Naturally enough, in their own Grand Prix, there are more French drivers having a dabble in Formula One than ever before. In addition to the established French team members, Depailler (Tyrrell), Beltoise, Pescarolo and Migault (B.R.M.), and Jarier (UOP-Shadow), there are entries for Jose Dohlem in the Surtees team, taking the place of Carlos Pace, Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the second Williams car, Gerard Larrousse in the Italian Finotto team, and Jacques Lafitte in the Token, though the last named did not materialise. Apart from Pace being in a spare works Brabham, run under the Hexagon banner, everything is more or less in order and as before. Team Lotus have made the decision to use their old Lotus 72 cars as the first-string team cars, and to relegate the new Lotus 76 cars to the role of development vehicles for the rest of this season. The bally-hoo with which the Lotus 76 was introduced at the beginning of the year as the John Player Special has turned out to be the non-event of the winter, but everyone has a head turn now and then and the Lotus 76 looks like being Colin Chapman’s worst effort so far. The old Lotus 30 and Lotus 40 sports cars are not exactly high spots in the Lotus story, but the 25, 49 and 72 have been so fantastic that they more than make up for the failures. The 76 is not written-off and some of its features, notably the rear suspension, have come up to scratch and will be retained in the design-book at Hethel. It is just unfortunate that John Players went to such vast expense and trouble to introduce the 76 before it was ready. The Type 72 in its 1974 form is still one of the best-looking Grand Prix cars on the circuits today, and as usual Peterson is all set to do his utmost with 72/R8, while Ickx is not saying much about 72/R5. As 1T the team has JPS110 for Peterson to test, this normally being Ickx’s car, but the pedals and so on had been altered so that the Swede could drive it, as JPS/9 is undergoing sorne major alterations back at the factory.
The two Type 72 cars had been fitted with new front wishbones giving a slightly wider track, a little over an inch on each side. In the Tyrrell team all is normal, with Scheckter in 007/1 and Depailler in 007/2, while last year’s car 006/2, which Tom Wheatcroft is waiting to put in the Donington Racing Car Museum, is standing by on a trailer for emergency purposes. The Texaco-Marlboro-sponsored part of the McLaren team are using the new inclined inlet trumpet layout on the cars of Hulme and Fittipaldi, they both sharing the same spare car, while Hailwood has two Yardley-sponsored cars to himself. The Brahham team are unchanged from previous races, and have their 10-in. diameter cotton-reel rear wheels with them to try the latest Goodyear experiments, Reutemann having BT44/1 and BT44/3, while von Opel is in BT44/2, but wondering if he is ever going to make it as a Grand Prix driver. The two works March cars are driven as usual by Stuck and Brambilla, while Regazzoni and Lauda have the works Ferraris, 014 and 012, respectively, with 011 as a spare. In the BRM team peace had been reclaimed by modifying the cockpit of the original P201 so that Pescarolo could get into it, this necessitating new fuel tanks in the cockpit sides, with the access holes in the monocoque being moved from within the cockpit to underneath. All this work means that the car is a bit delayed and it arrived after practice had begun. Beltoise is in P201/02 and Migault is back in P160/10, that Pescarolo had driven briefly at Zandvoort. The Shadow team are in good form, with Pryce and Jarier in their usual cars, with the spare car with Jarier’s number on it, while Team Surtees have completely rebuilt TS16/02 into the new form as first seen at Zandvoort, with the water radiator across the back under the aerofoil and the curved monocoque sides without the flat extensions on the top, while the new nose cowling devoid of openings is fitted.
This rebuilt car is for Jochen Mass and TS16/05, the Zandvoort car, is being entrusted to Jose Dohlem, from the Surtees Formula 2 team, the dispute with Carlos Pace having ended in a separation. As mentioned Jabouille joined the Williams team, alongside Merzario, and Pace joined the Hexagon team alongside Watson, the works Brabham BT42/3 having some brown stripes on it to distinguish it from the actual works team. Schuppan is in the 1974 Ensign, Kinnunen in his ex-works Surtees TS/16, Hunt has both the Hesketh cars at his disposal and Hill and Edwards have their usual Embassy-sponsored Lola cars, with a spare one in the background. All told there were thirty drivers in the pits ready to start practice, and only the fastest 22 were going to be accepted on the starting grid, leaving eight as spectators. When practice begins on Friday morning the day is superb, with not a cloud in the sky, and apart from waiting to see whether Lauda or Peterson is going to set the pace, and which of the other regular runners is going to be up there with them, much interest is centered on the new-boys to see who is going to make the grade and who is going to be left out of things. A few people are interested to see whether Carlos Pace is going to prove what was wrong with the Surtees team, now that he is in a Brabham, but even before he starts practice his team manager is explaining how Pace had been home to Brazil and had caught a bug and was not feeling too bright. Whether it was a Brazilian bug, or a flea in the ear that he caught as he left Team Surtees, is not clear, but he never got beyond being amongst the tail-enders and non-qualifiers. In the B.R.M. camp hopes are pinned on Beltoise who has the latest engine in P201/02, this having new cylinder heads with a wider angle between the inlet and exhaust valves. It does not take long for the pattern to be set, with lap times of under one minute being the aim, but surprisingly it is Fittipaldi who is fastest with 59.20 sec., closely followed by Depailler with 59.43 sec. It seems hard to believe that we are at a Grand Prix.
With lap times of less than a minute, it seems more like USA oval race, and the circuit calls a for so little ability that everyone and anyone is within hundredths of a second of each other. Shortly before things come to a halt for the lunch break, by which time many drivers had put in 50 laps, Depailler does not come round. He had got off line in Tyrrell 007/2, and was holding it in a full-lock slide with the power hard on, trying to stop it spinning, when the rear wheels suddenly found grip and shot the car across the track and into the Armco, wrecking the right front corner and creasing the monocoque. The stocky little Frenchman says in all honesty that had he let it spin off into the gravel there would have been no damage done, but he tried to bring it straight with the power, which proved to be an expensive mistake. The result is that Tom Wheatcroft’s museum piece is unloaded from the trailer and made ready for the afternoon practice, as 007/2 is beyond immediate repair. It had been estimated that everyone would be lapping in under a minute, with the faster drivers down around 55 or 56 sec., but it is not to be so, only Fittipaldi and Depailler breaking the minute in the first session. The excellent weather continues during the afternoon and as everyone gets into the swing of things more drivers join the under 1 minute clan, but there are no signs of the 55-sec. laps that had been talked about. Depailler goes out in the spare Tyrrell car, but it was nothing like as quick as the one he crashed, and he was unable to break the 1-rnin. barrier, and his team-mate Scheckter is taking a long time to get into the rhythm of sub-one-minute laps, even after more than 80 laps of practice. Fittipaldi is still going well, and briefly tried the experimental McLaren rear aerofoil that is mounted extremely low, below the normal height, so that it can take advantage of exceeding the 1-metre rearwards limit from the axle centre line, but it does not seem to offer much advantage. Stuck came walking back to the pits, having left his March out on the circuit with gearbox trouble, and he then goes out in Brambilla’s car.
Though he is quicker than in his own car, he is not among the top runners, and is not even as quick as his swarthy Italian team-mate, the fire seeming to have gone out of the young German’s driving after crashing so spectacularly at Monaco and then having another accident at Zandvoort. The new B.R.M. engine is not performing well at the top end of the rev-range so preparations are made to replace it with a normal unit, and Pescarolo just manages to get in two timed laps when his modified P201 eventually arrived. Due to the wrangles of the Formula One Constructors Association and their closed shop methods, Schuppan was prevented from practising the Ensign and Kinnunen his Finnish-sponsored Surtees. There are now seven drivers in the under 60 second club, these being Lauda, who is fastest with 58.91 sec., Peterson, Fittipaldi, Reutemann, Regazzoni, Jarier and Hunt, though the results sheets look a bit like a British hill climb, and not like the oldest Grand Prix in history. On Saturday morning the lovely blue sky disappears and everything is grey and overcast, though it is still warm. In fact it is about ideal for fast times and when it all starts up again in the morning session, Reutemann is trying the 10-in. diameter wheels on his Brabham, Peterson is having a brief go in the Lotus 76, while Ickx is waiting for his car to be finished off. It is not long before a cloud of smoke heralds the end of Merzario’s practice as his engine blows up and he coasts to rest opposite the pits. It is proving an expensive trip for Frank Williams, as Jabouille’s engine had broken the day before. Then another cloud of smoke sees Migault returning to the pits with oil everywhere except in the engine, and there is a pause in practice while Merzario’s car was collected. The politics had been settled and Schuppan and Kinnunen continue to practice, though neither driver showed much hope of getting into the select 22 runners who are going to qualify. The material destruction continues when Brambilla has a wheel break up on his March and the whole car is wrecked beyond immediate repair, he escaping unhurt from what was a pretty lurid accident.
The wheel which failed is of a new type of construction, so someone is due to go back to the drawing board of the inspection department. There is another pause in the practice while the wrecked March is towed in, and then away they all go again. Lauda is staying in a class of his own, if driving at Dijon can be called class, in that he is the only one in the 58-sec. bracket, and before the Saturday morning session finished Tom Pryce stirs things up by consistently taking a short cut across one of the corners on the back part of the circuit, and confounds everybody by making second fastest practice time, in 59.11 sec. There are now eleven drivers in the under 60 club, Pryce, Hailwood, Scheckter, Hulme and Jarier joining the exclusive set. As the afternoon session is beginning a gentle shower of rain descends from the grey sky and there is a marked absence of activity, for it is obviously not going to last long and there isn’t much to be learned on the wet track. Sure enough it soon dries up and everyone starts on their final fling, either to get higher up the grid, or merely to get on the grid. A one-minute lap is going to ensure a starting position, but anything over one minute and one second is going to be too slow. Regazzoni spins off on the long fast right-hand bend leading onto the finishing straight and gets all tangled up in the wire catch fences, and there is a break in practice while the Ferrari is towed back to the pits. The damage is very superficial, and the car is soon ready to continue practice. Peterson is fastest in this final session, ousting Pryce from the front row of the grid, but not beating Lauda’s best time, so the Ferrari is on pole position with the Lotus 72 alongside. Last of the lucky 22 was Migault with the third B.R.M., just behind Graham Hill and everyone on the grid had lapped in under 1'01"0, Lauda’s fastest being 58.79 sec. and Migault’s 60.86 sec. Those who get left out are Schuppan (Ensign), Pace (Brabham), Stuck (March), Dohlem (Surtees), von Opel (Brabham), Kinnunen (Surtees) and Larrousse (Brabham), and Jabouille (Williams).
Sunday is bright and sunny and in the half-hour test session first thing in the morning Brambilla tried Stuck’s March, as his own was not repairable, and he went a lot quicker than the German had gone, so was all set to take his place on the grid with 741/1-2. The start is scheduled for mid-day, and before that there is a nostalgic parade of old Grand Prix cars driven by old Grand Prix drivers, and once they will have all returned to their own paddock the Formula One cars will go off on a warm-up lap and then line up two-by-two on the dummy grid. All 22 cars move forward to the starting grid and are kept there far too long, so that Pescarolo and Mass are beginning to have trouble holding their cars against the clutch. One or two engines are beginning to get a bit warm and Pryce is eyeing his temperature gauge anxiously when the starting signal is given, so gets caught on the wrong foot and makes a hesitant start. While Lauda and Peterson race for the first corner there is a bit of a shambles behind them, for Reutemann’s Brabham, while dodging about in the pack, hits the side of Pryce’s Shadow which is deflected across the track right into the path of Hunt’s car, the Hesketh and the Shadow colliding for the second time in two races. The incident causes Jarier to virtually come to a stop and also Hulme is put off his stroke, so as the field covers the opening lap a lot of it is not in the order expected. Lauda beats Peterson to the first corner and is well ahead at the end of the opening lap, so that it looks as though it is all over as a race. However, Peterson has different ideas and has his sights firmly fixed on the fleeing Austrian, while Regazzoni is in third place, followed by Hailwood, Scheckter, Ickx, Fittipaldi, Depailler, Watson, Beltoise, Merzario, Brambilla, Hulme, Edwards, Hill and Jarier, Migault already being on his own at the back.
Mass lasts only four laps before retiring with a burnt-out clutch, and after the dust had subsided a bit Pescarolo can be seen walking back to the pits having parked his B.R.M. before the end of the first lap, also with a burnt-out clutch. Reutemann gets round to the pits, after his starting line accident, and though the car is sorted out a bit, it is not right and he finally gives up after lapping at the tail of the field. Hunt and Pryce are out as a result of the starting line incident, so with the race barely started the field of 22 cars is reduced to 18. The two Ferraris, with the lone Lotus between them, are pulling away from the rest of the runners, and Hailwood is gradually elbowed back from fourth place to sixth place as his McLaren feels unsteady with its shock-absorbers not functioning properly. Surprisingly, in view of the closeness of the practice times, the field soon separates into small groups and the expected jostling bunch in mid-field does not materialise. By 10 laps Lauda and Peterson have pulled away from Regazzoni, who in turn is well away from Scheckter and Fittipaldi; then come Hailwood, Ickx and Depailler, and a little while later Watson, Beltoise, Hulme, Merzario and Edwards, with Brambilla, Hill and Jarier bringing up the rear, Migault seemingly in another race altogether. Hulme is carefully picking his way through the slower cars at the back, taking a long while to get past Beltoise, While nearer the front Fittipaldi in the other Texaco-Marlboro McLaren is wishing he can find a way by Scheckter’s Tyrrell. At the front of the procession, Peterson is closing relentlessly on Lauda’s Ferrari and on lap 17 the Lotus sweeps by into the lead with no fuss or bother, and steadily pulls away.
From then until the end of the 80 laps Peterson can do no wrong, the car is running perfectly and handling perfectly, even as the fuel load diminishes and the tyres wear, so that there is nothing that Lauda can do but try and keep the black and gold car in sight. His vain hope that something would break on the Lotus was of no avail, nor was the hope that Peterson would get baulked by a slower car when lapping the back-markers. The Swede goes by the slower cars as if they were not there, and in fact, it is Lauda who gets slightly delayed on occasions. Regazzoni is in a solid third place, but losing ground to the leader and his team-mate, and behind him Fittipaldi gets by Scheckter, in fourth place, the young Tyrrell driver hanging on to the Brazilian. Hulme is up into 9th place and is closing on Depailler and Watson’s efforts to stay ahead of Beltoise are confounded when his Cosworth engine goes flat in its ignition department. By half distance complete monotony has set in for Fittipaldi drops out with engine trouble, Watson is forced to stop at the pits, and both Lolas are in to change tyres that were giving trouble. Peterson is steadily lapping everyone, and Lauda is doing his best to follow him through the traffic. With Fittipaldi gone, Scheckter resumes fourth place, and Hulme gets by Hailwood and Depailler and is firmly in sixth place behind a rather uninspired Ickx. Nothing changes before the end of the race, though Scheckter closes up on Regazzoni and makes one or two half-hearted attempts to get by at the end of the main straight; at least Regazzoni considers them to be half-hearted, and he has no intention of moving over and giving third place to the Tyrrell. Once again Peterson restores the faith in Team Lotus, having driven in his usual hard and determined manner and as everyone wounds down after the merry-go-round and realizes it was all finished in just over 1 hr. 21 min., it was hard to believe the French Grand Prix had just taken place.