The punishing 1978 French GP: James Hunt's greatest race?


1978 was heavy going for both James Hunt and McLaren – but at that year's French GP, the British hero delivered a scintillating drive for his final career podium

James Hunt McLaren 1978 French GP

1978 was difficult for Hunt, but the '76 champion was still able to show his mettle on occasion

Bernard Cahier / Getty Images

In the Formula 1 World Championship era, in other words 1950 onwards, French Grands Prix have been run at Reims (11 times), Rouen (five times), Clermont-Ferrand (four times), Le Mans Bugatti (once), Paul Ricard (18 times), Dijon (five times), and Magny-Cours (18 times), most of them at this time of year. No French Grand Prix took place between 2009 and 2017, and since then there have been four, all at Paul Ricard, two won by Lewis Hamilton and two won by Max Verstappen, the last in 2022. Since then, rien.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a period in which it was still not generally thought irresponsible for petrolheads to drive quickly on sparsely trafficked public roads in rural France, I hooned two voitures ordinaires around some of the roads that had once made up the circuits at Rouen and Clermont-Ferrand. At Rouen some time in the early 1980s I drove a 1979 Renault 14TS (owned by a French friend of mine who once whizzed it around Paris’s chaotic Arc de Triomphe roundabout while breast-feeding her baby) and at Clermont-Ferrand some time in the early 1990s I drove a 1986 Nissan Sunny 1.5SGL (my own, which I had been using for minicabbing in London). I found tackling what was then still accessible of Rouen and Clermont-Ferrand stirring in the extreme, for they had both been magnificent racetracks and, as I say, in those days you could drive humdrum family hatchbacks and notchbacks pretty much flat-out in most of continental Europe without feeling you were doing anything particularly antisocial.

In 2001 I drove to Magny-Cours in a rather different Nissan, a brand-new Skyline R34 GT-R borrowed from the company’s UK press office, and en route I detoured via Reims. I parked up alongside the old grandstand on the main straight, which I gather is no longer permitted, and I explored everything at great length. I then essayed a few tyre-squealing runs around the Thillois hairpin, which was enormous fun. About three hours later, nearing Magny-Cours, I gunned that then-state-of-the-art Japanese mega-coupe past an Opel Vectra being driven spiritedly by a young man who, on fleeting rear-view-mirror inspection, turned out to be Nick Heidfeld. Two days later he qualified his Sauber C20 ninth, and the day after that he raced it to sixth. I have never driven around Le Mans Bugatti, Paul Ricard, Dijon, or Magny-Cours.

5 Abandoned Reims race track France

Reims: one of F1’s iconic French venues – its old grand stand and pit buildings can still be visited today (on foot)

If I were to ask you to rank in order of excellence the seven circuits that have staged F1 French Grands Prix, you might well come up with a list like this one, which is my own best-to-worst ranking: Clermont-Ferrand, Rouen, Paul Ricard, Dijon, Magny-Cours, Reims, and Le Mans Bugatti. But, to be fair, they were or are all good, except Le Mans Bugatti, which is OK for GP motorcycles but was rubbish for F1 cars, even in 1967.

Are you wondering why I have ranked Paul Ricard so high? Well, I am referring not to the bastardised new version but to the proper old one that held the French Grand Prix on and off between 1971 and 1985, dominated as it was by the long, long Mistral straight leading into the prodigiously challenging and very fast right-hander, Signes, and the flat-out section between the last corner, Virage du Pont, and Turn 5, Saint Baume, which incorporated the awesomely rapid Turns 1 and 2, the Verrerie sweeps, one left and the other right, where Elio de Angelis lost his life in a testing accident in 1986. Only the greats ever won there: Jackie Stewart, Ronnie Peterson, Niki Lauda, James Hunt, Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, René Arnoux, Alain Prost, and Nelson Piquet. Of those nine, only Arnoux and Peterson never won F1 world championships, and Peterson was faster than many who did.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you will know that I like anniversaries. So it is that I can tell you that, if you are reading these words on the day on which they were published, July 2, you are doing so on the 46th anniversary of the 1978 French Grand Prix, which was won on a glorious summer’s day by Andretti in his equally glorious Lotus 79. Perhaps because Peterson was second in the other 79, thereby completing the third of four one-two finishes for Lotus that season, the race is not now remembered as a classic. But it should be. It really should be.

From the archive

Two weeks previously, at Anderstorp, Sweden, the F1 world had been pitched into political turmoil when Lauda had won easily in the Brabham BT46B ‘fan car’. That rather crude but incredibly effective machine was not banned, as has often been reported, but was instead withdrawn by Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone, seeing the bigger picture as he did more often than he is usually given credit for doing, quickly realising that the car was so much faster than anything else that it would (1) win everywhere and (2) force all the other teams to embark on the costly process of creating fan cars of their own. So the Brabham boys suddenly had just two weeks to transport their fan cars from the south of Sweden to the south of England, convert them back to non-fan cars, then transport them from the south of England to the south of France: a big ask for what was then still a small F1 team.

It was already clear that 1978 was going to be an annus horribilis for McLaren

They did more than that, though. “About the only thing that’s the same is the monocoque,” said Gordon Murray, Brabham’s chief designer, talking to journalists in the Paul Ricard pitlane. “We’ve had to change the front and rear suspension, overhaul the cooling system, bring the radiators back up front, and redo lots of bodywork.” It was a massive job but they did it well – and, helped by the long, long straight, on which the Brabham’s powerful Alfa Romeo flat-12 engine was just the ticket, John Watson took the pole with a brilliant lap of 1min 44.41sec. Just four other drivers recorded sub-105sec laps – Andretti (1min 44.46sec), Lauda (1min 44.71sec), Hunt (1min 44.92sec), and Peterson (1min 44.98sec) – and, of the five aces who got into the 44s, the performance that really caught the eye was Hunt’s.

The 1978 French Grand Prix was the ninth race of that F1 season, and it was already clear that 1978 was going to be an annus horribilis for McLaren. The boys from Colnbrook (not yet Woking in those days) had won six F1 grands prix and the F1 drivers’ world championship in 1976, and a further three F1 grands prix in 1977, all nine of those race victories won by Hunt, yet they had not bagged so much as a podium in 1978. The McLaren M26 was two years old – Jochen Mass had given it its F1 grand prix debut at Zandvoort in 1976 – and it was sadly dated by mid-1978. It looked it, too.

James Hunt McLaren 1978 German GP

Hunt was left to persevere with outdated McLaren M26

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

So, for Hunt to have been able to plant it on the second row at Paul Ricard that year, mixing it with the two super-grippy ground-effect Lotus 79s and the two super-powerful Alfa-engined Brabham BT46s, was remarkable. The M26 had a bog-standard Cosworth V8 and no ground-effect tech at all, remember. Moreover, pace-wise, at least four other Cossie-engined cars had surpassed it over the past half-season, newer and more advanced as they were – the Wolf WR5, the Arrows FA1, the Tyrrell 008, and the Williams FW06 – as had the Ferrari 312 T3 and the Ligier-Matra JS9. But at Paul Ricard none of the drivers of those cars – Jody Scheckter (Wolf), Riccardo Patrese and Rolf Stommelen (Arrows), Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi (Tyrrell), Alan Jones (Williams), Carlos Reutemann and Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari), and Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Matra) – had been able to get anywhere near the qualifying time that Hunt had managed to dredge out of his two-year-old McLaren. “Even though the long straight here makes us more competitive than usual against the Lotus 79, I’d still rather have a 79 painted up in Marlboro and Texaco colours and get going in that,” said Hunt, “but unfortunately Colin [Chapman] won’t let us have one.”

On race day Watson made a good start from pole position, and he duly led the field through Turns 1 and 2 into 3, a sharp right-hander that required heavy braking, Andretti tucked in close behind. Hunt had also made a good start, and he had fancied his chances of forcing his McLaren past the Lotus under braking for Turn 3, but that idea was rudely extinguished by Andretti, about whom Hunt was typically scathing after the race: “Mario found himself boxed in behind Wattie so he moved out, which was a pretty stupid thing to do when you’re leading the world championship. All I’d have had to do was lock a wheel and he’d have been in hospital for the rest of the year, and you can’t win races from there. But I decided to be gentlemanly, hit the brakes early to avoid a shunt, and half the field went past me.” Not quite half, to be fair, but he ended up sixth rather than second or third at the end of lap one – and angry.

From the archive

The Alfa engine in Lauda’s Brabham blew after 10 laps. One lap later Patrick Tambay, Hunt’s McLaren team-mate, pulled into the pits, complaining of “something loose at the back of my car”. On lap 16 Hunt passed Watson, who had already been overtaken by both Lotus drivers. So Hunt was now third, some way behind Andretti and Peterson, who were running in line astern up front, looking well set for a comfortable cruise to another stress-free black-and-gold one-two.

When Hunt was in the mood, he was as fast as anyone. In my opinion, from mid-1976 to the end of 1977, he and Scheckter were the best F1 drivers in the world. And now, his dander up, still cross with Andretti, Hunt found himself able once again to relight his old fire, and he began to race his ageing McLaren faster than it had any right to go. Little by little, lap by lap, he gradually edged closer to the two ground-effect Lotuses ahead. As they came up to lap Reutemann, whose Michelins were misbehaving, Lole did not make things easy for the three leaders, and, as Andretti and Peterson vainly sought a way past the moody Argentine, Hunt finally caught them.

Mario Andretti Lotus 1978 French GP Paul Ricard

Lotus 79s of Andretti and Peterson were ultimately imperious


Once they had all cleared Reutemann’s Ferrari, the two Lotuses and the McLaren circulated nose-to-tail at ten-tenths (eleven-tenths in Hunt’s case) for 20-odd laps, but, although Hunt could just about stay with the two ground-effect cars ahead of him if he left absolutely no margin anywhere, passing them in his two-year-old clunker was never going to be remotely easy. In addition, he had never raced harder, and as a result he was beginning to tire: not only to tire, in fact, but also to feel sick. Nonetheless, with a lap to go, he was still right with Peterson. Was he going to be able to find a way past after all? No, instead, he half-spun. Had he simply been pushing too hard, and had he lost it as a result? No, not quite. He had vomited inside his helmet, and the distraction had understandably caused him to lose concentration. He got going again, and he drove the final half-lap gently, still far enough ahead of Watson’s fourth-placed Brabham to hold on to the hardest-earned third place of his briefly glittering F1 career.

Hunt drove seven more F1 grands prix for McLaren that year, and seven more for Wolf the following year, but he never scored a single point in any of those 14 races. Most F1 cognoscenti will tell you that his best grands prix were Zandvoort 1975, Zandvoort 1976, Mosport 1976, Watkins Glen 1976, and Silverstone 1977, all of which he won. They are not wrong. But Paul Ricard 1978, his largely forgotten last hurrah, was as good as any of them.