Whatever shortcomings it may have, the circuit at Clermont-Ferrand, where the French Grand Prix was held, is without question terrific fun to drive round. How do I know that? Because I spent a lot of time on the Thursday evening, before the meeting began, driving round the circuit for it is one of the few remaining ones that uses public roads. To followers of motor racing this is one of the fascinations of European motor racing, to be able to drive on the actual roads on which the Grand Prix racers are soon to be let loose. Standing looking over the fence at an artificial stadium-like circuit is all very well, but it is so much more satisfying to know what the circuit looks like from behind a steering wheel and it makes you much more appreciative of the efforts of the racing drivers. Circuits like Rouen, Reims, Spa, Chimay, Pau, La Chatre, Targa Florio, Norisring, Imola, Monte Carlo and all the European mountain hill-climbs all use everyday public roads, so that as soon as you arrive you can do a few laps and really appreciate what the racing drivers are going to have to do. A circuit that uses roads evolved with the passage of time, following natural contours and well-worn paths is always so much more interesting than one evolved by self-styled “circuit designers” working to a set of geometric rules and the FIA recommendations that actually say “the radius of a curve which can be taken at speeds over approximately 65 m.p.h. should preferably increase progressively or at least be constant”. For me one of the most satisfying types of corner is the complete opposite, one which tightens up on you when you least expect it, so that you have got to be just right on your approach and entrance or you are in dead trouble. The circuit of Charade, named after one of the tiny villages in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand, is full of a great variety of corners and even at touring speeds there is never a dull moment, unlike an artificial circuit such as Jarama where all the corners are more or less the same and call for the same system of late entry and making the apex well round the corner. One of my favourite parts of the Clermont-Ferrand circuit is just before the first winding descent where you approach a tight left-hand bend with a view ahead out into space, and if you have time you can see most of the city of Clermont-Ferrand down on the plain below. When you are just nicely balanced round the left-hander you have to stand on the brakes and take a down-hill right-hand hairpin that seems to fall away out of sight. To see a car go through this small part of the circuit properly is to see some very nice mechanical ballet dancing; a lap at under three minutes must call for this sense of timing and rhythm all the way round, for there is only one short straight on the circuit and that goes down into a dip and up the other side on a “vertical corner” as Piero Taruffi would describe it.
If the Charade circuit is satisfying to drive round it must be rather frustrating to race round, for it is narrow and the lack of distance between corners makes overtaking almost impossible. I am sure Brabham, HuIme and Gurney in particular would agree with this point of view for they all got hung up behind Pescarolo’s Matra, which is a wide car and the Frenchman was going quite fast, but not fast enough for the three of them and they could hardly expect him to move over and let them by when he was involved in the motor race. Had they been lapping him it would have been another matter altogether. Stewart also found this a problem at the end of the race when he was trying to avoid being lapped by Rindt and had Hill in front of him in ninth place while he was in tenth place. The starting line area is absurdly narrow due to the erection of a guard-rail wall in front of the pits, which had not been thought of when the circuit was first set up, otherwise the pits may have been sited somewhere else. Due to this there is only room for two cars side-by-side, instead of the traditional three on the front row. To the surprise and consternation of a lot of people the first two cars had 12-cylinder engines, the Ferrari in horizontally-opposed form and the Matra in vee form and it was said that it was the first time since the Dutch GP in 1967, when the Cosworth V8 engine first appeared, that one of the engines from Northampton had not been on the front row of a Grand Prix grid. While true in fact, the artificial circumstances of a two-by-two line-up alleviated the pain slightly, for had it been a normal grid Amon would have joined Ickx and Beltoise to save the face of Cosworth. What was undisputable was the fact that first and second fastest practice laps were put up by “foreign drivers”; the British drivers who used to dominate Grand Prix driving were not in the picture, and an Austrian driver won the race. Britain would appear to be losing her grip on Grand Prix driving, and the leading British car only took the lead after the Italian Ferrari had broken its engine and the French Matra had got a puncture. Looking at the tyre from the Matra after the race, in the Goodyear service van, it had one cut in it, about an inch long, that went right through the casing, and a round hole which also went right through, made by a piece of hardened steel wire about three-quarters of an inch long, the wire still being stuck in the rubber. The inner end, where it protruded through the casing, was black and the outer end which had been scurfed on the track as Beltoise drove back to the pits was highly polished and smooth. As the Goodyear man said, the narrow cut may have held air, but the steel spike as well was too much to expect a tyre to cope with. Beltoise said that at no point did he run over the edges of the track, so he must have collected the punctures from the road itself. You can hardly go round the circuit with a vacuum cleaner before the race, so you just have to accept such an occurrence as “one of those things” but it was very hard for Matra who looked to be set for their first victory with their own engine, and in the French Grand Prix as well. They take the long view on racing and content themselves with the knowledge that they are nearly there and have got the opposition on the run.
Ferrari were not unduly depressed because they knew that their engine was unlikely to last the race, so were content that it was in the lead when it blew up. On the morning of the race when they started the engine from cold they heard a nasty noise and on investigation found a valve seat was leaking compression. The first indication was that the clearance between cam and one inlet valve had altered, so they removed the camshaft, to let all the inlet valves shut, and filled the inlet ports with petrol. Sure enough one of them was leaking and close inspection with a long, thin lamp revealed a cracked valve seat, probably caused by a small stone going down the inlet tract at the end of practice. There was no time to take the engine to pieces or install another one, so the offending valve was rotated slightly and the camshaft replaced. Now this was on car 003 with which Ickx had made fastest practice lap, and they had 001 as a spare, so they arrived for the race with racing number 10 on both cars and took 001, the unpracticed spare car, up to the pits ready for the 15 minutes of unofficial practice that was being allowed before the race. Officially all was in order, providing they were prepared to start 001 on the back row of the grid, as it had not practised. Ickx was of two minds, whether to start on pole position with a fast car that would probably break its engine, or from the back of the grid with an untried car that might last the race. He rather favoured the former choice, feeling that it was better to retire when leading the race, for even with the best car in the world there was little hope of getting anywhere from the back of the grid on such a narrow and twisty circuit. However, the Ferrari chief persuaded him to do some laps with the untried car 001, and as very few people knew all this was happening someone suggested that if 001 was all right it might even go unnoticed on pole position, for one Ferrari looks just like any other Ferrari.
It is not for me to suggest that Ferrari were going to cheat, but the situation did not arise for after a lap or two in 001 Ickx stopped and reported it to be terrible, it did not steer well, the brakes were all over the place and it did not go all that well, so in a flash Forghieri said: “Change the cars and use these wheels and tyres.” As 001 was taken back to the paddock the team manager of a rival firm noticed this and when he saw the Ferrari mechanics bringing out another car he promptly jumped to conclusions and protested to the stewards that Ferrari were cheating and were using a substitute car. When 003 was wheeled into pole position on the grid there were cries of protest from people who were assuming it to be the spare car and the stewards foregathered and were bewildered for they did not appear to realise that there had ever been a spare Ferrari about the place. When Forghieri was accused of cheating it was all rather difficult for he could not say that he had been going to cheat and was now being honest and nobody would believe that the car on pole position was the one that Ickx had used in practice. Now when you are involved with a particular team or with organising a race you cannot possibly follow everything in detail, but journalists who have a roving commission can often see much more in the overall picture, even if they do not know intimate team details. Fortunately there are nearly a dozen or so international press men who follow individual car movements intimately and most of them knew that 003 was the one Ickx had used to make fastest practice lap, and one of these was Gerard Crombac, the sports editor of the French magazine Sport-Auto. He knew and we knew that Ferrari had been on dodgy ground but was now all straight and above board, and being connected with the French Federation he was able to convince the stewards that all was well, and Ickx and 003 were left on pole position, but even so a lot of personnel in other teams felt certain that Ferrari were cheating!
From the list of practice times and the starting grid, shown elsewhere in this issue, it will be seen that lap times were given to hundredths of a second, and with the closeness of present-day racing this is not a bad thing, except that the French were not using an electronic beam-timing apparatus, so that human error must have been affecting the second place of decimals, for the best timekeeper in the world will tell you that the human being cannot be accurate to anything smaller than a tenth of a second. However, the timekeepers and information service did a first-class job as far as I was concerned for they produced excellent details after each practice session, giving everyone’s best lap time and the number of laps covered, and after the race gave the fastest lap that everyone recorded during the race, and produced it all very quickly. Some organisers, like the Germans and Italians, can be infuriating when they take hours to produce a list of practice times and then leave off any lap times that did not improve on the previous practice period. This happens in Germany if it rains in the second practice, when you particularly want to know how fast Surtees went in the rain and are told : “He didn’t improve on the time he set yesterday.” This is obvious, because yesterday the sun was shining, but you would still like to know how fast he had gone in the rain, and getting the information is really difficult at some circuits. You would be amazed how often you cannot find out some interesting piece of information that is vital to motor racing history as it happens, like how fast Stewart went when he borrowed someone else’s car or tried a different make of tyre, or used a four-wheel-drive car. You may have your own stop-watch time, but the official times are the ones that count, so you need official confirmation, yet all you can get from the Press Information people is that the Prince of Bogravia will be at the race, or some pop star is going to present the winner’s cup.. Even worse is when all you are told is that there will be a cocktail party at 11.30 am., slap in the middle of Grand Prix practic ! The French Grand Prix get full marks from me for the speed and content of the information supplied after practice and the race.
Study of the times shown on the starting grid in the report of the French Grand Prix are worth a study for they indicate the track conditions on race day compared with the Saturday evening when most people made their fastest laps. Then it was overcast and cool, while the race was run under a very hot sun, and supporting races and BRMs, I am told, were breathing oil on to the track, so that it was very slippery. No-one broke the three-minute barrier and only three drivers improved on their practice times, these being Gurney, Miles and Hill, while Stommelen and de Adamich came close to doing so. This would indicate that the drivers had not reached their limit during practice, and a lap at around 3 min. 03 sec. was not difficult under any circumstances, and a good driver in poor conditions could get below 3 min. 01 sec., but to get below three minutes required conditions to be perfect.
Apart from the struggle of the Cosworth-powered cars to keep up with the I2-cylinder Ferrari and Matra, another feature of the meeting was Stewart’s struggle to keep near the front of the Cosworth brigade. Depending on your personal bias there are numerous choices, such as the superiority of Firestone tyres over Dunlop, that Amon had a better engine, the Lotus 72 is better than the March and so on. One story was that Dunlop supplied Tyrrell with the wrong tyres, but this is a sad reflection on Tyrrell for his organising powers are such that he would not let this happen. That Stewart had a poor engine is always a possibility, and he certainly had a poor ignition unit, but whatever the reason was he was never really in the picture and only he knows how hard he had to try to get his under-three-minute lap in practice. During the week before the race the Dunlop tyre company announced that they were giving up support to Grand Prix racing as from the end of this season, which means that they are no longer going to give the Tyrrell-Stewart combination the £20,000 or £80,000, or whatever it was this year, to have them race on Dunlop tyres. The basic reason behind the withdrawal is that the technical returns from the outlay in effort put into Grand Prix racing are not justified. Another viewpoint expressed was that “certain people are trying to turn Grand Prix racing into ‘Show-Biz’ instead of it being an automotive technical exercise, and Dunlop are not interested in ‘Show-Biz’ “. It will be recalled that at the end of last season when Stewart declined Matra’s offer to race their V12 this year (was he wrong?), he was touting for a chassis saying he had everything else, a super team-manager, a Cosworth engine and Dunlop tyres, and out of the blue came March Engineering to save his day, for a Brabham chassis was available but preferably with Goodyear tyres, as was a McLaren, and a Lotus was there but preferably with Firestone tyres, a BRM was there, with a V12 BRM engine, and a Matra was there with a V12 Matra engine; a Ferrari was not there.
Although the Charade circuit is badly lacking in many things, notably a decent paddock and paddock facilities for a Grande Epreuve, it seems to be a popular circuit with most people, and if the French Grand Prix cannot return to Rouen or Reims let us hope it stays at Clermont-Ferrand and not get involved with ridiculous ideas about the Albi aerodrome or the new artificial circuit down near Marseilles.—D. S. J.