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.
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.
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.