#335 1980 French Grand Prix

2022-08-22 00:00

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#1980, Fulvio Conti, Nicole Masi,

#335 1980 French Grand Prix

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 th


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.


It has been thought that Renault’s are going to run away on this circuit, with the 1.8 kilometres back straight, but it doesn’t take long during the hour and a half of testing to realise that something is going wrong. Admittedly Arnoux and Jabouille are recording the highest speeds through the timing beams at the end of the straight, with well over 190 but the Ligiers and the Williams are easily matching them on lap times. The reasons are technically very interesting and are enlarged upon elsewhere in this issue, but basically it is a case of the circuit offering the choice of the ultimate speed or ultimate cornering, or combination of both, any one of the three able to provide the same result, but all centred around the crucial long straight and its entry corner and its exit corner. The first sign of trouble in the Renault team comes when Jabouille arrives at the pits with a merry oil fire going on in the engine compartment, a piston has failed and oil has been pumped out of everywhere onto the red-hot exhaust pipes and turbo-charger. Apart from the blown up engine the damage is fairly light but it means that Jabouille has to take the spare car for the afternoon timed session. In the next pit the Ferrari team looks on with interest, knowing it will be their turn next to cope with highly supercharged 11/2-litre engines, though at the moment they are more concerned with the fact that the T5 can not make full use of its Michelin tyres, no matter how Villeneuve tries. Both Ferrari drivers are so far back that one or two of the back-field drivers can be forgiven for getting excited. For the one hour timed session in the afternoon the wind is as strong as ever, but at least the skies stay clear and blue. The 10 knot wind on the back straight occasionally gusts up to 20 knots and most of the time is nearer 15 and terminal speeds are anywhere between 180 m.p.h. and 196 m.p.h., depending on whose timing beam readings you look at, and there is one from each of the more serious teams. However, terminal speeds do not get you a place on the grid, nor do lap times taken by individual time-keepers; it is the lap times taken by the official time-keepers that count.
It isn’t long before a Ligier, a Williams and a Renault are recording times close to 1'40"0 and then breaking into the rho 1'39"0 bracket. The Grand Prix cars have not raced at the Paul Ricard circuit since 1978, at which time they left the lap record at 1'48"56 courtesy of Carlos Reutemann with a T3 Ferrari and fastest practice lap that year was by John Watson with a flat-12 Alfa Romeo engined Brabham in 1'44"41. Already it is very clear that the old lap record is nothing to aim for and it is quickly transpiring that Watson’s fastest practice lap of 1978 will not qualify for this year’s select 14 starters. Laffite is in the spare Ligier, with the latest body panels fitted and it is obviously set up for ultimate times rather than race conditions. Arnoux is in as good a form as ever and the deceptive Pironi is the fastest of all though the long curve at the end of the straight. Both Williams drivers are in there with them, Jones trying the spare car and going a little bit quicker in it than in his race-car. There are a bunch of really hard runners up at the front, all of them out to win whatever the prize and it is a pity the Brabhams can not get their cars balanced right between speed and handling to allow Piquet to be in there with them. Saddest of all is to see the Ferraris down among the lower mid-field also-rans, their handling looking awful at high speed compared with the top runners. Their Michelin tyres look the same as those on the Renaults, but the Ferrari chassis is obviously not making the most of the rubber as the French cars are. Down at the back of the field Lammers is driving the Ensign MN12 as the later car is still being worked on, but he can’t match the times he could have done in the ATS and is not even as fast as Surer in the Anglo-German car: which must prove something or other. Of the mid-field lot, and sadly that still includes the Lotus team with their opulent looking Essex-backed cars, McLaren are showing improvement with Prost up in eighth place, but still nearly two seconds off pole position. The Ligiers are the undoubted pace-setters and both drivers are well in the 1'39"0 bracket, but Arnoux Reuteman and Jones are hard behind.
If you can’t get below 1'40"0 you are not going to be in the race for the lead, and if you can’t get below 1'44"0 you might not even get the grid. In the moments of this critical hour Laffite sets new standards with a time of 1'38"88, almost 10 seconds under the existing lap and five and a half seconds better than the pole-position time. When it is all over you feel that a big spring, which has been wound up tight, has been released. It is something of a relief to watch the gentle passage of the historic cars which came afterwards. A nice gentle ERA, 250F or Bugatti is very relaxing after 500 bhp/12.000 rpm/1.320 lb. projectiles driven by hard and determined men like Laffite, Arnoux, Reutemann and Jones. On Saturday morning the wind has but the skies are still blue and the session begins on schedule. Another engine is installed in Jaboille’s Renault RE23, Jones is trying things out in the spare Williams. Scheckter is using the mulatto Ferrari while own car is having the engine changed. The second Ensign (MN 14) is finished and running, Depailler is becoming more convinced about the smaller-engined Alfa Romeo and is planning to race it, and everything is boiling up nicely for the final timed practice session. Still the Ligiers are fastest but the Williams team are pretty confident they can deal with them on race day, though Renault’s confidence has taken a hard knock when Arnoux’s engine has gone sick with a leaking head joint. As the spare car is tailored to the lanky Jabouille there is a panic change of engine on RE24 for Arnoux. Before the morning session ends there is gloom in the Ensign camp, for Lammers has crashed the MN14 pretty extensively, and they have just finished fitting a whole new skirt system to the car. The Brabham team are at work on Zunino’s car with the engine out to cure an oil leak, and the de Angelis Lotus is receiving a lot of mechanical attention. It begins to get very hot in the afternoon with a lot less wind than the day before, and while the heat is good for tyres and their stickiness it is bad for engines, especially while holding maximum rpm for over a mile on the back straight.
Jabouille’s Renault has not been going properly in the morning so he uses RE22 for the afternoon session and Scheckter is still in the T-car while his own is being finished off. Lammers is in Ensign MN12 and Piquet is in the spare Brabham trying 15" diameter front tyres among other things. Zunino and de Angelis are both having to miss the first part of the crucial final hour while mechanics slave away to finish work on the cars. Arnoux completes four laps in the Renault RE24 with its new engine, recording 1'39"86, when there is a big bang and oil everywhere as another turbo V6 engine has expired. Consternation is building up in the Renault camp and it reaches its peak when Jabouille arrives at the pits with another oil fire underway in the back of the car. The engine has blown up at the end of the straight and the hot turbine has set fire to the oil that has blown out everywhere. The team has now consumed four engines and none of their cars are runners. Unlike some lesser teams who slam the door in your face under adversity the Renault team remaines remarkably affable, but with furrowed brows. In the background there is serious discussion going on amongst Renault and ELF engineers and the big wheels of those two companies. Meanwhile the Ligiers were pounding round remarkably trouble free with the Williams cars hard behind them. The time that Arnoux had set the day before was still good for second place on the grid, but as Pironi and Jones approach it there is nothing the Renault driver can do to defend his position. With less wind and more heat it is proving difficult to improve on Friday’s time, but even so Arnoux’s position was very tenuous. On Friday Arnoux had recorded 1'39"49 and now Pironi has equalled it, while Jones is only one hundredth of a second away, but try as they might neither of them could improve. Laffite could not match his Friday time, but that didn’t matter as it was secure for pole-position. Pironi and Jones are in the second row and all the Frenchman needs is an improvement of one hundredth of a second to move up on the front row, while Jones needs two hundredths.
When you look at a hundredth of a second on a stop-watch it seems unreal, but it makes you realise what a knife-edge the top runners are on and how changing conditions of track or car can stop your progress no matter how hard you try. In a vain effort to get Pironi on the front row the two Ligier drivers go out together to leap-frog each other down the straight, using each other’s slip-stream to try and get that vital improvement, but the track surface has deteriorated with rubber and oil and heat. Jones is trying his utmost right to the end, while poor Arnoux can only stand and watch. Once again there is enormous relief when the chequered flag came out, some teams breathing a sigh of relief, others depressed and some content. Ligier are pretty confident, Williams are grimly determined, Renault are baffled, Ferrari bewilder and Brabharn sad. There’s a McLaren ahead of us, said Gordon Murray. The fastest 24 of the two days were in the race and Ensign are far from happy with a badly crashed car and the other in 26th place. While Shadow fails to qualify both their cars, which is becoming a habit. Ferrari are in unbelievable 17th and 19th places, among the Arrows and Tyrrells and not far from the Fittipaldis. Marc Surer is in a very respectable 11th place in the ATS, which says a lot for the yellow one against the red, white and blue Ensign that didn’t qualify. The timed hour runs from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. so everyone has lunch after it is all over and it is  a very joyous Ligier team who sets down to their open-air lunch en famille, with Guy Ligier at the head of the table full of mechanics and engineers, and the two drivers at the opposite end of the table. Not only are they first and third on the grid, they are the top French team in their own Grand Prix and earlier in the week Guy Ligier had signed over a big share of his team to a combine of Talbot and Matra in readiness until 1981. In the back of the Renault pits the top-brass of Billancourt and Elf are still in discussion and looking very serious and not a little worried. The engine failures seems to have started in the area of the pistons (made in Germany by Mahle) but the reason was not clear. They are still running 1.8 atu of boost and temperatures were all quite normal; they have good reason to be worried.

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.


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