Reutemann and Villeneuve. The Lotus of de Angelis is in the pits for attention to the clutch and then Prost drops from the running to change to a different set of tyres. Although Arnoux is trying as hard as he can he is holding up the bunch behind him, which benefits Laffite who is way into the distance, but not at all happy for his car has had too much under-steer on some of the fast bends and obviously the front tyres are going to suffer. On lap five there is a reshuffle as Pironi passes Jones and Jones passes Arnoux, so that the order becomes Laffite, Pironi, Jones, Arnoux, Piquet, Reutemann and the remarkable Villeneuve hanging on to this leading group. His World Champion team-leader is not enjoying himself and is way down the back behind Cheever in the Osella, with only Daly behind him. On lap eight Jones takes second place from Pironi and the two of them keep within sight of Laffite but too far back to worry him, at least as long as his tyres last. Arnoux is having a terrible time with the Renault as the boost pressure is falling and the delay on pick-up is getting really bad. Lesser drivers would have given up the unequal struggle, but not the wiry little Frenchman.
He continues to put all he can into his driving and he holds Piquet at bay until lap 11 and then has Reutemann looming up in his mirrors, with the red Ferrari still hanging on. Depailler is leading the rest in his Alfa Romeo, with Surer keeping the ATS well up behind the Italian car, but the rest are already trailing a long way behind. Scheckter stops to change tyres after 10 laps, but little good it does him, and now he really is last, and Andretti is also into the pits complaining that he couldn’t select fourth gear, but all this stuff down at the back is of little importance for up at the front the hard-chargers are all still at it, and they don’t come any harder than Laffite, Jones, Pironi, Piquet, Arnoux, Reutemann and Villeneuve. Anyone who thinks Formula One is a kid’s game should try mixing it with that little lot sometime. What had been a 15 second advantage for Laffite is now dwindling rapidly as his front tyres are wearing and the Ligier begins to drop back into the clutches of the Jones/Pironi duo. The Australian is smiling to himself for he knows now that it is only a matter of time before he takes the lead. His Williams is handling perfectly, the 15" front tyres are retaining their characteristics constant, as Goodyear technicians have said they should, and any advantage that Pironi has had down the straight and on the fast corner at the end, Jones could have done more than wipe out by his superior handling at the far end of the circuit, and in particular through the long right-hander and the fast left-hander leading onto the straight, which means that he could lead Pironi comfortably into the twists and turns at the end of the lap. Having got all that worked out the crafty Aussie could concentrate on hauling in the unfortunate Laffite. It isn’t all that easy for Laffite doesn’t give up, but the gap is closing fraction by fraction until the Williams is with the Ligier on lap 32, still with the second Ligier close behind in third place.
Piquet is a lonely fourth and Arnoux is still in front of Reutemann in fifth place but Villeneuve has been forced to stop at the pits for change of tyres. Totally undaunted he takes off back into the race at such a speed that he virtually becomes airborne over the ramp leading from the pit road onto the circuit. This stop has dropped him almost to the back of the field, behind Watson, Patrese, Mass and Fitipaldi. but he is soon catching them. Meanwhile Scheckter has been lapped by the cadets. There is a big gap where the midfield-runners been for both Alfa Romeos had retired, Depailler with a seized shock-absorber and Giacomelli with a peculiar feel to the handling and steering as if something had broken somewhere: Surer had gone out with gearbox failure. As the leaders start lap 35 it is all over, Jones is just waiting for his opportunity, which comes at the slow corners at the far end of the circuit. Laffite has made no effort to block the Williams, there is no point. and Jones is by and away, though Pironi drops in behind his team-mate for he knows there is nothing he can do about the Australian. The leading Williams is running perfectly and it pulls away from the two Ligiers while the French team groans in despair; the Saudi Arabian-backed British team has driven the frogs. into the ground, but it has been hard work. A long way back comes the lonely Piquet, still driving hard, for behind him Arnoux is keeping in front ol Reutemann by sheet gutsy driving, overcoming his lack of power and poor throttle response by sheer-hard graft. So hard, in fact, that he have bitten through his lip with concentration and determination. The rest have been lapped by the leader and Watson is leading them, though Villeneuve had caught and passed Fittipaldi, Mass and Patrese since his pit stop, and is now closing on the McLaren. With 11 laps left to run Pironi is forced to go by his team-leader for Laffite is slowing visibly as his front tyres have deteriorated, but he can afford to ease right off as Piquet is too far behind to catch him.
Going as hard as ever Jones reels off the closing laps and comes home a comfortable and worthy winner of the French Grand Prix. As he has finished his slowing-down lap one of the Williams team has handed him a large Union Jack and he drew to a stop amidst the reception with the flag flying proudly in the strong French Mistral that never relented all day. It has been a good race. Won so typically by the broad-shouldered. hard-nut Australian who is beginning to dominate the scene not by inspired brilliance but by determined application to the job in hand, backed by a very strong team of designers, engineers and mechanics, who provide him with the best tools to do the job.