The Grand Prix of France

A great Renault victory

Dijon-Prenois, July 1st

On alternate years the Grand Prix of France takes on a green and pleasant atmosphere, when it is held at the little Autodrome near Dijon, in the Bourgogne region. The pleasant countryside which surrounds the circuit is in direct contrast with the arid, dusty countryside which surrounds the Paul Ricard Autodrome, the other home of the Grand Prix of France. The Dijon-Prenois Autodrome does not have a lot to offer, but what it does offer is good; there are two very fast corners, one falling away downhill at its end, the other diving down into a dip and climbing steeply out of it, while the main straight is long enough to get fully wound up, but is hard work as it is approached by quite a steep hill, so that engine torque is more important than engine power. The pits are spacious enough but are set so far back from the main straight, with a vast grass area between, that passing cars are of academic interest to those in the pits and team personnel have to do a lot of running to-and-fro. As far as spectators in the main grandstands are concerned the pits might just as well be non-existent. However, the undulating part of the circuit is so well provided with natural banks, and so much of the action can be seen, that the vast majority of spectators throng this area.

There had been the usual tyre-testing sessions some time before the event, and with the lull caused by the cancellation of the Swedish Grand Prix all the teams were well armed and ready for battle. The Lotus, Ligier and Shadow teams had four cars apiece, while Tyrrell, Brabham, McLaren, Ferrari, Renault, Williams and Arrows had three cars each, all of which meant that space was at a premium. There were some new faces in new places and some old ones as well, for Hunt and Daly had opted out of the Formula One scene, the former to go and play squash and the latter to return to Formula Two until such time as a better car than the Ensign came his way. Depailler was totally out of action after a hang-glider accident so this meant that three replacement drivers were needed. The Finnish driver Keijo Rosberg took over the Wolf vacated by James Hunt, while the Ensign team were offered the French driver Patrick Gaillard. After much speculation about who would drive the second Ligier the offer went to Jacky Ickx, the very experienced Belgian who opted out of Formula One some time ago because he could not stomach the razz-me-tazz and commercialism of Formula One in the Seventies. Everyone else was in their rightful place and after a four-week lay-off from the actual business of racing as distinct from testing and experimenting, interest was running high. The Renault team had attempted two full-length, 80-lap, sessions on the Dijon-Prenois circuit with their twin-turbo cars, and were quietly confident that they were going to be competitive. Team Lotus had a Mark 2 version of the Lotus 80 and appeared to be making progress with its aerodynamics, though Reutemann had lost all interest in the new car and was sticking to the Lotus 79. The Tyrrell team had built a brand new 009 to replace the one crashed at Monaco by Pironi, and Ferrari had built another T4, number 041, which Villeneuve was to use, Scheckter retaining the car with which he won at Monaco. The Ligier team were out in force, with four cars, and the Arrows team were proudly displaying their two brand new cars, the A2 models, which were different from everyone else though not necessarily better. Merzario's injured hand had mended and Giacomelli was looking happy in the works Alfa Romeo.

Just when everyone was satisfied with the new practice arrangements, of a testing hour in the morning and a timed hour-and-a-half in the afternoon, the French reverted to the old system of 1 1/2 hours timed on Friday morning and one hour timed on Friday afternoon, followed by 1 1/2 hours untimed on Saturday morning and a hectic single hour timed on Saturday afternoon. The reasons for this change were a bit obscure, but involved contracts, the BMW publicity races, and the letter of the law, which was all rather petty and we'd be better off without such silly wrangles.

It was cool and cloudy on Friday morning with a niggling wind blowing all the time, but everyone was out in the pit lane and ready to go, except for the new Renault RS12 which was having its gearbox attended to after a brief test at Montlhery the day before. The Renault team confidence was soon confirmed when Jabouille started making the running and was hammered home almost as soon as Arnoux went out in the brand new car, for he was up the front as well. Andretti was not at all happy with the new Lotus 80 and soon changed to the old one, while Alan Jones had to take to the spare Williams when the engine in his own car went sick. The Ligier team were in a muddle, having set up Laffite's car for the latest Goodyear front tyres, only to find they had done it all wrong, so while it was changed he went out in his spare car. The works Alfa Romeo tried a new nose cowling, with a chisel-shaped centre piece and fins, but later reverted to the old full-width nosepiece.

The times being put up by the Renaults were throwing everyone into confusion, and speed traps near the start/finish line indicated that they were not that much faster than the other front runners, so clearly they were reaching their maximum earlier and certainly not losing out around the twisty back part of the course. The twin-turbo layout appeared to have provided a wider torque spread as well as better pick-up, and the handling of the new series cars was more than adequate. By the end of the morning the two Renaults were in a class of their own, with Jabouille fastest with 1 min. 07.41 sec. and Arnoux second with 1 min. 07.96 sec. The nearest to the two French National cars were Villeneuve with his new T4 Ferrari with 1 min. 08.18 sec. and Piquet with the Brabham-Alfa with 1 min. 08.19 sec. Then came Alan Jones with 1 min. 08.23 sec., to lead the Cosworth-powered cars. It was not without significance that the fastest three cars were on Michelin tyres.

The new Arrows had a lot of small problems to sort out, both works Lotus cars were right out of the picture, as were the Tyrrells, and Lauda was eyeing his young number 2 in the same way as Scheckter was eyeing his number 2. Rosberg was doing the sort of mid-field times that was expected of him, and Ickx was doing a better job in his "come-back" than was anticipated.

During the lunch-break the underside of the nosepiece on the Lotus 80/2 had to be patched up and reinforced with fibre-glass as it had been wearing itself away along the straight, suggesting quite a good down-force being applied to the front of the car. The afternoon session saw very little change in the overall scene, the Renaults repeated their morning times, with Arnoux the faster, but not quite as fast as Jabouille's morning time and nobody else was in the same bracket, or even looked like getting into it. Reutemann was in trouble with Lotus 79/4 as an electrical short in a wire on the steering column kept blowing the spring-loaded automatic fuse, so he abandoned the car and took out 79/5. Andretti on the other hand stuck with the new Lotus 80 all afternoon. Laffite was back in his own car, but preferred the feel of the T-car, and Jones was still in the spare Williams, and was easily the fastest of the Cosworth runners.

The end of the day saw the Renault team even quieter and more confident, with both their cars on the front row and over half-a-second quicker than the next car, which was Villeneuve's Ferrari. The whole scene at the front of the grid was changing before our very eyes, with new faces in new places, Lauda being the first of the "Old hands" in sixth place. Of the 27 cars that practised only 24 were going to take the start, so the last three on the Friday list had something to aim for. These were Merzario, Gaillard and Patrese, the last-named not getting to grips with his new Arrows like his German team-mate, who was in twentieth position.

On Saturday morning it was still cool and overcast, and though warm by English standards it was not as hot as the Bourgogne should be at the end of June. The hour-and-a-half test-session saw many teams trying out their spare cars, Scheckter taking 037, Andretti in 80/1, Lauda in BT48/02 and Laffite in JS11/03 as well as JS11/04. Jones had a new engine in FW07/003 and Rosberg was still happy with the Wolf WR8, the spare car not being used. Everyone was getting set for the final hour, those near the front determined to get into the select Renault time-bracket, while those at the back were out to try and not be there. The Wolf was being tried without nose fins, and proving quite stable and Jones was in great form, the Williams handling beautifully and going well, but then trouble struck. Half-way round a lap when Jones put the brakes on, the front ones stayed on. A small return valve in the master-cylinder had stuck preventing the fluid from returning from the calipers and the Williams arrived at the pits with the front brake discs glowing, the calipers and hubs nicely heat-treated and once the wheels stopped revolving everything went solid. It was the end of practice for Alan Jones, for though the spare car was got ready time had run out. Time was also running out for Tambay, whose McLaren broke its engine before the morning was finished, so that the McLaren mechanics had to get really stuck in and change the engine before the afternoon session began. The Williams mechanics had to fit complete new assemblies to Jones car, uprights, brake discs, hubs, calipers, the lot.

During the previous day some of the drivers had been suffering from the effects of G-forces on their necks round the two long fast corners, and Rosberg and Ickx had head-restraints made up to hold their helmets in place, while the Renault drivers were thinking of doing something similar. Quote of the weekend must surely go to Andretti, who was anything but fast with the Lotus 80. When asked about the effects of G-forces in high-speed cornering, he said he just wished his car would generate enough G-force to give him a pain in the neck!

Due to the reversion to the old system of practice everything now hung on the final hour. Lauda was sticking to the spare Brabham as it felt better than his own car, Piquet's car had some last minute work done on its gearbox internals, Tambay's McLaren was half-way through its engine change, Andretti abandoned Lotus 80/2 in favour of Lotus 80/1, the newer car needing some re-thinking on its aerodynamic underside. Laffite had settled on JS11/03 as it felt better than the newer Ligier and Jones was in FW07/003 with all new front parts. Jarier's Tyrrell was in trouble with sheared driving studs on the left rear hub and when everyone had started practice mechanics were still drilling out the broken bits. He eventually went off with only five driving studs instead of the full complement of six. The Shadow team were running their new car for de Angelis, and the Arrows were improving but suffering from having the wrong springs at the back. Merzario was out of the running quite soon, with engine trouble in his own car.

Jabouille was still setting the pace, but before Arnoux could join him the engine in RS12 went sick with trouble in the valve gear, and that was the end of his practice. While many drivers seemed to have given up all hope of challenging the turbo-charged Renaults, two drivers were definitely out to give them a run for their money. These were Villeneuve and Jones, and the Williams driver was really giving it all he knew, with good results. Just when he was fully wound up and heading for a sub-1 min. 08 sec. lap there was a cloud of dust on the last corner and Pironi went off into the catch-fences with a rear wheel missing from his Tyrrell 009. The whole front of the car was ripped off and by a miracle the driver escaped totally unscathed. The well-wound-up Jones arrived on the scene as yellow flags started to wave and at the end of that lap his time was 1 min. 07.99 sec. For four laps the yellow flags were out and everyone slowed down, and then practice was stopped with 27 minutes of the crucial hour gone. The problem was that the wrecked Tyrrell was right in the line of fire of anyone else going off on the fast downhill right-hander, and all the catch-fences were down anyway.

For an hour everyone twiddled their thumbs in the pits while catch-fence repairs were done and the remains of the brand new Tyrrell 009/6 were brought in on a breakdown truck. This respite allowed the McLaren mechanics to finish off Tambay's engine change, and for Jarier's mechanics to fit a complete new hub to the left-rear of his Tyrrell. When practice restarted Regazzoni roared off and ran over the left nose-fin of his team-mate's car, which delayed the Australian a few minutes while a new one was fitted. Villeneuve was now going harder than ever, determined to try and split the two Renaults, especially as Arnoux was hors-de-combat and relying on his 1 mm. 07.45 sec. of yesterday to keep in on the front row of the grid. Jabouille had stopped all arguments by recording 1 min. 07.19 sec., which firmly established him on pole-position. Villeneuve eventually did 1 min. 07.65 sec., close to the Renaults, but not close enough. While "Jonesey-boy" was getting himself wound up tight again his Cosworth V8 went on to seven cylinders and he came into the pits. While his mechanics were investigating, the engine went "Pop" and a cloud of white smoke from the exhaust indicated a valve through a piston. Once again the spare Williams was readied, but it was too late, the hour was up and practice was finished. In the final minutes Rosberg disappeared with the Wolf WR8 and was towed in afterwards, the trouble being a broken rotor arm in the ignition distributor. It was announced by the Stewards of the meeting that Jones and Rebaque had made their fastest laps while the yellow flags were out, and in consequence the four lap times involved for each driver were scrubbed. This did not affect Rebaque as far as the grid was concerned, but it did knock Jones off the second row. His next best time was 1 min. 08.73 sec. in the final hour, so that his grid time came from his 1 min. 08.23 sec. recorded on Friday morning, which meant that he was on the fourth row of the grid. Even so he was still the first Cosworth V8 user, but he wasn't in the true position: he should have been in with the turbo V6 and 12-cylinder cars.

Ickx was in the middle of the grid, having made a very reasonable impression, and Giacomelli had qualified the works Alfa Romeo quite comfortably. The three unfortunates were de Angelis (Shadow), Gaillard (Ensign) and Merzario (Merzario), but then Gunther Schmidt the owner of the ATS team raised a small cry of protest and withdrew his car from the race. The trouble was that Goodyear had given one of Stuck's special tyres to Lauda, as they were very short of "sticky" qualifying tyres. This withdrawal meant that de Angelis could start, from the last position on the grid, and Rebaque moved across to the penultimate position.

On Sunday morning the skies were very grey, which was just what the Renault team and Michelin had been praying for, as ambient temperature was all important to the turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre V6 Renault engine, and to the wear rate of the racing Michelins. There was a half-hour warm-up when everyone had a final check that all was well. Jones had a new engine in his Williams, the Lotus 80/2 was well and truly abandoned, Laffite was in his T-car (JS11/03) and the test-car (JS11/02) was being readied in case of emergency. Pironi had no choice but to use Tyrrell 009/1 and Lauda soon stopped with BT48/02 as its new engine was down on r.p.m. With plenty of time in hand before the 2 p.m. start (the French always insist on a proper lunch period) the Brabham mechanics set about installing another engine for the team-leader.

Before the racing cars left the pits to drive round to the grid the drivers were taken on a lap of honour in a vast fleet of all the latest Mercedes-Benz cars, though one or two drivers seemed to be missing! In good time the twenty-four starters left the pits, but only twenty-three arrived on the grid! Ickx had made a nonsense changing gear on a corner and had spun off and smashed a front wheel. He abandoned the Ligier and got a lift back to the pits, where he was put into the Test-car (JS11/02) which he had never sat in before, and away he went to do another lap and join the grid. (Strictly against the civil-service rules, but it was a Ligier and this was the French GP.) Eventually the twentyrfour cars set off on their parade lap, led by Jabouille in the yellow and black Renault, with his chirpy little team-mate alongside him. Behind the two cars from the Regie-Renault were Villeneuve (Ferrari) and Piquet (Brabham-Alfa) while in row three were two very sour-looking "prima-donnas" each having to look at the back end of their number 2 driver's cars. Scheckter was behind Villeneuve and Lauda behind Piquet. In row four were the first of the Cosworth-powered cars, Jones (Williams) and Laffite (Ligier) and then the rest of the runners, the two works Lotus ignominiously in the middle of the grid.

Jabouille did a good job in leading the field, and they all arrived back on the grid, paused, the red light shone, then the green and the 80-lap Grand Prix of France was under way. The Ferrari Villeneuve made a searing start from the second row and he not only split the two Renaults before the first corner, but led them, with Scheckter hard up behind. Poor Arnoux in his first start from the front row did not get off too well and all the field streamed into the first corner he stayed out wide and "the-world-and-his-wife" went by before the end of the first lap Villeneuve was long gone, driving at 9 3/4-tenths on that opening lap to Jarier who had equalled Villeneuve's drag-race start.

The red T4 Ferrari of the French-Canadian was going at an unbelievable rate, and using every inch of the circuit, smoothly and tidy and precise, Villeneuve pulled out an incredible lead. Arnoux was down in (?)ninth place, behind Jones and Laffite, but was looking quite unflustered and settling in to redress the situation. By lap 3 Arnoux had passed the Williams and the Ligier, and they had swapped places anyway, with Jones pulling away from the blue and white car. On the next lap Arnoux went past Lauda, and catching Jarier took a bit longer. Meanwhile Villeneuve was pulling away from Jabouille at a second or more a lap, though the Frenchman did not seem perturbed. He was comfortably ahead of Scheckter and Piquet, and Jarier was being warned about the approacj=hing number 2 Renault. There was little he could do and Arnoux powered past on lap 7 and set his sights on Piquet's Brabham, which he caught on lap 11. Jones was also into this hard-driving style and caught Lauda and Jarier in quick succession and by lap 12 the order was Villeneuve, well in front and going hard, Jabouille quickly weighing up the situation, Scheckter trying to hang on to the pace, Arnoux, Piquet, Jones and Jarier. After quite a gap came Lauda, dropping back all the time, Laffite doing his best with a not very well balanced Ligier, Regazzoni, Pironi, Rosberg, Reutemann, Watson, Fittipaldi, (?) and Tambay, with Andretti heading for the pits with failing brakes due to a fluid leak from a (?) union in the front system. Giacomelli, Patrese, Rabaque, de Angelis and Mass brought up the rear, with Lammers way behind after a pit stop to cure a misfire. Everyone was still racing.

Arnoux was soon up behind Scheckter's Ferrari and on lap 15 he went by, while Jones was desperately looking for a way by Piquet's Brabham. The Alfa Romeo powered machine was doing nasty things in the middle of the fast bends before the pits, flicking it tail out at just the wrong moment, which was keeping the young Brazilian on his toes and making him work harder than he should have done. One of the skirts on Mass's Arrows was coming adrift and he was dropping further and further back, to be lapped by Villeneuve on lap 15.

At 20 laps, or quarter-distance, the leading Ferrari and second place Renault were still out on their own, while Arnoux was in a certain third place. Scheckter, Piquet, Jones and Jarier followed, with Regazzoni next up having passed Laffite and Lauda. Ickx had stopped twice, to change first the front tyres and then the rear tyres on his untried Ligier and was now down at the back, with only Lammers and Andretti behind him. As Lauda spun off on lap 24 and could not restart, Jabouille began to close up on the flying Villeneuve, the steady progress of the Renault being uncanny. Jabouille was soon behind the Ferrari, but not quite close enough to attack, and as they were lapping slower cars it looked as though the situation was "stalemate". This battle went on for lap after lap, first Jabouille getting baulked by a slower car, then Villeneuve, and so on, so that the situation was still the same at half-distance, 40 laps. This had pulled them well clear of Arnoux, who in turn was well away from any competition. Scheckter had slipped back, from being passed by Piquet and then Jones, the Australian still hanging on to the Brabham-Alfa and watching it twitch through the corners from close quarters. Ickx suddenly disappeared when his engine blew up and Andretti was despairing of ever getting going with the Lotus 80. At 44 laps . . . get clear of the Renaults. Jabouille had done a first-class job of getting away and was holding second place, followed by Scheckter, Piquet and Jabouille was making it very clear that he wanted the lead, but Villeneuve would not oblige. As Rosberg held him up briefly out of the last corner, he shot by on the wrong side, with the Renault right behind him. On lap 46 Villeneuve came up to lap de Angelis and as he eased to go by him on the wrong side, Jabouille was hard on the Renault's power and drew alongside to pass the Ferrari up the straight, and lap 47 saw the 100,000 crowd wild with delight as a French driver in a French car led the Grand Prix of France. Having got by, Jabouille gave it all he'd got for a lap or two, and left Villeneuve a bit breathless, so that at 50 laps there was a sizeable gap between the two cars. On lap 52 Andretti disappeared quietly, giving up the unequal struggle, while on the next lap Piquet disappeared noisily in a shower of stones and dust as his Brabham-Alfa went backwards into the catch-fences on the last corner, leaving Alan Jones to sail past into fourth place. Although Piquet blamed himself for losing control, the car had been acting so peculiarly all the race, that it is remarkable that he caught it as many times as he did.

Villeneuve's desperate efforts to get away from the Renault in the early stages had naturally taken toll of his tyres and brakes, and knowing he could no longer hold Jabouille, he eased his pace slightly and concentrated on conserving his Michelin rubber and Ferodo brake pad material, to make them last to the end of the race. His team-leader was very disgruntled about the whole affair and before he suffered the ignominy of being passed by Jarier in the Tyrrell he pulled into the Ferrari pits for a new set of tyres. This left the Tyrrell in fifth place, but Regazzoni was thinking it would be a nice place to be and was pressuring the blue car heavily. Providing everything on the leading Renault kept going Jabouille looked to having victory in his grasp, but he was far from happy not only worrying about the reliability of the mechanical components, but his brakes were wearing and needing more and more pressure to be effective. This was causing him great pain in his right leg, as he had to push harder and harder on the pedal, and the overall strain was beginning to tell on him. Fortunately there was no way that Villeneuve could repeat his early efforts without using up his tyres and brakes, and second place was his sole interest, but it was far from certain for Arnoux was closing up rapidly, responding nobly to signals from the Renault pits.

With ten laps to go there now started a memorable battle for second place, so fierce and competitive that the leader of the race was totally overlooked. By lap 71 Arnoux was right behind Villeneuve, and still there on lap 72. On the next lap they lapped some slower cars and the Ferrari got through while the Renault didn't. Lap 75 and 76 they were together again, but Villeneuve was not giving in, but on the start of lap 78 the Renault was alongside the Ferrari and took the lead. But it wasn't over, for Villeneuve is not one to give up. He was back in the lead on the 79th lap, but Arnoux was proving to be just as tenacious. Side by side they started the last lap, side by side they went into the first corner, side by side they came out of the first corner. Neither man was going to give way and they threw caution to the winds, rubbing their tyres against each other as they dived into the twisty back leg. Villeneuve got inside at the far hairpin, Arnoux was in front as they climbed out of the dip, but the Renault engine gave a hiccough as he accelerated and the Ferrari was instantly alongside. Over the brow of the hill they went, still rubbing tyres, but with the Ferrari on the advantageous inside for the long fast final bend. Down the last dip they were virtually touching, nose to tail; up the hill the Renault pulled out and as they disappeared over the brow and raced for the line they were side by side again. The Ferrari got the verdict by an official quarter of a second, and while it had all been happening Jabouille had quietly won the Grand Prix for France, creating so many "firsts" that it was bewildering. First Renault victory in a Grand Prix since 1906, first-ever Grand Prix victory by a turbo-charged engine, first Grand Prix win for Jean-Pierre Jabouille, and so on. It was a worthy moment for the wholesale consumption of Moet Chandon champagne. The lanky Frenchman was completely exhausted and had to be helped from his car, his right leg really suffering from the effort required on the brake pedal. Almost punch-drunk by the enormity of the whole affair poor Jabouille would have preferred to have gone and lain down, rather than give himself over to the delirious French crowds. Being a national hero was almost more than the quiet Frenchman could bear and he looked dazed and "shell-shocked" for quite a time after winning. The two little "whizz-kids" in second and third places were grinning all over their faces, having thoroughly enjoyed their last lap rough-and-tumble, saying it had all been good fun, though they realised it could have ended with them both spinning off. But they were racing in real earnest for second place and that over-rides all other thoughts, until afterwards.

It had been a Renault joy-day with a vengeance, and Arnoux was well content with being third to such a hard racer as Villeneuve, while the little French-Canadian was the hero of the 3-litre establishment with his hard-driven fourth place, and he was Goodyear's white hope, for three cars ahead were all on Michelin tyres. Jarier completed yet another worthy race for the Tyrrell team, with fifth place, and good old Regga scored again for Frank Williams with sixth place, only one second away from the Tyrrell. As the dust of the winners settled and the rest of the runners came in it was seen that Reutemann was missing from tenth place. The front brakes on the Lotus 79 had failed on the seventy-eighth lap and he stuffed the nose of his car under the back of Rosberg's Wolf. While the Wolf went on the Lotus stopped with a crumpled nose and the right front wheel pointing sharp right.

A grumbling Scheckter finished seventh, after his stop for fresh tyres, and John Watson also stopped for fresh tyres for his McLaren which lost him a place to his team-mate. Rebaque had run non-stop in his private Lotus 79 and had nicely vanquished the two new Arrows. Giacomelli brought the works Alfa Romeo to the finish after stops to look at the gearbox and change tyres. Pironi had yet another Tyrrell component break on him, this time in the rear suspension.

It had certainly been a Grand Prix of France to go down in history, being won by the French, but the race for second place revived the interest of all the Formula One disbelievers. All races cannot be good, but you should watch all races so that when one is good you don't miss it. — D.S.J.