Practice and qualifying at the French Grand Prix is ruined by the weather and those who have failed to produce their best on Friday are left floundering the following day as the heavens open and most of the central France disappears under a gloomy blanket of torrential rain. Obviously hoping for a good showing on home soil, particularly in view of the much-publicised fuel consumption problems which has bugged its progress so far this season, the Renault team provide the focal point of most people’s attention. Patrick Tambay also wants to do particularly well after a series of disappointing outings, and he successfully takes full opportunity of a gap in the traffic mid-way through the first qualifying session to throw pole position beyond the reach of his rivals with a 1'02"200 lap after which his RE50 suffers a major turbocharger failure which sets light to the car’s rear bodywork and leaves him stranded out on the circuit. On this occasion his English team-mate Derek Warwick seems to be on the receiving end of the trouble, his regular race car suffering engine failure during Friday morning’s untimed session which means that he is consigned to the spare RE50 for the crucial dry timed qualifying session. Despite the cockpit not fitting him properly and the fact that he doesn’t really feel in the swing of things, he records a 1'03"540 which is good enough for seventh overall. Although it is to be McLaren who would challenge Renault once the race gets under way, Team Lotus’s Renault-engined 95Ts proves highly competitive during qualifying, Elio de Angelis setting what is the fastest time of 1'02"336 before Tambay pips him for pole position. De Angelis is confident that he can wrest fastest time back from the Frenchman, but on his second set of qualifying tyres he finds himself on the dusty outside line of a fast corner when he moves over to avoid Alboreto’s slow Ferrari C4. De Angelis brakes hard to avoid an incident, and any chance of improvement is lost. The Lotus 95Ts both sport slightly revised rear aerofoils at Dijon, helping them to achieve impressively fast straight line speed figures through the timing trap by the start/finish line.
Nigel Mansell demonstrates notably confident form and although a half-spin cost him what he thinks might be a front row qualifying position, he finally ends up sixth on 1'03"200 and then impresses everybody by being comfortably fastest in the pouring rain on Saturday afternoon, demonstrating his bravery and the effectiveness of Goodyear’s wet weather rubber at one and the same time. World Champion Nelson Piquet is getting a little restless after a spate of turbocharger failures on his Brabham BT53’s BMW engines during the first few races of the year and the Munich company has been working hard in conjunction with the KKK organisation (which supplies the turbos) to improve the situation. There is another revised turbocharger design for Dijon and although Piquet’s BT53 has to have a quick engine change immediately prior to first qualifying, he nips smartly round in 1'02"806 to claim third position on the grid. The car is good, but not splendid, in his view. His team-mate Teo Fabi, who always seems to be cast in a very definite number two role, has suffered with a turbo failure in his car during the untimed session and is only allowed into Piquet’s BT53 in the closing minutes of the first qualifying hour. Despite getting tangles up quite badly in traffic, the unobtrusive little Italian does a 1'06"370 on what amounted to his only quick flying lap. Quite good under the circumstances. The McLaren International team appears with three cars as usual, Imola winner Prost going back into his original MP4/2-2 after the problems he has experienced during practice for the San Marino Grand Prix has been rectified. He manages to qualify a satisfied fourth at Dijon before his Porsche-built engine fails during his second run on soft Michelins. Team-mate Niki Lauda suffers similar failures with both his own and the spare car, winding up a very disappointed ninth quickest on 1'04"419 a batch of freshly prepared engines is flown in from Porsche’s Weissach base in time to be fitted for the cars for race day: clearly, as it is to be seen, these fresh engines have done the trick.
While the McLarens both roll round Dijon as if they are on rails, the aura of smoothness and security enhance by the tidy driving styles of Prost and Lauda, the Willams FW09s twitches and lurches from lock to lock. Team leader Keijo Rosberg isn’t unduly impressed with the revised front suspension geometry available at this race and his effort at qualifying fourth on 1'02"908 is a reflection of his dauntless enthusiasm - not the car’s handling characteristics. Whatever seems to be changed on the FW09, the abiding characteristic appears to be understeer, a time-consuming handling quirk on a circuit with as many fast corners as this. Jacques Laffite manages to qualify 12th, just behind the two Ferrari 126C4s of Michele Alboreto and René Arnoux. The Maranello team appears at Dijon with four cars, two sporting the latest specification engines (as described in Notes on the Cars from Imola) and revise front and rear suspension geometry, while the two spare cars have earlier exhaust systems and the original C4 suspension layout. Both drivers find that lack of grip hampered their performance out of the tighter corners and, although the Italian machines are quick on the straight, there is a predominant air of confused annoyance that the team hasn’t been able to reproduce the Ferrari form demonstrated so convincingly at Zolder during the Belgian Grand Prix. The second half of the grid holds few surprises, although the new Toleman TG184 driven by Senna (now on Michelin tyres) does well to qualify 13th, a feat which humbles the Alfa Romeo drivers who both line up behind the young Brazilian driver. Arrows fields only one BMW-engined car, it being Boutsen’s turn to drive it again and Ligier’s sole runner is Andrea de Cesaris in 26th position. The Italian’s dry weather qualifying time is disallowed after post-practice scutineering has revealed the JS23’s on-board fire extinguisher bottle to be empty. The net result of this is that Ligier chose to withdraw Francois Hesnault, who has qualified very respectably in the middle of the grid for his first home Grand Prix in order that de Cesaris be allows in as 26th qualifier. Most people think this is a rather illogical course of action to take, particularly as Hesnault excells in the pouring rain to be third fastest behind the Lotus twins in the second qualifying session.
Race day dawns bright and sunny, but the weather turns sour and overcast by the time the grid forms up, but at least everybody manage to get away cleanly on the this occasion. Tambay’s clutch slips badly as he moves off and, for a second, it looks as though he would be engulfed by the pack. However, he just manages to squeeze out de Angelis and Piquet to get to the first corner in the lead and for the first few laps eases way from the Italian Lotus driver and his Team-mate Nigel Mansell who has made a splendid start. To the vociferous approval of the crowd, Tambay keeps the Renault convincingly in the lead for the first half of the race, enjoying a relatively easy time when the Lotuses are immediately behind him but coming under more severe pressure as the McLarens of Prost and Lauda carve their way through the field into contention. Prost is the first to challenge Tambay, getting right up with him on lap 20 before stopping at the pits after the left front wheel begins to work loose. A vibration possibly beginning to unlock the wheel securing nut. Prost is later to climb back to fourth place before stopping again with a similar problem, finally finishing seventh. Lauda’s challenge to the Renault’s dominance is far more effective, the Austrian eventually nipping through to take the lead when fading brakes cause Tambay to run wide under taking for a tight left-hander. Both cars are destined to make routine stops for fresh tyres, Tambay pulling in on lap 44 and not losing second place. Lauda makes his stop ten laps later and Tambay re-takes the lead while the McLaren is in the pits, making it a straight race between the Frenchman and the Austrian to the finish. But the Renault is no match for the McLaren and Lauda hauls back Tambay’s advantage, going into the lead for good on lap 63 and holding on ahead until the chequered flag. Tambay’s team-mate Derek Warwick is up to fourth place, challenging Mansell, when he trips over Surer’s Arrows while the two Englishmen are lapping the Cosworth-engined car.
Warwick vaults over the slower competitor and crashes quite heavily into the catch fencing, his legs being quite badly bruised as a broken suspension arm thrust its way through the Renault’s footwell. Surer, largely innocent in this unfortunate matter, is also eliminated from the contest. Mansell is thus able to run home a comfortable third, pursued across the line by René Arnoux, the Frenchman rather disappointed that his Ferrari’s lack of grip has prevented him from contesting the leading positions. Team-mate Alboreto has briefly run ahead of him during the opening stages of the race, but a spin drops him back behind Arnoux and he eventually retires with a broken engine. Elio de Angelis, who takes the spare Lotus 95T after suffering an engine failure in the race morning warm-up session, is the last unlapped runner in the fifth place while Rosberg’s Williams understeers its way home sixth, its driver pretty unhappy about the outcome of the whole affair. Others running at the finish include the gallant Prost, Laffite’s Williams, Teo Fabi’s Brabham BT53 (Piquet has suffered another spectacular turbocharger failure after running with the leaders early in the race), de Cesaris’s Ligier, Boutsen’s Arrows (which suffers turbo failure as it comes up to take the chequered flag), Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell (which has made an extra pit stop when the young Englishman mis-read a pit signal intended for somebody else!) Ghinzani’s Osella and Jonathan Palmer’s Hart engined RAM. Both Alfa Romeo’s fail to finish, Patrese succumbing to engine failure and Cheever spinning off after stopping for fresh tyres and a new rear aerofoil to be fitted (the first one flies apart on the main straight!), while turbocharger malfunctions also claim the two Tolemans, Senna having performed very creditably up until the time of his retirement. It is certainly the most exciting race of the season and one which indicates that the McLaren International team is going to be hard to beat in the contest for the Constructors’ Championship. For Ferrari, Williams, Brabham, Renault and others there are quite clearly some serious technical lessons still to be learnt.