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#306 1978 French Grand Prix

2022-08-06 01:00

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#1978, Fulvio Conti, Maria Macrì,

#306 1978 French Grand Prix

Following two weeks after the Swedish G P, the immediate topic o f interest at the flat and featureless Paul Ricard autodrome is the matter of the coo

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Following two weeks after the Swedish Grand Prix, the immediate topic o f interest at the flat and featureless Paul Ricard autodrome is the matter of the cooling extractor fans on the Brabham-Alfa Romeos. Instant action is taken by the Formula One Constructors’ Association and the C SI and the outcome is that they are declared to be illegal, but the results of the Swedish race are to stand. In consequence the Brabham team appear in France with the same two cars, Lauda (BT46/6) and Watson (BT46/4) without the fans and all the cowling and back in the form in which they raced before Sweden, with front-mounted water radiators. The rest of the entry is more or less as seen previously, with numerous small modifications to some of the cars, described elsewhere in this issue. With the circuit being long enough to accommodate everyone for practice there is no need for any pre-practice seeding o f the rabbits and all 29 drivers are ready for the Friday morning practice session from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The Ensign team replace Ickx with the Irishman Daly, the Finn Rosberg is still number two in the ATS team, and Giacomelli is driving the third works McLaren. The morning is hazy and ominously still, with almost total cloud cover as practice begins, not at all the travel agent’s idea o f the South of France, but nonetheless ideal for fast motoring, providing it remains stable. The circuit hasn't been used for Formula 1 since 1976, when Hunt set the fastest practice lap in 1'47"89 with a McLaren M 23, and fastest ever was Lauda (Ferrari T 2) in 1975 at 1'47"82; of little interest in view o f three years’ progress. The official lap record was set up during the 1975 French G P by Jochen Mass in a McLaren M 23 at 1'50"6. The vastness of the pit area at Paul Ricard, and the comic, circus-like layout whereby half the field come into their pits under a bridge, while the other half are passing over the bridge on their way out of their pit area, makes the whole scene very remote and detached.
 
Add to this the fact that the track itself and the signalling wall are so far from the pits that they could be on another circuit, and it is easy to see why practice at Paul Ricard is all a bit detached and characterless. The morning doesn’t not really get under way before a sprinkling of raindrops come down, and that is it, the cars are covered up and everyone disappears, and at that point Lauda is holding fastest time with 1'45"0-1'52"0, but in truth the scene has not really got under way properly. The rain spots don't develop so everyone reappears and gets on with practice, though there are damp patches on the circuit, which prevents any all-out 100% laps, so no-one approaches Lauda’s time. Andretti has an almighty spin when he hits one of these damp patches, which bounces the Lotus 79 over a kerb and up into the air, to land on its nose, all at 130-140 m.p.h. The nose of the car is crumpled and the forward part of the monocoque is distorted, but during the lunch-hour the Lotus lads hammer it reasonably straight and reset the front suspension as best they can, but there is no way of removing the crease in the aluminium panel over the front of the cockpit. The afternoon session is a bit better and lots of drivers get down to Lauda’s morning time, while Watson goes better than them all with an all-time best of 1'44"41. The Alfa Romeos are proving very fast, extractor fan or no extractor fan, but Andretti is only five hundredths of a second away from Watson, in spite of the bent monocoque. Rather than make a backward step and use one of the obsolete Lotus 78 cars, Andretti prefers to stick with the Lotus 79 even though some of the adjustments are at their limits to align the wheels and suspension. Watson and Andretti are in an elite class of their own, in the 1'44"0, and then come Lauda, Tambay, Peterson, Scheckter, Hunt, Reutemann, Villeneuve, Laffite and Jabouille all in the 1'45"0, with some of them capable of going faster still and others not. After these drivers the times become a bit academic, while there is more than six seconds between the fastest and the slowest. The Alfa Romeos are clocking 286 k.p.h. (177.7 m.p.h.) down the back straight, while Tambay’s McLaren is only doing 275 k.p.h. (170.9 m.p.h.) and the Ligier is doing 270 k.p.h. (167.8 m.p.h.). 
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During the afternoon there are a remarkable number of cars spinning off at corners, but the Paul Ricard circuit is so vast and forgiving that sloppy driving is encouraged, rather than penalised. Somehow practice doesn’t seem to have the urgency that is normal for a Grand Prix, and Saturday morning being grey and cool does nothing to help. During the untimed test session of 11/2 - hours on Saturday morning there is rain in the air and there is very little apparent excitement to herald the final hour of qualifying in the afternoon. During the lunch hour hordes of amateur racers are let loose on the circuit in Renault R5 saloons and they wreck part of the barriers, so there is a 30-minute delay to the Formula 1 practice, while repairs are carried out. Everyone is strapped into their cars and all warm up and ready to go at 1:00 p.m. when the delay is announced. Naturally everyone unwinds, gets out of their cars and stands around not knowing what to do, so that when the final practice eventually gets under way it creeps  into action, rather than the more usual full-blooded charge. Lauda is quickly into the 1'44"0, followed soon after by Peterson and Hunt, while Andretti is still juggling with his variables, especially tyres. There are a lot of sticky Goodyear tyres about, almost of a sponge rubber texture and some cars are tearing them to bits in one lap, a mere 31/2 miles! Goodyear moves in with operation overkill to ensure that Michelin are totally humiliated on their home ground, and the operation is completely successful. The two Ferrari drivers and the Renault are never in the picture, and Goodyear feels they have repaid the blow they received when Michelin won the United States GP (West) at Long Beach. That victory by the French tyre firm did not go down at all well with the Goodyear hierarchy. Lauda holds on to the fastest lap for the afternoon, but Watson still holds the overall fastest lap and pole position, from his time of the day before. Hunt is in great form with the now old-fashioned McLaren M26, while Peterson is really getting into the groove, and things are beginning to come good for Andretti.
 
At last practice seems to be reaching its normal tempo, and with fifteen minutes to go there is a feeling of a lot of teams being wound up tight for a lastminute do-or-die effort. Then it rains, and practice fizzles out like a damp squib. If the Renault R5 saloons hasn’t caused the 30-minute delay the whole front end of the starting grid might look very different. As it was, the front row is held by Watson and Andretti, with all the usual top runners with them in the front half. A total of 26 cars are taken for the race, so this meant three non-qualifiers and these are Merzario, Derek Daly with the Ensign and Rebaque with his brown Lotus 78 car. Rene Arnoux has quietly got the lone Martini M K23 well into the grid, Stommelen is not in the same class as his young Italian team-mate Patrese, in the golden Arrows, while Giacomelli is still feeling his way along in the third McLaren works car. The ATS cars fill the back row of the grid, Rosberg scraping in by two hundredths of a second, driving the newly completed spare ATS, having abandoned his original car on Friday morning. For a change the sun appears on Sunday morning and it is more like the South of France as a record crowd thronged onto the dusty plain on which the Autodrome is built. During the 30-minute test-period before lunch all manner of troubles arise. The Copersucar team have fitted a rebuilt engine into the Fittipaldi F5A/2 overnight, and now it refuses to run properly, so rather than waste time in a fruitless search for something that may not be found, a change back to a known engine is made in record time. At the other end of the pits Villeneuve tries the spare Ferrari, number 035, and finds it much better to handle than 034, which he has used throughout practice so decides to use it in the race. The Williams 002 breaks bottom gear in its Hewland gearbox, so Alan Jones changes over to the spare car 001 and the Shadow mechanics are vainly trying to trace a misfire in Regazzoni’s engine. Tambay has problems with his gearbox, but they are soon sorted out. The Renault team have prepared R S01/0 2 with a new engine for Jabouille, and the second car is being rigged up with a camera on the nose for a publicity circus act.
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After interminable small-saloon car races for Championships and a vast parade of Renault cars to illustrate their involvement in the sport, with the Le Manswinning Renault driven by Jean-Pierre Jaussaud bringing up the rear, the time approaches for the serious business of the French GP over 54 laps of the flat autodrome. As the 26 cars leave the pit area to do a lap round to the grid the spare Renault, with its camera on the nose, joined in, driven by Jackie Stewart. As the competitors take their places on the grid Stewart positions the Renault R S01/03 at the head of the field for the most incredible circus-act promulgated by the Elf cinema division. Half-way down the grid the Renault mechanics are looking mournfully at the smoke issuing from the exhaust pipe of Jabouille’s car, while their spare car in full health is unobtainable at the front of the field with the wee Scot strapped in the cockpit. Saying he will never drive a single-seater racing car again, Stewart is not only in the Formula 1 Renault but sitting on the grid with 26 eager racing drivers behind him. Stewart leads the field away on the pace-lap and we just hope the camera hasn’t fall off at this crucial juncture of the 1978 French (comic) Grand Prix, especially remembering Stewart’s loud words at the Nurburgring when a camera falls off a Porsche and puts Graham Hill’s BRM into the bushes; but serious safety neurosis is only skin deep where money and publicity are concerned. Unkind people are saying it is the only way Renault can ever get a picture of their car leading a Grand Prix field. The Renault racing team are saying nothing, just looking anxiously at the smoke issuing from 02. Everyone arrives back on the grid safely, Stewart makes himself scarce and all eyes are on the red light, especially those of Watson and Peterson, remembering recent starts. The green light shone and the start is a superb one, with the Alfa Romeo and the Lotus on the front row matching each other on acceleration. Watson has the advantage going into the first corner and Hunt tries to follow him through, but Andretti oppes him off and so do some others. Watson still leads out onto the long back straight, but the black

 

Lotus is right behind and before they reach the end Andretti pulls the 79 out o f the slipstream and goes by into the lead. By the end of the opening lap it is all over. Andretti and the Lotus 79 pull away into a firm lead, looking completely calm and smooth. After his good start Hunt is down in sixth place, with Peterson fifth, Lauda fourth and Tambay third, Watson still in second place. The Renault quietly expires with a broken engine, amid a lot of red faces, and Regazzoni was in the pits with his engine still misfiring. On lap 3 Lauda takes third place from Tambay, and on lap 5 Peterson moves the young Frenchman down another place, so we now have Lotus 79 leading and pulling away, then the two Brabham-Alfas and then the second Lotus 79, with no-one else in the game for the lead. Alan Jones is driving hard, as he always does, and is holding on to the two works McLarens, safely ahead of Scheckter’s Wolf and Laffite’s Ligier JS9 and Patrese’s Arrows. Peterson is clearly not content to be in fourth place, especially with two Brabham-Alfas between him and his team-leader and he soon pressures his way past Watson and sets his sights on the back of Lauda’s car, but he doesn’t have to make much effort. On lap 9 there are wisps of smoke from the Alfa’s exhaust pipes on the left side and on the next lap Lauda slows dramatically and limps round to the pits, the engine sounding very rough and not on 12 cylinders. A quick look in the left-hand air-inlet box is sufficient; there are bits of valves, guides and other nastiness to show that the Alfa Romeo engine had destroyed itself. The Cheshire-cat grins in the Lotus pit are fully justified as the two beautiful, efficient, sleek black Lotus 79 cars have it all wrapped up in first and second places, and only ten laps of the race run. It may be all over as far as Team Lotus and a lot of people are concerned, but there is one man to whom the race is anything but over; that is James Hunt. As the Brabham mechanics are looking at Lauda’s broken engine Tambay arrives at the McLaren pits with his left rear tyre deflated. By the time it is changed and he rejoins the race poor Tambay is down in nineteenth place, while Hunt inherits his fourth place.

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Almost unnoticed at this point Depailler retires with a broken engine in his Tyrrell, and Villeneuve stops for a change of Michelin tyres. Reutemann has already been in and changed his and it is unbelievable to see the two Ferraris running last and next to last. Before their stops they have been an unspectacular thirteenth and fourteenth, at the back of the mid-field runners; now they are not even in sight of the rabbits. Still smarting from being carved-up on the opening lap Hunt is now giving it all he’s got and closing on Watson’s Brabham quite quickly. By lap 16 he passes the Ulsterman without any trouble and pulling away, though not closing on the two Lotus cars in the same way. Meanwhile, his young French team-mate is picking up places in a most impressive manner, his smooth style being very suited to the geometric curves of the French Autodrome. In fifth place is Alan Jones with the Williams, flying the Saudia Airlines colours well, and fending off attacks from Scheckter and Laffite. When Hunt gets past Watson it puts renewed vigour into Jones and he draws away from the Wolf and the Ligier and begins to attack the Brabham, fourth place being well worth fighting for. While the two Lotus cars have command of the race, with Peterson closing up relentlessly on Andretti, Hunt is hanging on to them in a spirited and heroic drive, shutting the mouths of those who have rubbishing him recently. The battle between Watson and Jones has reached stale-mate, as has that between Scheckter and Laffite, while Peterson is now right up behind his team-leader. The way the seventy-nines set on the road makes you cheer or cry, depending whose side you are on. At half-distance, which is 27 laps, Andretti leads Peterson by a few lengths, Hunt is still in a fighting third place, Watson is a tenuous fourth with Jones right behind him in fifth place. In sixth and seventh and equally close, are Scheckter and Laffite, then comes Patrese all alone in eighth place, Pironi ninth, Fittipaldi tenth and Tambay already up to ninth place, disposing of Stuck’s Shadow. Jochen Mass is leading the rest, in the order Lunger, Keegan, Arnoux, Stommelen, Brambilla and Giacomelli.

 

The two Italians are higher up but the Surtees driver has a big spin and nearly collects his team-mate (oh happy John!) while the works McLaren lad goes straight on at the chicane at the western end of the circuit. Lapped by the leaders are Rosberg, who makes a pit stop, and the two unhappy Ferrari drivers. Giacomelli disappears on lap 29 when his engine blows up and Reutemann stops for another change of tyres, but Michelin lose their way and a set of Kleber-Colombe will be as good. Villeneuve makes a second change of tyres and rejoins the race just behind the Watson/Jones dice, though a lap behind, he then proceeds to stay with them, at times looking as if he’d like to overtake, and with the red car fizzing about behind him Jones finds his concentration being distracted just when he is ready to attack Watson. This is most unfortunate for it really looks as though Jonesy-boy is capable of taking fourth place from the Brabham. After a slight relaxation in the middle part of the race Hunt renews his efforts and though he never gets close enough to challenge Peterson’s second place, the Swede is very conscious that the red and white McLaren is just behind him. For a few laps the first three cars are equally spaced and in sight of each other, but then Andretti begins to pull away slightly, but Peterson still has Hunt large in his mirrors, even though he isn’t looking in them, preferring to judge things from his pit signals. In mid-field Fittipaldi is going very well, catching and passing Pironi’s Tyrrell and now he is attacking Patrese’s Arrows and disposes of him with ease, the yellow Brazilian car for once pleasing its driver and encouraging him to have a bit of a go. Alas, it is pride before a fall, for on lap 44 a nut comes undone on the left-hand rear lower suspension member and the wheel collapses inwards, leaving the Brazilian stranded out on the circuit. While Hunt is trying to worry Peterson into making a mistake, Laffite is really giving Scheckter a rough time for the end of the race is in sight.

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Every time the Ligier makes a move the Wolf parries it and this goes on right to the end, the two cars actually starting their last lap side-by-side, sitting it out into the first corner, but the Wolf wins, and they finish the last lap wheel-to-wheel with the French crowd urging the blue car on, but the dark blue and gold Wolf has it by mere inches. Meanwhile the leading trio start their last lap equally spaced, but the two black cars finish on their own. Hunt loses concentration on that last lap when he feels sick, and spins, but he gathers it up and finishes a safe third. At the end of the leader’s lap Tambay keeps going hard right to the end and catches and passes Pironi with three laps to go and with a few more might catch Patrese. His ninth place does not do justice to his driving. Of the tail-enders Keegan retires almost unnoticed out on the circuit with a broken engine, and Lunger retires right opposite the pits with a similar Cosworth complaint after a good drive which gets him up into thirteenth place. With five laps to go Reutemann makes a third stop to try yet another type of Michelin tyre and is then credited with a new lap record; small compensation for a miserable weekend. 

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