The French Grand Prix

Another technical step forward

Clermont-Ferrand, France, July 5th

Before reading this report the one of the Dutch Grand Prix (page 850) together with Reflections on the Dutch Grand Prix (page 858) should be read first, in order to achieve continuity on the Grand Prix scene for 1970.

After some rather wild ideas about running the French Grand Prix on the little aerodrome circuit at Albi, common sense prevailed and the Circuit of Charade in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand was once again chosen as the scene for the race. Last year had seen a convincing first and second place by Matra, using the MS80 cars, albeit with Cosworth V8 engines, and it had proved to be a very popular event with everyone. The circuit is something of a miniature Nurburgring, of 8.055 kilometres in length among the forest-clad hills, and while it is terrific fun to drive round it suffers a bit from being narrow and having the corners following one another in quick succession so that overtaking is difficult, but in spite of that there is no comparison with an aerodrome circuit. The only driver not enthusiastic about driving round the Circuit of Charade is Rindt, as he has an incipient stomach ulcer complaint, aggravated by his insistent smoking, and the continual sideways-G effects of the circuit tend to bring on sickness. This was a distinct set-back for Team Lotus, having got the Lotus 72 approaching perfection, and they arrived with the two cars used at Zandvoort altered only in respect of trying different shock-absorbers on the rear, but with their star driver very disinterested in the prospects and refusing to stop smoking even though his doctor advised it. Miles in the less modified Lotus 72 was very enthusiastic about the circuit and could not do enough practice, but with the best will in the world Chapman could not pin Lotus hopes on the young Englishman. As practice progressed it became clear that Rindt's lack of enthusiasm for the circuit was the least of the Lotus worries, for along with all the other users of Cosworth V8 engines, the big worry was the way the Ferrari and Matra 12-cylinder engines had been advancing in the last race or two. There was a practice session on Friday afternoon and no sign of the Ferrari transporter, for it had arrived at the Italian frontier ten minutes after the Italian and French Customs men had closed for the night as far as dealing with transport was concerned. In consequence the Cosworth-powered cars dominated things, being led by Stewart in the Tyrrell March 701. Last year in practice Stewart had recorded 3 min. 00.6 sec. with the Matra MS80, so sub-three-minute laps were looked for almost immediately but were in fact very conspicuous by their absence, the reason being put down to the circuit having been out of use by racing cars so that a general coating of dust and public traffic film had to be worn off by the racing cars before their racing tyres could really get to work. Although practice went on for 2 1/2 hours times were all comparatively slow and Stewart and Amon were the only ones who approached the three-minute limit. The Tyrrell team were using March 701/4 for Stewart and March 701/7 for Cevert, with March 701/2 as a spare for the team leader, and when his number one car showed a tendency for the throttle slides to stick he went out in the spare car while his mechanics took the throttle mechanism to pieces on the number one car. Cevert was full of the joys of putting up a good performance in his own Grand Prix event and very quickly got down to a respectable 3 min. 02.87 sec., close to the existing lap record of 2 min. 02.7 sec., which caused Tyrrell to terminate the exuberant young Frenchman's practice before he went on his head, believing that his driver should make haste slowly.

In Team Lotus things were rather different, for Rindt's lack of enthusiasm was not helped when he started off by wearing his latest all-enveloping Bell-Star crash helmet and found it too hot and stuffy for dealing with all the corners, in spite of the cockpit temperature being much lower in the Lotus 72 than in the Lotus 49C. He reverted to his older pattern helmet, with the open front, which allowed him to breathe more freely and promptly collected a stone in the face from another car, which cut his right cheek quite deeply. To say that Rindt's normal press-on enthusiasm was missing would be a gross understatement. While all this was happening with the driver of Lotus 72C/2, the driver of Lotus 72B/1 was going round and round happily, until he ran out of petrol and was stranded out on the circuit. It was only then that Team Lotus really became aware that Miles had done 20 laps of the long circuit. The third Team Lotus car was 49C/R6, on loan to Soler-Roig, who did not get much practice as the car spent a long time at the pits with the gearbox spread all over the ground as the ratios were all wrong. In the March team Amon was using the slightly lighter development car, 701/6, as his usual car, 701/1, was still having an engine installed, and he was proving to be very competitive to Stewart for fastest practice time. The McLaren team were out in full force, with Hulme back in action even though his hands were not fully recovered from their burns. The car he usually drove had been more damaged than appeared the case at Zandvoort, the monocoque having to be scrapped, so all the bits and pieces were stripped off and built on to the 1970 model M14 monocoque that de Adamich had used at Zandvoort, and all the Alfa Romeo bits and pieces were built back on to the older 1969 model M7 monocoque that had originally been used with the Alfa Romeo; a case of musical monocoques. Gurney was still driving Bruce McLaren's old car, but now that Hulme was back the American was no longer the graded driver and had to compete for qualification. The only non-arrival among the 24 entries was Surtees, who was still at the end of the queue at Cosworth Engineering and was short of an engine for his M7C McLaren, so three entries were being eliminated from the practice times as the organisers could only take 20 starters.

The BRM and Matra teams were as at Zandvoort and Rodriguez was not at all happy with the latest BRM as it did not fit him like his original one, and gearbox trouble stopped him putting in as many laps as he would have like to have achieved. Matra were in good spirits and determined to put on a good show in their own Grand Prix and Beltoise was out to repeat his excellent performance of 1969. The two works Brabhams had small vertical deflectors mounted on the cover plates over the engine and they were to deflect air out to an oil cooler mounted above the gearbox and under the aerofoil.

On Saturday practice was split up into two sessions, of one hour immediately after lunch and a further hour towards the end of the evening, the intervening time being filled in with practice for National Formula France and Renault-Gordini races. Having missed the Friday practice the Ferrari team of Ickx and Giunti had to make up for lost time, and this they did, in no mean manner, the results causing the Cosworth brigade to think deeply and wonder about 12-cylinder engines, as they did at Spa. Ickx made fastest time of the session, with a lap in 3 min. 00.64 sec., and while it was not as fast as Stewart's time on Friday the difference was negligible on a three-minute lap. Giunti consolidated this effort by Ickx with a fastest lap that was well in amongst all the other newcomers. The signs were clearly coming to the surface, for Beltoise took the V12 Matra round in only one-hundredth of a second slower than Ickx in the Ferrari, and Rindt, with the Lotus 72, was only a tenth of a second slower in spite of having no great enthusiasm for the whole event, in contrast to Beltoise, who was going faster every time someone waved a French flag. Amon reverted to his usual March, but it was not right and he never got in amongst the fast cars, while Gurney had no chance for his McLaren lost all its fuel pressure out on the circuit on his first lap, and Moser overdid things and crumpled the nose of his Bellasi.

For the final hour conditions were ideal, being grey and cool, and it saw everyone out for a really serious try not only to break the elusive three-minute barrier but also to be one of the two fastest, for the narrowness of the Circuit of Charade only permitted two cars in a row on the grid and with the twisty nature of the circuit it was imperative to be into the first corner without being baulked on the grid. At the back of the grid there was equal competition, for three cars out of the entry were not going to be able to start, and apart from the chosen ten drivers it was going to be the three slowest of the remainder who were going to be left out. lckx was in great form and really hurled the Ferrari round the twisty course, but it was Beltoise who was first to get under three minutes, when he started putting in laps at 2 min. 59 sec. and a few hundredths and he went on to better things with laps under 2 min. 59 sec. Rindt was now getting to grips with himself and he got the Lotus 72 under the three-minute barrier, being the first of the Cosworth-powered cars to join the 12-cylindered cars in the elite category, for Ickx was also under three minutes and was going faster and faster, ending up with a lap in 2 min. 58.22 sec., which Beltoise could not match, his best being 2 min. 58.70 sec. Stewart was circulating, but he just could not get below three minutes, and even if he was biding his time for a last-minute rush to the front of the grid he was going to have to chop two seconds off his best so far; which seemed a tall order. There was real concern among the Cosworth-powered brigade, for the 12-cylinder cars appeared to be uncatchable and on a really high speed circuit like Spa or Monza this would have been expected, but not at Clermont-Ferrand with all its corners and four slow hairpin bends. Amon in the STP-March 701/1 was really trying now, and got well below three minutes, but not enough to challenge the front row of the grid and near the end of the session, when most people had made their final effort and the track was empty, Stewart went out and put in all he had got, to record 2 min. 59.24 sec., a tenth of a second slower than Amon, and a whole second slower than Ickx, who was in pole position.

As practice ended and everyone tried to convince themselves that it was true that the front row of the grid was going to be occupied by two 12-cylindered cars, one from Italy and one from France, with a Belgian and French driver, respectively, Brabham joined the elite under-three-minute group, just to let them know that he was still in the picture. So tense was this battle at the front of the field that the qualifiers were rather overlooked and Lovely overdid things and bent his Lotus almost unnoticed. He, Moser and Soler-Roig recorded the three slowest laps, so they were the unlucky ones who had to be left off the starting grid. Eaton was in all right, without question, and de Adamich was well in with the Alfa Romeo-powered McLaren for a change, this being the first time it had qualified. Of the new boys Peterson was well up the field with Colin Crabbe's yellow and maroon March, being ahead of the whole BRM team, and Cevert in the second Tyrrell car was quite well up, although he had never improved on the lap time he recorded on his first rush of exuberance on Friday afternoon.

Sunday was the first really warm day since the meeting had started and the sun brought large crowds out early in the morning, to watch the Formula France and saloon-car races, and then to picnic in the splendid countryside and wait for the start of the Grand Prix, which was due at 3 p.m. From 2.15 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. the Grand Prix contestants were allowed extra practice time, just to ensure that all was well, and Ferrari let Ickx try the spare car during this period as the car he had used in practice had developed a suspect valve seat. However, the spare car was all wrong in braking, handling and power so it was abandoned and lckx reverted to 312/003 with which he had practised. The 20 cars lined up in pairs, as shown on the starting grid, and then went off on a warm-up lap, reassembling on the dummy-grid in pairs, as the road was too narrow to permit three cars abreast. All was well except for Oliver, whose BRM engine was misfiring at top r.p.m. and though mechanics fiddled with it they could not effect an improvement, and Oliver had to start knowing that something was wrong with the injection system. The two 12-cylinders showed no embarrassment at being ahead of all the Cosworth engines on the grid, and the sound was superb as everyone got away to a splendid start, with Ickx leading into the first corner, closely pursued by Beltoise, to start the 38-lap race, while Stewart was third, with Amon right behind him, and the whole field twisted and turned round the 8.055-kilometre circuit in a vain chase of the two 12-cylinder cars. Stewart managed to stay with them for two laps, but already there was a gap of five seconds between these three and Amon, who was heading Rindt, Pescarolo, Rodriguez, Brabham, Hulme, Peterson, Giunti, Cevert, Stommelen, Siffert and the rest. Long after they had all gone by de Adamich arrived at the pits with the Alfa Romeo-engined McLaren, having stopped out on the circuit when a water pipe came adrift. By only the third lap the race pattern was settled, for Stewart could not stay with the Ferrari and the Matra, and the rest of the Cosworth-powered cars could not stay with Stewart. Between Ickx and Beltoise there was a deadlock and the blue French car was glued to the tail of the red Italian car. After four laps Stewart was seven seconds behind them, but still leading the rest, who were in such a close line that they were in each other's way. Eaton stopped his BRM at the pits to have a plug lead replaced and Oliver was obviously not going to keep going much longer as his engine was still running badly. The loss of seven seconds to Ickx and Beltoise convinced Stewart that all was not well with his Cosworth engine and during lap 5 it went right off song and he drew into the pits at the end of the lap, having dropped to tenth place. The ignition unit in the vee of the engine was changed and he was away, but in a hopeless last place apart from de Adamich, who was still in and out of the pits. Oliver gave up at this time as his BRM engine just would not run properly and on the next lap Rodriguez came into the pits, his BRM stuck in fourth gear, and that was the end of his race, so the Bourne morale was at a low ebb. Cosworth hopes were not much brighter for there was no question of anyone catching the Ferrari and Matra, who were absolutely evenly matched and pulling out a longer and longer lead every time round. On lap 7 Rindt seemed to wake up and he smartly passed Amon, to take third place and lead the Cosworth-powered race, in the midst of which was Pescarolo with the second 12-cylinder Matra holding up Brabham, Hulme and Peterson, the Swede driving very smoothly and staying with the two "old sweats" with no trouble at all. Giunti was leading the remainder and Miles and Hill were bringing up the rear, apart front those who had made pit stops.

Things now settled down for a bit and the two 12-cylindered cars circulated in close company, Ickx sometimes gaining a few yards on parts of the circuit where the Ferrari was better geared, but Beltoise pulling back on parts that he knew better than Ickx, for the Circuit of Charade has all the characteristics of the Nurburgring with nearly as many variations. It looked as though stalemate had set in and all Beltoise could do was to wait for Ickx to make a mistake or for the Ferrari to break, while the same conditions applied as far as Ickx getting rid of the tailing Matra was concerned. Naturally, they were both setting fastest laps, for all the cars behind them were falling farther and farther back. Giunti had to call at the pits on lap 11 for attention to his engine, which put him right at the back of the field when he restarted, and on lap 14 Brabham at last managed to find a way by the Matra of Pescarolo and immediately drew out an enormous lead on the French car, having been badly held up, and on the next lap Hulme was by, and away after Brabham, but the delay had lost them all hope of getting up with Rindt and Amon at the head of the Cosworth race. As this was happening half-way down the field there were cheers ringing round the hillsides for Beltoise had got in front of the Ferrari, and a French driver in a French car was leading the French Grand Prix, a sickening sight for those like Tyrrell and Stewart, who thought the V12 Matra had little to offer. As the leaders started the 16th lap the reason for the change of leadership was clear, the Ferrari engine was misfiring and next time round Ickx was coasting into the pit lane, the engine having broken its valve-gear. It was followed into the pits, on the next lap, by Peterson's March which had wrecked its final drive unit.

Rindt was now finding that he was not suffering physically as he anticipated, the much cooler cockpit of the Lotus 72 no doubt helping a lot, and he put in a new fastest lap in 3 min. 01.64 sec., but Beltoise immediately matched this with yet another record in 3 min. 01.23 sec., to maintain his 15 sec. lead over the Lotus. By lap 19, which was the half-way point Beltoise had increased his lead to 16 1/2 seconds and there was nothing that Rindt and the Lotus 72 could do about it. Amon's March was still following the Lotus, but with no hope of getting by, and behind these three came Brabham and Hulme, nose to tail, making up for the time they had been delayed by Pescarolo, while farther back Gurney was beginning to show some of his old form, having rid himself of Cevert and Stommelen, but it was too late for the American to get anywhere. On lap 20 Beltoise still had the same lead and all looked set for another win by a V12-cylinder-engined car, for the Matra sounded strong and the driver looked completely unruffled. While catching up with Brabham, Hulme had set a new lap record with 3 min. 01.14 sec., and on lap 21 Rindt improved this to 3 min. 00.86 sec., which closed his gap to the Matra to 15 seconds. This time there was no reply from Beltoise, and on the next lap the gap was 14 seconds and one wondered if the little Frenchman was getting tired. Rindt was urged on by his pit and when he reduced the gap to 10 seconds on the next lap it was obvious that something was wrong with Beltoise or the Matra. One more lap and Rindt was only five seconds away and though he had opened a gap between himself and Amon it was not as much as he was closing on the Matra so it was clear that the leader was in trouble. On lap 25 the Lotus 72 was right behind the Matra, with Rindt waving his fist to be allowed to go by, and when he got by on lap 26, Amon followed him through, putting Beltoise into third place. Beltoise had been feeling the Matra behaving in a peculiar fashion on certain corners and it was getting progressively worse, and looking in his mirrors his rear tyres looked all right, so he thought they were picking up a coating of rubber as they had done at Zandvoort, except that it was worse on some corners than others, and it finally became obvious that he had a slow puncture in a rear tyre. On lap 27 Brabham and Hulme went by the stricken Matra as it headed for the pits and the rear wheels were changed, but France's glory was over, for though Beltoise rejoined the race he was back in tenth place and right out of the running.

This left Rindt with a four-second lead over Amon and, providing he had better luck than Beltoise, he was heading the Lotus 72 for its second consecutive victory. Down at the end of the field Giunti was still in trouble with his Ferrari engine not running properly and Eaton had a private incident and broke a wheel against a barrier and had to stop at the pits to have it changed. Siffert stopped suddenly against a stone parapet when a front brake locked on, and damaged his March quite badly, which put him out of a miserable ninth place. Stewart was still driving hard, but all he could hope to do was catch the slower cars, which included his young team-mate Cevert and Graham Hill. The driver of Tyrrell's second March was not at all happy as he was being moved about in his seat by the G-forces on the innumerable corners and it was making his back sore, as well as causing him to fumble gear-changes. It was not a good weekend for the Tyrrell team and Cevert should have solved this problem during practice, and, with Stewart's pit stop, both blue March cars were very much at the back of the field. Apart from Beltoise moving up a place, into ninth position, there was no great excitement during the closing stages, although there were some interesting situations imminent. Rindt had increased his lead to seven comfortable seconds, the Lotus 72 once more showing a marked superiority over the other Cosworth-powered cars, but Brabham and Hulme were still nose-to-tail for third place.

In spite of his burnt hands giving him a lot of pain, Hulme was driving hard and pressing Brabham all the way, but the Australian is never impressed by anyone on his tail and Hulme just had to sit there and collect all the dust and stones that Brabham's rear tyre threw up as he scurfed his way round the corners, using the loose edges of the circuit, and while doing it he set a new lap record at 3 min. 00.75 sec. Some way back Gurney had caught up with Pescarolo but could not find a way by, and at the end of the field Stewart was on the tail of Hill, particularly keen to get past because Rindt was fast approaching to lap them both. These situations were going to call for some desperate do-or-die attempts on the last lap if they were going to be resolved. On lap 36 Beltoise had his Matra V12 engine falter and thinking he might be low on petrol he stopped at the pits, but this was not the trouble; there was plenty in the tanks, but the pressure pumps were not picking it up, and he was still at the pits when the race ended. Stewart got by Hill on the penultimate lap and just managed to scuttle across the line to start his 38th lap as Rindt finished his to get the chequered flag, so that the results showed the Scot to be on the same lap as the winner, but it was only by a matter of a few yards, while Hill was flagged off with a total of 37 laps. Amon could make no last-lap impression on Rindt and finished seven and a half seconds behind, in second place, and Hulme followed Brabham over the line with no heroics, but Gurney made a last desperate effort to get by Beltoise as they braked heavily for the hairpin before the finish and failed by half a car length. Stommelen was seventh after an enjoyable and trouble-free drive for a change and Miles was eighth, with Stewart a long way back in ninth place.—D. S. J.