For a change summer seems to be coming to Europe and all is set fair when practice begins, though there is a head wind on the long uphill straight past the pits. Most teams have been testing at the circuit the previous week, so there is nothing for the drivers to learn, except to try and find a combination of tyres, wing angles, springs, anti-roll bars and shock-absorber settings that they could cope with round as much of the little circuit as possible. While the downhill left-hander causes some cars to wallow about from under- steer going in to over-steer coming out, some drivers seem able to get the car nicely balanced and can corner with the power on. The same ones can also cope with the long left-hander coming out of the new loop. Needless to say, this same group can also leave the last corner faster and thus be visibly faster on the straight past the pits. In the top bracket it really all boils down to driver ability and as practice progresses it is the usual names that appear at the top of the list, with Andretti setting the pace. Significant is the fact that Gunnar Nilsson is second fastest in the first hour and a half of practice, the only noticeable difference between him and Andretti is that the Swede is a bit untidy, with opposite lock here and there, and wheels on the kerbs, while the American/Italian is smooth and effortless. When they stop Andretti is completely relaxed and unflurried, having been driving well within his limits, as a job of work; Nilsson, on the other hand, is looking hot and sweaty, having been putting all he has into his driving, his enthusiasm and effort being well worth while. Not everyone has an easy time, the Brabham team being in trouble with their Alfa Romeo engines. Watson is delayed by ignition trouble and Stuck has to take the spare car when his own has engine trouble. A roller bearing somewhere inside breaks up and bits of bearing cage are found in the oil filter, so a new engine has to be installed. The lesser runners are also having their troubles.
Merzario’s mechanical fuel pump packs up on his ex-works March, while Neve has to stop practice when a front hub thread gets chewed up on the Frank Williams March. Fittipaldi comes into the pits with his rear aero-foil pointing tip at the sky, but it is soon put right. The B.R.M. has engine troubles. The McLaren team are quietly making progress with the M26 and Hunt is well in the running, with third fastest time overall during the morning, ahead of Laffite in the Ligier and Reutemann in the first of the Ferraris. Scheckter is being plagued by a recurrence of fuel feed trouble on the Wolf, which makes his progress very frustrating. The two Shadows are well in mid-field, with Riccardo Patrese back in number 16, and close behind Alan Jones in the other Shadow. In the afternoon the scene changes a little when Watson’s Alfa Romeo engine comes on full song and he just pips Andretti for the fastest time of the day. A mere three-hundredths of a second faster, but both driver and car look very good at that pace. Jody Scheckter is still in trouble with misfiring, and takes the spare Wolf out at the end of the session, and Stuck has to go on using the spare Brabham while the new engine is being installed in his own car. Regazzoni concentrates on the second Ensign, without the mods and finds it more to his liking, while in the Surtees team Larry Perkins is making little headway in the second car, though Brambilla is not a lot quicker. By now most of those who are going to go fast have settled on workable compromises of all the variables they can fiddle about with. Watson and Andretti are in a class of their own, under 1'13"0, while the next fourteen drivers are covered by less than one second. This suggests that the circuit is not a very difficult one. The day ends with most of the usual names in the top ten and most of the usual ones in the bottom ten, though it is the bottom seven who are going to have to make a big effort. The time-keepers cause a flutter in the works March camp by crediting Ribeiro with 1'13"89, but this is later corrected to 1'15"89, which makes more sense.
On Saturday morning it is announced from the Surtees team that Perkins is being replaced by Patrick Tambay in TS19/02, a strange move not calculated to cause much of a stir in the dove-cote. For one and half hours on Saturday morning everyone circulates on test with times not counting for the starting grid, some teams trying their cars on full petrol tanks and on tyres for the race, others still experimenting and fiddling about to try and improve their cars. By the time the final hour of practice arrives there is an air of confidence about the Lotus pits and Andretti and Chapman looks to be in complete accord. At McLaren’s all is well, for Hunt is really on form, and Mass is not far behind in the M23. Watson is not making any improvement, but Brambilla has finally got the Surtees going properly and is well in among the top ten. A surprising intruder among the elite is Rupert Keegan with the blue Hesketh, but an improvement of nearly 2 seconds looks more like a time-keeper’s error than a flash of driving brilliance. Unlike Ribeiro’s Friday time, Keegan’s is not corrected so has to be accepted as fact, though time and the race would tell. For a time it looks as though Hunt is going to hold pole position on the grid, but Andretti has the situation well weighed up. While Hunt is holding fastest time with 1'12"73, Andretti goes out for three laps and put in 1'12"21, just like that, over half a second quicker round the funny little Autodrome. He is about to go out for an even quicker lap when practice ends. You can tell that the Chapman/Andretti combine is properly tuned in for they have stopped making adjustments to the Lotus. All that is done before Andretti goes out for the three decisive laps is that water is poured over the tyres, to cool them off. Undoubtedly Chapman and Andretti know why and when they need to cool the tyres with water. Lauda and Ferrari are seen to water their tyres but for what reason one can only guess! On again Andretti and the Lotus 78 have demoralised everyone and with no visible strain.
On Sunday the race is due to start at 2:00 p.m., for 80 laps of the little autodrome, which is packed full of spectators, both the paying kind and those who came through the back doors and across the fields. The inevitable Renault-sponsored races fill in the spare time but there is no sign of the Formula One Renault turbo-charged car, though it has been out on test in the circuit the previous week. The 22 cars chosen from the list after practice set off on a warm-up lap, round to the grid, the two reserves having prepared themselves needlessly as all the qualifiers are ready to go. On the front row are Andretti and Hunt, the Lotus 78 using a Nicholson-McLaren Cosworth DFV engine and the McLaren M26 using a Cosworth Development engine direct from the Northampton factory. In the next row are Nilsson and Watson, the Lotus number two doing a great job of backing up the team leader. The Ulsterman in the Alfa-Romeo (Brabham) is well to the fore as usual, as is Laffite in row three with the Ligier-Matra V12, and alongside the Frenchman is Reutemann in the first of the Ferraris. Any of those six are potential winners and with five makes of car amongst them, four makes of engine and five nationalities, Formula One certainly provides variety. Andretti leads the field round on the controlled warm-up lap, they pause on the grid, the green light shines and the Grand Prix of France is on. Very uncharacteristically, Andretti provokes uncontrollable wheelspin on his Lotus and slithered about trying to regain some grip. Hunt makes a splendid start and is gone, while the rest area bit puts off by the smoke from Andretti’s tyres. Hunt does not wait for anyone, and he is followed by Watson, Laffite and Andretti. Round the back of the circuit Jochen Mass does the traditional McLaren high-flying act, off Reutemann’s Ferrari and while the other twenty-one cars go on their way Hermann-the-German has to limp round to the pits with a bent steering link. It is straightened with a shrewd blow and the M23 re-joins the race in last place and a whole lap down on the leader, which is still Hunt in the M26.
Andretti gets past Laffite on lap 2 and by the end of the next lap the first three cars have opened out a gap from the rest of the field. Hunt’s lead is clearly a tenuous one, brought about by the lightning start and by lap 5 Watson has stormed past the McLaren putting the red Alfa Romeo (Brabham) in the lead, while Andretti is not finding it too easy to pass the McLaren, for the reigning World Champion is having a good go. On successive laps three of the tail-enders retire, Jarier with the ATS-Penske going off the road and blaming the brakes, Purley doing likewise with his Lec and Patrese with his Cosworth V8 blown up. The young Italian has cooked his clutch at the start and dropped to the back of the field and then it has gone solid and he tried to change gear without the clutch and lack of experience of this sort of thing had caused the engine to cry enough. While Andretti is trying to get past Hunt, the leader is pulling out quite a long gap over them, the Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine seems to be singing really well and Watson is looking very confident. Laffite is in fourth place leading Nilsson, Jody Scheckter, Lauda, Brambilla, Jones, Reutemann, Depailler, Peterson, Regazzoni, Stuck, and Merzario all more or less evenly spaced out. Bringing up the rear are Ian Scheckter, Fittipaldi and Keegan, with Mass all on his own and a lap behind, but gaining on the tail-enders. It is not until lap 17 that Andretti gets past Hunt, by which time Watson is nearly five seconds ahead. Lauda has taken sixth place from Scheckter’s Wolf and a spin has put Brambilla way down the field, while Reutemann is snaking up for time lost on the opening lap when Mass runs over him. At 20 laps Watson has almost six seconds lead over the Lotus, but now rid of Hunt, the Lotus driver settles down to nibbling away at those six seconds. The column of cars behind these three is resolving itself into interesting groups, with Laffite, Nilsson and Lauda in very close company, then Scheckter and Jones, with Reutemann gaining on them, followed by Regazzoni in the Ensign and the two Tyrrells, there being nothing to choose between the two blue and white six-wheelers. Peterson is very dissatisfied with his position and stops to have the left front tyres changed and Brambilla also stops to change a front tyre.
This is on lap 21 and Depailler is also thinking of stopping to try some different front tyres, but he never gets the chance, for at the end of the pits straight Stuck runs into the Tyrrell, bending its front suspension and damaging the Alfa Romeo’s rear aerofoil side- plate. While Depailler sits fuming in the dirt, the unruly Stuck carries on. Undoubtedly the best of the private-owners, and making the works Marches look a bit silly, Merzario’s run comes to an abrupt end with a broken gearbox. Stuck loses time at the pits having his damaged aerofoil trimmed and re-joins the race a lap behind the general run of the field. Everything appears to settle down into a procession, though in fact there is some hard driving going on, even though nobody can change positions. Andretti is gaining on Watson, but only by fractions, and whereas the gap has been nearly six seconds it is now nearer five seconds. Hunt is still a secure third, Laffite is a precarious fourth, with Nilsson and Lauda hounding him, Scheckter and Jones are running seventh and eight, but Reutemann is catching them, as is Regazzoni in tenth place. A long gap ensues before Ian Scheckter and Fittipaldi arrive, having a nice scrap together, but soon to be lapped by the leader. Keegan is already a lap down and Mass is gaining on him steadily, though they had Stuck and Peterson between them, while Brambilla is running last. At half distance there is no change of position among those on the same lap as the leader, though Andretti has now got the gap below five seconds rather than above five seconds. As they begin to lap the not-so-slow mid-field runners, Andretti closes up visibly on Watson and at 50 laps the gap is down to a bare three-and-a-half seconds. The race between Ian Scheckter and Fittipaldi at the back of the field gets too close at one point and the works March gets its nose run over, necessitating a stop for repairs, while the great scrap between Lafitte, Nilsson and Lauda now becomes fouled up by Stuck; he is about to be lapped by this trio and instead of letting them go by he stays in the way and makes a complete nuisance of himself. This goes on for lap after lap, the Brabham-Alfa driver ignoring all the rules of the game and it is not until lap 66 that the situation resolves itself, and then in a most unfortunate way.
During the struggle to make the German get out of the way, Nilsson gets in front of Laffite, but still the Brabham-Alla baulked them. Finally Stuck lost control and spun, Nilsson shot by on one side, Laffite on the other and the Brabham-Alfa roll back right into the path of the Ligier and there is nothing Laffite can do. He hits the red car and damages the Ligier’s nose cowling. Thankfully Stuck cannot not restart as the cable operating the air-bottle starter is broken, so he is safely out of the way. Laffite limps back to the pits to have a new nose cone fitted, but has now lost all hope of a decent position. Meanwhile much has been happening elsewhere for Reutemann has passed Jones and Scheckter and Regazzoni is closing on them. On lap 61 the Shadow breaks a drive-shaft and Jones limps to the pits to retire after a very spirited drive. At the front of the race it is a different story altogether for Andretti is right on the tail of Watson’s Alfa Romeo, and looking for an opportunity to pass, but on the tight little circuit there is no opportunity. The Lotus is almost touching the Alfa Romeo gearbox as they start the straight, but a sizeable gap has opened up by the end of it, the Alfa Romeo being faster at the top end than the Lotus. While they are this close they come up behind Regazzoni who is equally close to Scheckter and looking for a chance to go by. The Wolf is not running properly, still having fuel feed trouble and on the lap that the leaders go by the Wolf gives a hiccough and the Ensign nudges it up the backside. Scheckter ends up off the road with a flat rear tyre, Regazzoni is lapped by the leaders but now holds seventh place, and Watson and Andretti now have a clear road ahead of them. With ten laps to go Andretti can see no hope of getting by Watson, for the Ulsterman is driving splendidly and showing no sign of making a mistake, no matter how hard Andretti pushes him. Both cars are running perfectly, and with four laps to go they are behind Reutemann, who is running in a lonely sixth place. For a short while he holds them up, but then has to suffer the indignity of being lapped by the other Italian flat-12 - shame! Into the closing laps Watson is completely confident and though Andretti has resigned himself to being second he has not given up and is still hard up behind the Brabham-Alfa.
On the last lap they go into the new loop on the back of the circuit, nose to tail; round the hairpin there is no change, but up the sharp rise the Alfa Romeo engine hesitates. Instantly the Lotus is alongside as they go into the left hand bend. Side-by-side, with their wheels almost touching they take the left-hander, the Alfa Romeo engine coughs again and the Lotus is in front and romps towards the finishing line and the chequered flag to the surprise and consternation of all those in the pits. The Brabham finishes in second place and on the slowing down lap it coasts to a stop. The fuel tanks are bone dry. A very unhappy John Watson hitches a lift back to the pits on the side of Lauda’s Ferrari, to second-place laurels. The Brabham team had calculated their fuel consumption, added 3 gallons more than they needed, but had cut things too fine. If only Andretti had not been so close Watson could have spluttered his way round that last half a lap and still won. But Andretti is that close, waiting for just such an eventuality. He is a professional racer and a race isn’t won or lost until the chequered flag is passed. He is resigned to being second, but is determined to be a close second rather than a distant one, just in case, and it paid off. He could have been coasting gently along in a secure second place, gaining valuable points for the season’s championship as the media-men tell us, but he isn’t, he is racing to the bitter end and that one hesitation as the Alfa Romeo engine ran short of fuel is all he needed. Luck maybe, but it isn’t luck that had the Lotus so close to the Brabham; that is a racer racing - each race is there to be won. All this rather overshadowed the remaining runners, but Hunt’s third place is never challenged and indicated that both he and the McLaren team are still a force to be reckoned with. Nilsson did a fine job in finishing fourth and Lauda is fifth, still up amongst the top runners: Reutemann is sixth and Regazzoni seventh. The unfortunate Laffite could only retrieve eighth place, and Jochen Mass took ninth place from Keegan on their very last lap. The remaining four runners are a pretty disconsolate lot, Fittipaldi’s new car not being very competitive, Peterson stopping a second time to change all the front tyres, Brambilla having at least two more spins and a stop to change the left front tyre again, and Ian Scheckter finishing with the March nose almost falling off. Not surprisingly Andretti made fastest lap, on lap 76, as Watson is held up by Reutemann, and he saw his opportunity to close right up. It is a nice little Formula One race, but hardly the French Grand Prix.