Although the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France has not been held 50 times, this year celebrated a 50th anniversary as far as they were concerned, and it also was the 70th anniversary of the first motor competition, which was the Paris to Rouen run in 1894, so that it was fitting for the French Grand Prix to be held at Rouen this year. The 6.542 kilometre circuit of “les Essarts”, just south of the town of Rouen, in Normandy, is the one that will always conjure up memories of the great Fangio when he was at the top of his career, in 1957.
Possibly the finest action photographs ever taken were made at Rouen in 1957, when Fangio threw his 250F Maserati into opposite-lock power-slides down the 130mph swerves after the pits, mainly just for the fun of it and to let everyone appreciate that he really was master of his machine.
Since those old-fashioned days science and design have improved Grand Prix cars out of all recognition and if a car needs opposite steering lock through a fast bend then there is something amiss and adjustments must be made. Today, 1957 seems like an “heroic age”, but I have no doubt that in 1975 this year’s French Grand Prix will seem like an “heroic age”.
For this year a lot of the circuit has been resurfaced, but the two hairpins at Nouveau Monde and la Scierie were still surfaced with cobblestones, and the stretch from the last hairpin to the pits straight is still rough and bumpy concrete.
A lot of tree-felling and undergrowth cutting at the downhill end of the circuit has provided spectators with some of the best views of racing that could be imagined, and with Film Festivals in Rouen, Formula Three racing, Vintage and Historic car racing, Historic demonstrations and a repetition of the 1894 run by Veteran cars, the meeting became a true British-type Festival of Speed and Sport and the classic French Grand Prix was in fear of being overshadowed.
However, with the exception of Rob Walker’s cars and driver, and the Centro-Sud BRM team, the regular Grand Prix field was in attendance in full force, although the Ferrari team did not arrive in time for the first practice period on Thursday evening.
The Team Lotus cars were all on 13in wheels, Clark having the choice of the much-modified Type 25 or the new Type 33, and Arundell having his usual modified Type 25. Both of Clark’s cars had the latest rear suspension geometry, with the top radius arms going to the top of the hub carrier at the same point as the transverse arm, and Arundell’s had the 1963 layout in which the radius arm is anchored half-way up the hub carrier. On the Type 33 the engine cover was very abbreviated, leaving the Lucas injection intakes well out in the airstream.
The BRM team had the same three cars that they had at Spa, and Graham Hill had the choice of the early 1964 car or the newer one, and the earlier one had been adjusted to his personal requirements as regards handling for this circuit. Before leaving the garage to come out to the first practice session this car had suffered engine damage while being warmed-up and he was forced to take the newer one, which left little time for detail adjustments. Ginther had no choice and had his usual car, all three BRMs being stressed-skin models and all were using the 1963 type 6-speed gearboxes as the newer boxes used at Spa would not take a low enough bottom gear for the Rouen hairpins.
The Brabham team had no problems, the drivers Brabham and Gurney had a car each as at Spa, and they were all ready to go, though Gurney’s car was fitted with a manual adjustment to the injection pump mixture control similar to that used by Lotus on Clark’s car last year, by means of a flexible cable and a small lever in the cockpit. The two works Coopers of McLaren and Phil Hill were now identical, the altered rear suspension on McLaren’s car at Spa having proved successful, the second car was altered in the same way, and in case of trouble they had a 1963 car with them.
The two BRP drivers, Ireland and Taylor, had the monocoque cars with BRM engines they had driven at Spa, and the Parnell team of Amon and Hailwood had their Lotus 25 cars with BRM engines, both being on 13in wheels and to all intents identical. The only private owners were Siffert with his Brabham-BRM, Anderson with his Brabham-Climax and Trintignant with his old BRM V8.
The Ferrari team finally arrived for Friday’s practice with two 1964 cars with V8 engines; now fitted with large finned petrol filters on the left side of the engine just behind the driver’s shoulder; previously these were un-finned and buried in the car, the new positioning and finning were to try and cure the vaporising problems that had arisen at Spa, though the results were going to be difficult to analyse as the temperature at Rouen was nothing like so high, though the weather was good.
During the first practice period Clark and Gurney dominated the scene, each taking turns to hold the fastest time for a lap, and Clark started in the Type 33, then changed to the Type 25 and went faster, and finally went back to the Type 33 and went faster still. Gurney was just getting on with his one car and matching Clark’s times until he held the fastest lap at 2min 10.1sec, but just before practice ended Clark went round in 2min 09.6sec. This was many seconds faster than the existing lap record set up in 1962, but it was not surprising with two years of development on chassis, engines, gearboxes, tyres and suspensions, to say nothing of the personal improvements of the drivers.
“During the first practice period Clark and Gurney dominated the scene, each taking turns to hold the fastest time for a lap”
The only other driver who could approach these two was Arundell, who worked steadily away at his job and got down to 2min 11.6sec while the rest were well behind due to various mechanical and personal reasons. The BRM team were in a bit of a shambles as Ginther bent the nose-cowling of his car when he misjudged his braking for one of the hairpins, and Hill spent more time in the pits having anti-roll bars and exhaust systems changed than he did out on the circuit practising. He started off with long tail pipes on the four exhaust pipes on each side and then changed to the usual four separate pipes on each side, except that the right-hand bank system would not come off and time ran out before he could try the different layout. In desperation he did one final lap with separate pipes on the left bank and a long tail pipe on the right bank, which must have proved something or other. In the Parnell team Revson was trying Hailwood’s car as the motor-cycle ace was in Holland practising for the Dutch Motorcycle Grand Prix.
On Friday the Ferrari team joined in practice, and Hailwood arrived to do his practice with the Lotus-BRM before flying back to Holland to ride in the motorcycle race on Saturday. Siffert was missing as his new BRM engine had blown up the day before, but everyone else was present.
Although held in the late afternoon under the same conditions as the day before, times in general were a bit slower, probably due to surface conditions with so much activity going on. Again it was Clark and Gurney who were the main contenders, though Surtees was not far away from them, and Brabham was well in the running. It was a pity that the Ferraris had missed the first practice, for Surtees would certainly have been able to match Gurney’s time, but as it was he did 2min 11.1sec, which gave him the third place on the front row of the grid, alongside Gurney and Clark.
Although Gurney was fastest in this second practice period, his time of 2min 10.5sec did not match Clark’s first day time, and the Scotsman was himself slower with 2min 10.8sec. The BRMs were not very happy, Hill being unconvinced about hurling his car into the fast downhill bends with abandon like the other top drivers were doing. All the variables were altered but he could not settle on a compromise that satisfied him and he was out of the running on lap times. Most of the other competitors were running according to form and the grid positions were of the pattern that is becoming normal.
The Grand Prix was due to start at 3:15pm on Sunday and by this time the skies were overcast and cloudy, but the temperature was warm and conditions were about ideal. The 17 starters did some warm-up laps and then began to assemble on the dummy grid, but there was some frantic work in the Lotus pit as Clark’s car was leaking oil from a cambox cover point, and applications of “jollop” and some fudging effected a cure and he joined the others. He was driving the modified Lotus 25, and Graham Hill was driving the latest BRM, and Siffert had joined the ranks with a BRM engine borrowed from the Parnell team; Ginther’s BRM had a metal flap under the nose to try and alter the direction of the air flow. Hailwood, who won the 500cc motorcycle race in Holland, had been forced to drive through the night due to an airline strike.
The field moved up onto the proper grid and got away to a good start, with Clark jumping into the lead and heading the pack down to the first hairpin, where there was a lot of jostling and both BRMs were seen to be fairly far back. Clark was followed by Gurney and Surtees and the rest, and at the second hairpin McLaren got into a lull-lock slide which he thought he was going to be able to hold, but the Cooper took charge and spun gently round while the rest of the competitors went by.
“Gurney was looking terrific, a study in concentration and determination”
At the end of the opening lap Clark and Gurney had already asserted themselves and were away from the rest of the runners who went by in the order, Surtees, Brabham, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Arundell, Bandini, etc, with McLaren bringing up the rear of the serious runners, for Siffert was already feeling unhappy about his borrowed engine and was out of the running. On the second lap Surtees was dropping back and clearly not happy with his Ferrari engine’s performance and Gurney was looking very determined, and was out to do his best to keep on Clark’s tail at all costs.
At the hairpin before the pits straight, where McLaren had spun, Graham Hill also spun on lap three which dropped him back among the tailenders, and Surtees pulled into the pits with his engine not running properly. An oil pipe to the injection pump in the centre of the V of the engine, had broken and he was in the pits for a long time while it was repaired.
Meanwhile Clark was really pressing on and yard by yard getting away from Gurney, floating round the last downhill bend before the Nouveau Monde hairpin with the brakes hard on in a way that can only be described as “right on the limit”. Gurney was looking terrific, a study in concentration and determination, and you could say that he was not losing ground on Clark, but that Clark’s uncanny skill was allowing the Lotus to gain fractions of a second on each lap.
After only five laps these two were out on their own, there seemingly being no-one else in the race, though in fact, there was a lot, of hard racing going on down through the field. Phil Hill was holding a fine fourth place, behind Brabham, but was being challenged by Arundell and the Lotus driver forced his way by the Cooper on lap six, and on the next lap he received a severe clump from Phil Hill’s car as the Cooper rear brakes were playing up and the car was doing unpredictable things under heavy braking.
Graham Hill and McLaren were both making up for their misdemeanours and were working their way up through the slower runners, while the leaders were increasing the pace all the time, having started at around 2min 15sec and lowering the lap times to 2min 13sec.
When the leaders were on lap 9 Surtees rejoined the race but the Ferrari was sounding rather sick and after a few laps he went back into the pits and it was discovered that oil from the broken pipe had got into the distributors. As these are inaccessibly mounted down in front of the engine there was nothing to do but retire, for the race would have been over by the time they could have been dried out.
By 15 laps Clark had pulled out a lead of 11sec over Gurney, and Gurney was way ahead of everyone else and could now do nothing except wait and hope that something might go wrong with the Lotus, but Clark was looking very happy and confident.
Amon had a lucky moment when his engine cut dead as he started the pits straight and he was able to coast into his pit, where the Parnell mechanics found a broken wire in the ignition system, which was soon mended and he was away again. Meanwhile Taylor had gone straight on at the top hairpin, when his rear brakes failed, and damaged his radiator and suspension; he later returned slowly to the pits to retire.
Graham Hill was gaining ground steadily and McLaren had caught up Ginther and the two of them were catching Phil Hill; though the American Cooper driver held them off for a while, he was gradually worn down and first Ginther got by and then McLaren, but not without a struggle, for in spite of his locking rear brakes Phil Hill was putting up a good fight.
At 20 laps Clark was 15sec ahead and as he left the Nouveau Monde hairpin he looked across the valley to see where Gurney was on the downhill stretch, but when Gurney left the hairpin he just looked ahead grimly and kept up the pressure, for he was three-quarters of a minute ahead of his team-mate Brabham. Then came Arundell with Graham Hill closing on him rapidly, and the trio of Ginther, Phil Hill and McLaren not having settled their dispute yet. Behind them came Ireland, Bandini and Hailwood who were also having a scrap amongst themselves, and the only other runners were Amon, delayed by his pit stop, Anderson, who was in trouble with carburation, and Trintignant, and they had all been lapped by the leader.
On lap 22 Clark set up a new lap record with 2min 12.7sec, while Ginther began to get away from Phil Hill and McLaren and on the next lap Graham Hill got by Arundell to the accompaniment of cheers from the crowd. Then Clark caught up with the tail-end trio of Ireland, Bandini and Hailwood, and for a lap he was boxed in by them, but he got clear without losing any time to Gurney.
Having been passed by Graham Hill in the BRM, Arundell , now began to press with his Lotus and was giving the BRM driver a bad time, and at the same time Bandini was trying to elbow his way past Ireland and there was a lot of dirt and dust flying coming out of the lower hairpin as one or other of them let a rear wheel slide off the road onto the grass verge.
On lap 29 it was Gurney’s turn to lap the Ireland, Bandini Hailwood trio and he did this as they all braked for the Nouveau Monde hairpin. A lesser man would have taken them after the hairpin, but not Gurney, he took them as they rounded the hairpin, leaning heavily on Bandini, the Brabham and Ferrari wheels rubbing each other as Gurney went round on the inside. If it had not been for the Ferrari the Brabham would have undoubtedly slid outwards; as it was, it was the Ferrari that went out onto a wide line with a very surprised Bandini at the wheel.
“Brabhams were now first and second, with Gurney a minute ahead of his boss”
“Desperate Dan” was through and away, for he was not going to let Clark gain any unnecessary advantage, but almost at this moment Clark was in trouble up at the top of the hill, for his Coventry-Climax engine had gone sick on one cylinder. He drew into the pits but there was little that could be done and Chapman sent him off for another lap, now in second place for Gurney had gone by, but it was no use, a piston had broken, later thought to have been due to gravel going down the unprotected intakes, and the Lotus had run its race and stopped for good next time round, leaving Gurney unchallenged out in front.
Brabhams were now first and second, with Gurney a minute ahead of his boss, but Graham Hill and the ever-tenacious Arundell were catching up rapidly on Jack Brabham. Hill was not being particularly neat and tidy about his cornering methods and Arundell was collecting a lot of dust and stones from the BRMs back wheels, but he would not be shaken off. Phil Hill had finally been worn down by the erratic behaviour of his Cooper every time he braked, and had dropped back from Ginther and McLaren and the trio at the end of the field had lost Ireland when he got into a big slide on the first right hand bend after the pits and had bounced the BRP along the grass bank on the outside, crumpling the chassis and tearing off a front wheel and suspension complete, but luckily getting out unhurt himself.
On lap 37 Graham Hill got past Jack Brabham, to take second place, but Brabham repassed and Arundell was always there. For the next few laps these three got really rough and the dirt and stones from the edge of the circuit began to fly and it was Arundell who was collecting most of it. This sort of racing forced him to drop back a bit but the Brabham/Hill fight went on with Graham Hill now in front but by only a few feet.
Gurney had eased up slightly for he was secure in the lead, providing his Coventry-Climax engine did not let him down like Clark’s had done, but the ferociousness of the Hill/Brabham battle was causing them to lap at very high speed and on lap 44 Brabham recorded a new lap record of 2min 11.4sec, which could only be attributed to anger. As Gurney was rounding the bottom hairpin the second and third men were passing the pits, still nose to tail.
With only a few laps to go Gurney was content to let his lead drop to 40sec and finally to 25sec, and with complete confidence he finished the 57th lap to win the French Grand Prix for the second time; having won in 1962 with a Porsche. In second place the situation was nothing like so calm, for Brahham was still doing his utmost to get by Graham Hill again, and they were not being very nice to one another, but though this went on right to the chequered flag it was Graham Hill who was eight-tenths of a second in front.
Then came Arundell in his usual worthy position just behind the big boys, and he was followed by Ginther, these being the only ones to complete the full distance. McLaren, Phil Hill and Hailwood were a lap behind and Bandini had slowed right up after the Gurney incident and was now two laps behind. Although Gurney had won by the default of the Lotus-Climax of Clark, no-one begrudged him the victory for he had been the only driver to live in the same category as Clark from the moment practice began to the finish of the race.