1969 French Grand Prix race report: Gallic glory in full flow

The Matra International Tyrell team take a fine home victory, Jackie Stewart winning by almost a minute from team-mate Jean-Pierre Beltoise

Jackie Stewart in his Matra at the 1969 French Grand Prix.

Jackie Stewart sealed his fourth win in five races for Matra

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Unlike the Monaco, Dutch, German and Italian Grand Prix races the French Grand Prix seems undecided as to where its real home is, so that it has flitted about from one circuit to another. This movement has been fairly regular and it has fluctuated from Reims to Rouen to Clermont-Ferrand, with one disastrous diversion to Le Mans. The last time it was held at Clermont-Ferrand was in 1965, when the late Jim Clark dominated the scene and ran away from all the opposition.

What was significant at the time was that an up-and-coming young driver, also from Scotland, was second in a BRM, and though he could not keep pace with Clark, he outdistanced all the other drivers, who included the great names of the time, such as Gurney, Brabham, Surtees and Hill. This was a great driver in the making and his name was Stewart, and when he was asked what he thought he was doing, making all the “great names” look rather amateurish, he said that in truth he was rather embarrassed, for he knew he could not keep pace with Clark but he could not understand where all the other drivers had got to.

Another significance about the 1965 race was that it was the first Grand Prix to be held on the newly constructed circuit in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand, so everyone was on an equal footing, and being constructed like a miniature Nurburgring, driving ability was at a premium. At that time the circuit itself was beautifully constructed, but the amenities such as pits and paddock, access roads, service facilities and so on, were negligible, and it was not a happy scene for a World Championship event.

“In 1969 very little has changed, except for the sad loss of Clark from the racing scene”

In 1969 very little has changed, except for the sad loss of Clark from the racing scene. The circuit is still beautifully constructed, driving ability is at a premium, amenities are nearly non-existent, Gurney has retired from the “big names”, Brabham and Surtees were not entered, and Stewart outdistanced everyone, though this time he was not embarrassed by it.

I am often asked my requirements for a top Grand Prix driver, or how I rate ability; among my rather stringent rules of evaluation are the natural ability to win, which a driver has from the word go and does not develop over the years, and complete domination of all other drivers. A driver who makes fastest practice lap in all practice sessions for a Grand Prix, then leads the race from start to finish, and makes a lap record while he does so, is my idea of a real Grand Prix driver. Stewart did all of this at the 1969 French Grand Prix. The opposition to this complete domination was reduced slightly by the absence of Surtees, Brabham and Oliver, but only as far as numbers were concerned, for none of them would have provided active opposition.

In the Dutch GP report, elsewhere in this issue, I made note of the fact that all was not well in the BRM organisation, and the evening after the Dutch race there was a high-level discussion as to what was wrong. Later on, in England, this discussion reached serious proportions and BRM reshuffled their personnel, dismissing Tony Rudd who had been with the team since 1950, and withdrawing the cars from the French GP.

By the 1969 efforts of Surtees and Oliver this merely meant that there were fewer also-rans about the place to impede the progress of Stewart. The lack of Jack Brabham from the entry list was another matter, for even if he is not competitive to a winner, Brabham is more than capable of keeping some of the younger drivers on their toes and always adds a serious flavour to any race. His absence was enforced by a broken ankle, which he suffered in an accident at Silverstone during some private testing, and which has put him out of action for some time. Whereas the re-entry of BRM into Grand Prix racing will be received with doubt and suspicion, the re-entry of Brabham, at Monza no doubt, will be heralded with cheers.

“In spite of much barracking from the Italian press, Enzo Ferrari still insists on entering only one car for Grand Prix races”

In spite of much barracking from the Italian press, Enzo Ferrari still insists on entering only one car for Grand Prix races, and the chance of one V12 car beating all the Cosworth V8-powered cars is so remote as to be ludicrous. Amon does his best with the Ferrari, but it is nothing like good enough, and he is reluctant to encourage a team of two or even three cars, when he feels that Maranello are not capable of making one good car for him. This could be the big mistake that a lot of people are putting down to “bad luck”. Three Ferraris driven by lesser drivers than Amon might finish fourth and seventh with one retirement, which must be better than one car and one retirement.


Denny Hulme in his McLaren at the 1969 French Grand Prix.

Denny Hulme qualified his McLaren 3rd

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With no BRM cars at Clermont-Ferrand, not even the old one of the Parnell team, the lone Ferrari was the only sound to break the monopoly of the efficient Cosworth V8 engines being used by Matra, McLaren, Brabham and Lotus. Matra International had their two MS80 cars, for Stewart and Beltoise, and the 4-wheel-drive car for Stewart to use once he had set the pace with the old car, which he did very easily and quickly on the first afternoon of practice.

The 1965 record that Clark established was 3min 18.9sec and Stewart soon had this down to 3min 02.4sec, no one else giving him any bother at all on the first afternoon, which was Friday. On Saturday practice was divided into two sessions in the afternoon, and in the first Stewart took the 4wd Matra out and his best lap was 3min 06.6sec, a very competitive time which would have placed him ahead of four cars on the grid and within striking distance of three of those ahead of him.

In the final practice session Hulme, Rindt and Beltoise seriously challenged Stewart’s first fastest time, but a serious effort in the final practice saw Stewart record 3min 00.6sec, nearly two seconds faster than Hulme who was his nearest rival.


Graham Hill stands by his car before the 1969 French Grand Prix.

Graham Hill talks to Jack Brabham on the grid before the race

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Almost certainly, had there been any serious opposition Stewart would have broken three minutes for the lap. The circuit at Clermont-Ferrand, with its uphill and downhill sections and its 5-mile length and 3-minute lap time, is a proper circuit, where drivers leave the pits and go away and do three minutes’ serious work before they return to the pits to alter this or complain about that, unlike the “motordrome” type of circuit or those where they whizz round the outside of a grass field at almost constant speed.

“Almost certainly, had there been any serious opposition Stewart would have broken three minutes for the lap”

One interesting thing about the McLaren team of McLaren and Hulme is their almost consistent inconsistency. Just when you think that the cars handle well and corner well, but lack sheer speed, they go fast on a high-speed circuit. Then they get to a circuit where their supposed good handling should show up well and they are mediocre.

At Clermont-Ferrand Hulme, in M7A-3, surprised a lot of people with fast times in practice, taking the position next to Stewart on the starting grid, and during the race was firmly in second place until the anti-roll bar of the front suspension came adrift and he had to make a long stop at the pits for repairs.

McLaren himself, in M7C-1, was not so outstanding as his team-mate and during the race he was feeling far from well and was very nearly beaten to a lowly fourth place, one lap behind the winner, by Elford who was driving the pontoon-tank McLaren-Cosworth V8 of Antique Automobiles Ltd. Both works McLarens were using the large tray-like cover over the rear of the cars, as introduced at Zandvoort, while Elford’s car had been fitted with a somewhat similar device.

The Team Lotus drivers, Hill and Rindt, used the same cars that they had in the Dutch Grand Prix, but neither drivers nor cars seemed on form. The Austrian was suffering from sickness and dizziness, thought to be brought on by the violent G-forces generated on the Clermont-Ferrand circuit, and he was no opposition at all to Stewart in the practice or in the race. He finally had to retire from the race when he began to get double-vision.

“Hill’s performance, car and driver, was mediocre in the extreme”

Hill’s performance, car and driver, was mediocre in the extreme and his sixth place in the results was nothing to be proud of. Following up the feeling that 4-wheel-drive needs new techniques of driving, Team Lotus introduced a new driver to Grand Prix racing, in the hope that untroubled by pre-conceived ideas he would get the best out of the Lotus 63. The driver was John Miles, the quiet bespectacled young man who has been driving sports cars for Team Lotus. The car he used was 63-2, the one that was taken to Zandvoort but not used, and it had been fitted with an aerofoil, with side plates, on struts that extended from the rear of the body so that the aerofoil was well behind the rear wheels. This was stretching the regulations just about as far as possible.

Jochen Rindt driving for Lotus at the 1969 French Grand Prix.

Jochen RIndt qualified 3rd but didn’t see the finish

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The performance by Miles in practice was very praiseworthy, for not only was he learning about 4-wheel-drive, he was also learning about 430bhp, the circuit and the Grand Prix scene in general. His times shown in the accompanying table are worth study and must indicate the potential of the Lotus 63. His race was short in the extreme, for the engine was giving trouble before the start and the car only managed one lap, the fuel-pump drive having broken.

Under the present Formula One this was the first 4wd car to leave a Grand Prix starting grid, but not the first in Grand Prix racing, as some people thought, for Fairman drove the Ferguson P99 in the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1961. Lotus made a step forward in the new 4wd era, albeit a small one.

If Stewart’s performance with the number one Matra-Cosworth V8 was exemplary and a lesson to all as to how to be rated a great Grand Prix driver, his young team-mate Beltoise put up a truly courageous and patriotic performance that must have endeared him to every French spectator at the race.

While Stewart was in a class of his own in practice, Beltoise was right in with Hulme, Rindt, and Ickx, a mere half-a-second covering the four of them, and that small amount of time on a 3-minute lap is virtual equality. In the race, with Hulme in mechanical trouble and Rindt in physical trouble, Beltoise and Ickx had a tremendous race for second place, and these two courageous young drivers battled right to the finishing line, Beltoise having come up from seventh place on the opening lap to third place behind Ickx by lap 14 and the two then fighting hard until the last lap, when the Frenchman got past the Belgian and led him over the line by a few feet. Needless to say, the French crowds were wild with delight at this performance; it almost overshadowing Stewart’s performance, which was so smooth and unruffled that a lot of people took it for granted and lost interest in the fact that he was actually winning the race.

For Matra-International, run by the Tyrrell team, and Matra-Sports the parent firm who supply the money, materials, facilities and research and development, the French Grand Prix was a 100% success. With two cars entered and both cars finishing, taking first and second places. You can do no better.

Jackie Stewart celebrates on the podium after winning the 1969 French Grand Prix

Stewart celebrates victory

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Driving the Walker/Durlacher Lotus 49 as always, the Swiss driver Siffert was not as competitive as one normally expects of this combination and early in the race he overdid his braking, in a desperate attempt to get past Hill, and shot off course into the straw bales. Luckily this only damaged the nose cowling and the left-side nose fin, but stops to have the split fibre-glass taped-up dropped him right out of the running. It was lucky for Siffert that the old-fashioned straw bales were lining the corner on which he overdid things, for had the popular Armco barriers been there the car would have been too badly bent to continue.

“Even the most rabid Ferrari enthusiast must admit that the cars are not competitive and the situation is not new”

Although Amon’s Ferrari was listed in the results it had retired eight laps before the finish when the engine broke, and with Cosworth engines filling all nine finishing places there must be some high-level talks going on at Maranello, as there were at Bourne with BRM. As usual, Amon had two cars, 0017 and 0019, but he crashed the newer one in practice and used the older one in the race. Even the most rabid Ferrari enthusiast must admit that the cars are not competitive and the situation is not new. Ferrari’s main claim to fame has been that he has been racing longer than anyone else.

Over the years he has had ups and downs, and the downs have been at the expense of more powerful opposition. He got his cars to the top in 1951 by beating Alfa Romeo, but in 1954/55 was put down by Mercedes-Benz. He came up again in 1956, and then went down again under the weight of Maserati and Vanwall, and in 1959/60 in the new petrol-era he was put down by Coventry-Climax. He struggled up again in 1961 but was soon put down again by the V8 Coventry-Climax-powered cars, and now he has been put down by the Cosworth-powered cars. In Grand Prix racing there is nothing new in Ferrari being beaten and the lone car of Amon could not hope to combat the total forces of all the Cosworth-powered cars.

The French Grand Prix, taking place at the beginning of July as it did, was the halfway point in the 1969 Grand Prix season, and all the portents shown by Matra last year and right from the beginning of this season have followed an obvious progression. It now remains to be seen if they can continue the pace for the rest of the year. This halfway point has also seen the start of the 4-wheel-drive era, but how long it will be before the near new techniques dominate Grand Prix racing is a very open question.