1973 French Grand Prix race report

Ronnie Peterson driving at the 1973 French Grand Prix.

Ronnie Peterson took his debut win for Lotus at Paul Ricard

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A shake-up for Formula One

Castellet, July 1st.

As the French started their summer holiday season and headed for the Mediterranean coast and the beaches, the Grand Prix circus headed for the Mediterranean coast and the Paul Ricard circuit, and the only time the two parties came together was on the crowded Autoroute going south and on the terribly slow road from Aix-en-Provence to Toulon, off which the “modern racing facility” of Monsieur Paul Ricard lies, up on a plateau above Bandol. While the “circus” turned into the racing circuit, the French continued on their way to the seaside and when practice for the Sixth Grand Prix of France began on Friday afternoon a gay and colourful crowd of at least 25 people thronged the grandstand opposite the pits.

In the pits, the paddock, the official car parks and in the double-decker entertainment balconies above the pits, there was an enormous crowd of people, for race day was due to be a veritable orgy of competition, with events for Formula Renault, Formula Fiat, Formula Renault Gordini, Formula “Pop Stars”, Formula Three and Formula One, the last-named being for the serious business of the Grand Prix of France and the Drivers World Championship. Oh yes, there was also an “old car” handicap race. All the people who were at the race with free tickets, or even better, like the writer and the competitors, were being paid to be there, were having a fine time, for the weather was superb and once you had passed through six ticket controls to get to the paddock, officialdom and organisation was hardly noticeable and it was all most enjoyable. Whether it was enjoyable for the spectators sitting in the blazing sun away from it all is another matter, but what is important is that on the two practice days and race day there were nothing like sufficient spectators to even pay for the Formula One performers, let alone make any profit for Monsieur Paul Ricard, who paid for building the circuit, so one can only hope that enthusiasts everywhere will give up drinking beer and spend their money on Ricard 45 or Ricard 51, It is the thick yellow liquid that turns white when water is added and tastes like aniseed balls. If you have no love for Ricard and do not mind seeing it turn into a crumbling, dusty monument to modern motor racing, then continue to drink your beer. Personally I am very partial to Ricard.


Jackie Stewart sits in his Tyrrell at the 1973 French Grand Prix.

Jackie Stewart took pole in his Tyrrell

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When the business of practice began it was mostly a matter of many drivers adjusting their psychological outlook, for the Ricard circuit has a long straight, followed by a “Mickey Mouse” slot-track section. If you adjust all your aids to super-cornering, like nose fins, aerofoils, tyres and so on to give maximum adhesion through the wiggly bits then there is so much drag that the poor old Cosworth V8 can hardly push it through the air on the long straight. Alternatively, if you cheat the wind and get the Cosworth V8 really wound up on the highest possible gear ratio and achieve 180 m.p.h. on the long straight, you are liable to find the course car keeping up with you through the twisty bits. Consequently, the practice problem was simple—strike a happy medium, without letting anyone else notice, and most of all not let them see what you had arrived at, so that they could not copy it.

Of course, there were all the usual problems to overcome, like engines that would not run properly, instruments that were malfunctioning, fuel systems that objected to the heat, gear ratios that were wrong, bits that broke, and for some teams, drivers who spun off and did damage. For those with 12 cylinders, either in vee formation or flat formation there was the all-important problem of keeping up with the V8 engines, especially those being used by Stewart, Cevert, Fittipaldi, Peterson and Hulme. There is a feeling that drivers like those mentioned have “special” Cosworth engines, which is why they go so fast, and if that isn’t the reason then they all have special Goodyear tyres, for no-one wants to admit that they are better drivers than Ganley, Oliver, Pescarolo, de Adamich or Wilson Fittipaldi, and no-one wants to admit that a Lotus or a Tyrrell is a better chassis than a Williams or a Shadow.

One thing that cannot be blamed for this difference between the front and the back of a Grand Prix field is the Hewland gearbox, though it does occasionally decide whether you win or lose. Those of us who believe that some drivers have ability and some do not, like to think that the leading group are better than the tail-end group, until along comes a new boy; young, carefree, happy, untroubled by sponsor responsibilities, team problems, money grabbing, job-hunting, with no need to justify his existence, full of enthusiasm and eager to go racing. For the first time in his life he gets into a McLaren M23, the team’s normal spare car, 23/3, and “wham”, he’s on the front row of the grid, with Stewart on his right and Fittipaldi on his left. This must prove that he had a special Cosworth V8 like the others, special Goodyear tyres, and . . . .! But wait, it is only his third Formula One event, and his first in Europe, but not his first motor race, nor his first works McLaren drive, for this woolly-headed youngster is South African Jody Scheckter and the Colnbrook team have been promising him a car in Formula One for some time. With Revson away in America racing in a USAC event for McLaren this was the chance for Scheckter and he did not hesitate.

In the first practice session Stewart was credited with a time of 1 min. 48.37 sec. and the next best was Cevert with 1 min. 49.39 sec., and nobody paid much attention, assuming that this first session was just a beginning. When nobody could approach the 1 min. 48 sec. bracket in either of the Saturday sessions, not even Stewart himself, the various teams compared notes and found that the best anyone had for Stewart on Friday was a low 1 min. 49 sec., so it looked as though the timekeepers had mis-read by 1 sec., but if they had they were not saying.

In the second practice Hulme was fastest and in the third Scheckter was fastest, so that if the time-keepers did make an error of 1 sec., then Scheckter should have been on pole position! Even in the middle of the front row it made people ask what Fittipaldi, Peterson, Cevert, Reutemann, Hulme, Regazzoni, Ickx, Hailwood, Beltoise and other Aces were up to. Naturally they all had their reasons and their excuses, and practice isn’t everything. “He only appeared to be going fast, because the others had problems” was the feeling, “it will be a different story in the race, they’ll pound him into the ground”.


The 1973 French Grand Prix begins as the cars line up on the grid.

The cars line up on the grid

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Early on Sunday morning there was an untimed test-session for the GP cars and then as the day got hotter and hotter there were races for everyone and everything, until 3 p.m. when the Grand Prix of France was due to start. After two warm-up laps they began to form up on the “dummy-grid”, with the drivers being protected from the heat with umbrellas, sunshades, sheets of cardboard and anything else that would cast a shadow. The “free-ticket” side of the start-line was packed out, with people fighting and struggling for a view, while opposite, the grandstand had plenty of empty seats in it, and anyone who cared to have paid money could have sat and watched the race in comfort. The bridge over the start line, paid for by Marlboro cigarettes was banned to all except a television crew, and even “Mr. Marlboro” himself, the man who controls all the money the firm are pouring into motor racing, was refused permission to go up on his own bridge, and had to stand behind the struggling crowds of “free-loaders”.

As the 25 starters moved up towards the main grid Merzario was having trouble starting his Ferrari and only just got going in time, taking a position behind Pace’s Surtees as the flag fell. Fittipaldi was trying hard to outsmart the starter’s flag, and Reutemann made a super jump-start from the third row with his Brabharn, but the young eager lad in the middle of the front row was up and gone in one of the quickest starts imaginable, leaving all the Aces looking like beginners. One driver who seems fated to begin and never end was Oliver, who cooked his clutch on the line and his black Shadow barely got out of sight of the starter’s flag. “Jumping the start like Scheckter did is just show-off stuff” they all said, “It won’t last”. At the end of lap one a McLaren took the right-angle bend before the pits straight in a lovely, ragged opposite-lock power-slide, and it wasn’t Hulme. Scheckter went by, followed by Peterson (Lotus), Stewart (Tyrrell), Hulme (McLaren) and Fittipaldi (Lotus), and “followed” was the operative word. They were not trying to get by the South African, they were trying to keep up. “Let him have his one lap of glory, leading the Grand Prix of France”, said the Establishment, “he’s a keen, young lad, and deserves it, but they’ll put him in his proper place next time round”. As a gap was already appearing between Fittipaldi in fifth place and Cevert in sixth place, when “they” put Scheckter in his place it would presumably relegate him to fifth place, ahead of Cevert, Reutemann, Ickx, Jarier, Regazzoni, and all the others, which would still be praiseworthy. Next time round Peterson was very close behind the McLaren, but behind nonetheless, though the Establishment said “Here they go, they’ll pick him off one-by-one, and elbow the cheeky little devil back to where he belongs.” Forty laps later the Establishment had shut up completely, for Scheckter had been in the lead right to the end of lap 42, never having looked as though he was going to lose it, while all manner of desperate things had been going on behind him. Until lap 17 it was a case of “follow-my-leader”, the embarrassing thing for all the top drivers being that Scheckter was the leader, and Peterson, Stewart, Hulme and Fittipaldi could do nothing but follow, while nobody else was even in the running for leading the race. As they started lap 18 Fittipaldi was in fourth place, and Hulme was heading for his pits with a flat left rear tyre. His stop took longer than normal for he decided to have both rear ones changed for ones of a different rubber, feeling that it was pointless to put the same type of tyre on again and risk another failure. Due to this the leaders were due round again before Hulme was ready to go so his pit crew held him back and as soon as Scheckter appeared in sight they gave Hulme the “Go, go” signal and he shot out of the pits and joined onto the tail of the foursome in the same position as he had left them, but a whole lap behind. Anyone who had gone to the bar for a Ricard at this juncture of the race would never have known Hulme had been into the pits!

At 20 laps Fittipaldi took third place from Stewart, and on the next lap he took second place from Peterson, obviously despairing of the Swede ever being able to deal with the South African out in front. On lap 22 Stewart headed for the pits as Hulme had done, with a flat left rear tyre, but unlike the McLaren team the Tyrrell boys had a new wheel and tyre on in a flash and Stewart was back in the race albeit, now in thirteenth place. This deflating tyre was the reason Fittipaldi moved up a place so easily, and Peterson let his team-mate by, to see what he could do about Scheckter. By this time they had lapped the slowest car and were now beginning to pick off the other tail-enders, and the McLaren and the two Lotuses ran nose-to-tail, with Hulme close behind watching it all, even though he was a lap behind. Naturally, each time the leading trio lapped a tail-ender, Hulme went by with them and moved up a place. Although Scheckter was on his own in his battle against the two Lotuses, or to be more accurate, the two Lotuses had only Scheckter to beat, the sight of Hulme in all their mirrors must have been encouraging to the South African and annoying to the Brazilian and the Swede. At 35 laps Peterson’s Lotus hesitated momentarily on acceleration and Hulme nipped by and positioned himself between the two black and gold cars, and the four of them continued to circulate nose-to-tail, with Fittipaldi looking for a way by Scheckter, but not finding it. They were now lapping Pace and Regazzoni, with Hulme moving up a place at each manoeuvre and as they went down the long straight on lap 42 they caught up with Beltoise in his BRM. Unable to get by they were forced to follow him into the wiggly “Mickey Mouse” section which finishes with the right-angle turn onto the pit straight, and this slowed their pace slightly so that they all got closer to Scheckter, who was waiting for the end of the wiggly section to go by the BRM.

Jody Scheckter driving for McLaren at the 1973 French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard.

Young Jody Scheckter impressed in his McLaren before a collision with Emerson Fittipaldi

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Then it happened. With Scheckter behind the BRM and obviously waiting until the exit of the corner to accelerate by, Fittipaldi thought he saw his chance and dived to the inside, but the South African did not move over and the left front wheel of the Lotus hit the McLaren’s right side of the cockpit, the wheels tangled and as Beltoise left the corner the McLaren shot into the air and landed with a thud on the outer kerb, the impact bending the left front suspension mounting, while the Lotus skated across the corner and onto the rough with its left front suspension broken. Hulme could see it all happening and knew it was going to happen, from previous experience of Fittipaldi diving through the inside on slow corners, but had no way of warning the inexperienced Scheckter. Hulme was first out of the dust, now on the same lap as the leader who was, of course, Peterson, who drove through the dust into the lead. Scheckter kept his car on the road and set off after the Swede, but the front left corner was scraping on the ground, and at the end of the lap he drew into the pits and was forced to retire. Fittipaldi drove his Lotus a few yards beyond the corner and abandoned it, the left front wheel nearly being right off. As the dust settled the Lotus team could be heard yelling “That crazy South African, while the McLaren team were screaming “That stupid Brazilian”, and Peterson drove carefully on in the lead, not really believing that luck was on his side for once. Hu!me continued his same pace knowing it had been six-of-one and half-a-dozen of the other and a coming-together of two fairly inexperienced young drivers, inexperienced by his standards, that is.

Few people could really believe that Peterson was actually in the lead, with no one challenging him, and those who only see the first six in a Grand Prix went to the bar for a glass of Ricard, while everyone else took stock of the situation, for those 42 laps had left little opportunity to worry about the plight of the people who were not going to win and the no-hopers, to say nothing of the rank outsiders.

Almost unbelievably the complete BRM team were still running and had not made a single pit stop, but they were not very inspiring, Lauda being 9th, Beltoise 12th and Regazzoni 13th, Firestone tyres being the popular excuse, but it didn’t ring very true for there was a Firestone equipped car way ahead of them in sixth place. This was the March 731 owned by Lord Hesketh and driven by James Hunt, and if Scheckter had not been at the meeting Hunt would deservedly have had all the glory, for he was going really well. In practice he had beaten all manner of more experienced Formula One drivers, was on the sixth row of the grid, and right from the start of the race he got on with the job and hung on to the pacemakers, leaving the also-rans well behind. Even though the air-intake to his Cosworth V8 engine fell off on lap 45, he kept pressing on to collect a well-earned sixth place, after the leader’s fracas.

Of the Surtees and the Williams teams the less said the better, for neither of them ever looked like producing a winner, and at times, even a finisher. Pescarolo had taken Galli’s place in the Williams team, and gave up when the engine seemed about to blow-up, while Ganley struggled along at the back. Pace changed the tyres on his Surtees, but was never able to show how well he can drive, and Hailwood stopped with oil coming out of the wrong places. The Shadow team were little better off making virtually no impression at all in practice, and Graham Hill with his private Shadow was faster than both the works cars, while in the race he led Follmer by a long way. Leading Oliver was no problem, as he barely left the starting line. Follmer’s miserable weekend came to a stop when his engine died, due to a lack of fuel pressure for the injection system on the Cosworth engine.

The Ferrari team appeared to be in good order, except that Merzario was faster than Ickx in practice, but then with his starting line trouble he began the race with a handicap, from which he never fully recovered even though he drove courageously. Ickx was content to drift along in eighth place, behind Cevert and Reutemann, but no threat to them, until after Stewart had had his pit stop. As the Tyrrell driver was charging back up through the field from his thirteenth position, Ickx woke up and tried hard to keep in front of the Scot, and they both closed up on Reutemann. Stewart got by the Ferrari on lap 51, after pressing hard for a number of laps and indicating very forcibly that he wanted to get by. This left Ickx in fifth place and put Stewart into fourth place, and though he tried all he knew there was no way past Reutemann. The Argentinian Brabharn driver had been holding a very good sixth place in the opening stages of the race, behind the pack that were chasing Scheckter, and he was ahead of Cevert, having passed the Frenchman on lap 5. Then on lap 27 he made a slight error and spun, letting Cevert go by, and stayed behind the Tyrrell to the end of the race, finishing a worthy third, mere inches ahead of Stewart. The other Brabhams did not fare so well, de Adamich retiring from his position of 13th on lap 28 when a drive-shaft universal joint broke, and Wilson Fittipaldi, in the latest Brabharn BT42, retiring four laps before the end, while in eighth place, with his throttle mechanism jammed shut.

Right at the back, from start to finish, but running completely reliably was the brand new Ensign of Maurice Nunn, driven by Rikky von Opel, straight from Formula Three into his first Grand Prix. When the leading group went by him after only 17 laps, having made up a whole lap, he had a good chance to see what Grand Prix racing was all about, as Scheckter led Peterson, Stewart, Fittipaldi and Hulme “a merry dance”. On lap 31 they did it again, this time without Stewart. Unlike some new designs that appear in Formula One and last so short a time that they are hardly noticed, the Ensign went through non-stop to the finish, which is more than can be said for a lot of other teams.

The mixed bag of Marches were completely dominated by the Hesketh Racing one driven by Hunt, though Jarier in the works car was going well for the short while he lasted, actually leading Hunt, until a drive-shaft universal joint broke. The Stockbroker March, usually driven by Beuttler, was in the hands of Reine Wisell, as the regular driver was still suffering from a F2 accident the week before. On the start line the Swede found petrol seeping up the straps of his seat harness and beginning to burn into his body, but started hoping it would wear off. The pain got worse and he just had to stop after 3 laps, and while he was doctored with ointment his mechanics mopped up the fuel, which was from an overflow, and not a leak. Bravely he rejoined the race but had to give up when the engine showed signs of overheating.

As if with velvet gloves and velvet boots, Peterson completed the 54 laps, not daring to think about anything until he saw the chequered flag and a joyful Colin Chapman leaping into the air to celebrate yet another Grand Prix victory for Lotus and the John Player Team, but more important to Peterson, his first Grand Prix victory, after coming so close so many times. A long way back came Cevert in second place, followed by Reutemann fending off a truly “on form” Stewart who had driven really hard after his pit stop, followed by an unimpressive Ickx, the joyful Hunt, then Merzario, Hulme and Lauda, all on the same lap as the winner.

Ronnie Peterson celebrates his win on the podium at the 1973 French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard.

Ronnie Peterson celebrates his debut win

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It had been a jolly good Grand Prix of France, but not a French Grand Prix in the Grand Manner that we used to know in the days of the Automobile Club of France, before the Fédération Francaise Sport Automobile took over the running of the sport. D.S.J.

French flippancies

After the race Peterson did not look as though he fully realised he had won. On the parade lap Cevert was waving so furiously to “his public” that many probably thought he had won.


Gordon Coppuck, designer of the McLaren M23, was more than happy; Hulme and Revson had always shown that the car was competitive, now Scheckter had proved it.


It must be awful not to win, and even worse not even to be in a position to win, especially to potential winners like Regazzoni, Ickx, Pace and Hailwood. Unfortunately, we can’t all have good tyres, good engines and a good chassis, but it’s a bit hard when all three are bad.


Many people refer to Hulme as “the old Bear”. It did not take them long to christen Jody Scheckter “young Bear” or “baby Bear”. The McLaren team did not win, but after the race they looked as though they had.


A momentous occasion for “the media people”. Hunt got his first Championship point. Wonder what he’ll do with it? More important is the fact that Hunt finished a jolly good sixth in his second Grand Prix.


Just to keep a sense of proportion it is worth noting that the fastest-ever lap by a Formula One car is 1 min. 48.37 sec. by Stewart with Tyrrell 006. In testing Mark Donohue did 1 min. 46.40 sec. with a turbocharged Porsche 917 Can-Am car. Sports car?

6th Grand Prix of France – Formula One – 54 laps – Paul Ricard Circuit – 5.81 km/lap – 313.74 kms—Very Hot
1st: R. Peterson (Lotus 72/R6) ….. 1 hr. 41 min. 36.52 sec. – 185.263 k.p.h.

2nd: F, Cevert (Tyrrell 006 ….. 1 hr. 42 min. 17.44 sec.

3rd: C. Reutemann (Brabham BT42/3) ….. 1 hr. 42 min. 23.00 sec.

4th: J. Stewart (Tyrrell 006/2) ….. 1 hr. 42 min. 23.45 sec.

5th: J. Ickx (Ferrari 312B3/010) ….. 1 hr. 42 min. 25.42 sec.

6th: J. Hunt (March 731/1) ….. 1 hr. 42 min. 59.06 sec.

7th: A. Merzario (Ferrari 312B3/012) ….. 1 hr. 43 min. 05.71 sec.

8th: D. Hulme (McLaren M23/1) ….. 1 hr. 43 min. 06.05 sec.

9th: N. Lauda (BRM P160/08) ….. 1 hr. 43 min. 22.28 sec.

10th: G. Hill (Shadow DN1/3A) ….. 1 lap behind

11th: J-P. Beltoise (BRM P160/01) ….. 1 lap behind

12th: G. Regazzoni (BRM P160/07) ….. 1 lap behind

13th: C. Pace (Surtees TS14A/03) ….. 3 laps behind

14th: H. Ganley (Williams IR/02) ….. 3 laps behind

15th: R. von Opel (Ensign MN01) ….. 3 laps behind

16th: W. Fittipaldi (Brabham BT42/4) ….. 4 laps behind – not running at the finish

Fastest lap: D. Hulme (McLaren M23/1) on lap 52, in 1 min. 50.99 sec. – 189.114 k.p.h. (new record)

Retirements: J. Oliver (Shadow DN1/4A) on lap 1, clutch; J-P. Jarier (March 721G/4) on lap 8, drive-shaft joint; R. Wisell (March 721G/2) on lap 20, engine overheating; H. Pescarolo (Williams IR/01) on lap 16, engine; G. Follmer (Shadow DN1/5A) on lap 17, fuel pressure; A de Adamich (Brabham BT37/2) on lap 28, drive-shaft joint; M. Hailwood (Surtees TS14A/04) on lap 30, oil leak; E. Fittipaldi (Lotus 72/R5) on lap 42, accident; J. Scheckter (McLaren M23/3 on lap 43, after accident; W. Fittipaldi (Brabham BT42/4) on lap 50, seized throttles.

25 starters – 15 finishers