The 1968 French Grand Prix, officially advertised as the LIV Grand Prix de France, was the sixth race of the 1968 FIA Formula One World Championship, staged at Rouen-Les-Essarts on the 7th of July 1968. The race would go down as a black mark in F1 history, with the death of Jo Schlesser overshadowing an excellent maiden victory for Jacky Ickx.
Practice/qualifying had seen an impressive display from Jochen Rindt to take pole, being joined on the front row by Jackie Stewart and eventual winner Ickx after two short sessions. There had also been a huge accident for Jackie Oliver during the Friday session, with the Brit lucky to walk away after ripping his virtually in two after hitting a ditch.
Race day dawned grey and dull, with light rain falling as the flag fell to signal the start, with Ickx slithering into the lead of the race as the only man to start on full wets. The Belgian was soon pulling clear through the opening laps leaving Rindt and Stewart to fight over second, just before the accident that would claim the life of Schlesser.
The Frenchman was thundering down the downhill sweepers on lap three when the rear end broke away, throwing the new Honda into an earth bank where the chassis was obliterated. Landing upside down, Schlesser was trapped as the fuel tank began to leak fuel onto the exhaust pipes, setting the entire car ablaze as the magnesium chassis burned. There was no chance to save the 40 year old Frenchman due to the intensity of the fire, with the race continuing on as the now ex-Honda burned to the ground.
The carnage from Schlesser's accident would remain a feature of the Grand Prix until its conclusion, with Rindt dropping out of contention after picking up a puncture. Ickx, meanwhile, managed to build up a strong lead as John Surtees, running the older Honda, battled with Stewart and Rodriguez, the latter running in second for some time until a gearbox problem dropped him down the order.
Eventually, a less than jubilant Ickx would cross the line to earn his maiden victory, with Surtees finishing second as the only man still on the lead lap. Stewart claimed third ahead of debutante Vic Elford, while defending Champion Denny Hulme and Piers Courage completed the points.
The French Grand Prix had struggled to build up a real identity since the start of Formula One, and in 1968 the oldest race in the world would officially change its name to the Grand Prix de France, rather than its original title of the the Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. That move had been made when the F.F.S.A. took control of the race from the A.C.F., which had been in trouble since the disastrous 1967 race staged on the shortened Circuit de la Sarthe. The F.F.S.A. decided to take the "new" French Grand Prix back to one of its more popular hosts, the Rouen-Les-Essarts circuit near the Norman capital which had long been seen as one of the best public road courses in motorsport and would be hosting the 3.0 litre cars for the first time.
Headlining the entry list ahead of their home Grand Prix were the two separate Matra entries, with Ken Tyrrell's Matra International effort partnering the full blooded factory effort by Matra Sport. Dutch Grand Prix winner Jackie Stewart would use Tyrrell's Ford Cosworth engined car as he had done for most of the season, with the choice of two different chassis. The Matra powered Matra car was also in the hands of its familiar driver, Jean-Pierre Beltoise, with the French team also managing to complete a brand new car for their home race to give themselves the best chance of a home win.
Further home interest would also be found among the Honda efforts, who had had a falling out with British partner John Surtees over their newest creation. The Honda RA302 had long been anticipated with its air cooled V8 engine, but when Surtees tested the car at Silverstone, the Englishman declared the car as inadequate and began to make arrangements to develop the car at his usual steady pace. However, with Honda attempting to create an import business in France, and with company founder, and president, Soichiro Honda attending the race, the new car was taken away from Surtees' group and handed to Honda France, who were told to field a French driver. Jo Schlesser was therefore drafted into the squad to make his full Grand Prix debut, as Mr. Honda attempted to persuade the French authorities to accept his business by throwing his weight behind a French effort.
Another French speaker would be found in the form of Johnny Servoz-Gavin, who had been loaned by Matra to the Cooper-BRM team, who were once again suffering from a severe lack of drivers. Lucien Bianchi was absent due to his sportscar commitments, while Brian Redman was out with a badly broken arm after his accident in Belgium. Servoz-Gavin was therefore drafted in to fill the second seat, while British racer Vic Elford was drafted in from his ETCC efforts to pilot the first car as he made his Grand Prix bow.
Otherwise, the entry list had a rather familiar look to it, albeit with some minor modifications to the equipment being used around Rouen's sweeping circuit. Lotus-Ford Cosworth, for instance, had decided to make more permanent additions to their aero-parts, the Lotus 49Bs of Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver now having their taped on aluminium spoilers fitted permanently, now mounted above the hub carriers. The newest chassis, destined for customers Rob Walker Racing Team, was still being completed after the two factory cars required rebuilds, so Jo Siffert would have to continue on in their original Lotus 49.
BRM were back with their familiar line-up, Pedro Rodríguez and Richard Attwood driving the factory cars while Piers Courage piloted the car loaned out to Reg Parnell Racing as usual. McLaren-Ford Cosworth had Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme in action as usual, while Brabham-Repco were in a similar position, with no changes for the "gaffer" or Jochen Rindt. The latter effort would not be supporting Dan Gurney, however, as Gurney missed the weekend entirely as he tried to keep his Anglo-American Racers effort afloat after they split with Weslake.
Rounding out the field would be the Ferrari duo of Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx, both of whom were given fresh engines and additional cooling ducts, mounted to direct air around the exhaust manifold to combat the sapping heat of the French summer.
Victory in Zandvoort had put Stewart up among the leaders in the title bout, although he still only had half the total number of points of early pace setter Hill. The Englishman's poor run had continued in the Netherlands, but early season triumphs were enough for Hill to keep the Championship lead. Rodríguez and Hulme were level on points, the Mexican ahead based on his third place, while McLaren, Jim Clark and Beltoise were all tied on nine points.
Like their lead driver, it was Lotus-Ford Cosworth that maintained the lead in the Intercontinental Cup for Manufacturers in the Netherlands, despite the fact that they were enduring a poor run of form. McLaren-Ford Cosworth had held station in second as their closest competitors, although they were under threat from an improving BRM squad. Matra-Ford Cosworth had leapt up the order thanks to Stewart's win, with Ferrari hanging onto the top five after another minor points finish.
The full entry list for the 1968 French Grand Prix is outlined below:
Practice and qualifying would run together as usual in Rouen, although the amount of time granted across Thursday and Friday caused a lot of complaints as the F.F.S.A. focused on support programmes rather than the Grand Prix cars. Just an hour of running had been pencilled on Thursday, a session that would be started ten minutes early before finishing twenty minutes before it should, ahead of a (negotiated) one hour and twenty minute session on Friday. The last F1 race to be held at the circuit had been back in the 1.5 litre era, when the late Jim Clark had taken pole with a 2:09.6 for the 1964 race, a record that had been beaten by Jochen Rindt in a Formula Two race in 1967, the Austrian having recorded a 2:02.6.
Despite the sudden change of schedule on Thursday evening, it would be record holder Rindt who shot onto the circuit first as the session started, immediately dipping under his own lap record on his first flying lap. John Surtees was also an early pace setter, putting in an impressive set of laps to prove a point to Honda, who were working hard to get Jo Schlesser in action. Graham Hill was another early pusher, the new aerofoils on the Lotus-Ford Cosworths really catching the eye, although the second factory effort of Jackie Oliver would be stuck in the pits with a driveshaft problem.
There would be numerous angry faces come session end, twenty minutes earlier than expected and only after 50 minutes of running. That left Rindt on provisional pole after his early session burst, although the Austrian's lap at the very end of the evening stole the show at 1:56.1, an average speed of 202.853 kph. The two McLaren-Ford Cosworths and the scarlet Ferraris were next up after a strong Thursday, while Surtees looked to have proved his point about the new Honda, the Brit's best time having been nine seconds quicker than Schlesser's ultimate pace.
Friday saw an extra twenty minutes added to the scheduled hour long session, with caught everyone off guard when the circuit opened at 5:00pm. Fortunately, it was another dry and warm session and a fair number of the field managed to find some time, although provisional pole holder Rindt would struggle. The Austrian was suffering from engine issues, restricting him to a handful of laps, until a back-fire turned the exhaust pipes of the Repco into a flame thrower.
It was during this session where Oliver had one of the biggest accidents of the season, having finally got some decent running in after his earlier issues. On a flying lap, the Brit was charging down to complete the lap when he caught the edge of the grass just before the pitlane, with the car suddenly darting sideways before striking a parapet. The gearbox and rear suspension were removed as the back end of the car shattered on the ditch, with Oliver clambering out of the written off car completely uninjured, although he would have to explain to Colin Chapman why he had returned to the pits on foot.
Come sessions end and Rindt had some how managed to hold on to pole, with Jackie Stewart ending the session second fastest, over a second off of the Austrian's Thursday best. Jacky Ickx and Denny Hulme dead-heated for third, the Belgian given the position having set his time on Thursday, with Chris Amon finished just a tenth away in fifth. Surtees had comprehensively beaten Schlesser in the inter-Honda battle, despite the Frenchman managing to find a couple of seconds, while Vic Elford was slowly improving, until his engine detonated as he was cruising back to the pits.
The full qualifying results for the 1968 French Grand Prix are outlined below:
|2||28||Jackie Stewart||Matra-Ford Cosworth||1:58.7||1:57.3||+1.2s|
|4||8||Denny Hulme||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:58.2||1:57.7||+1.6s|
|6||10||Bruce McLaren||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:58.4||1:58.0||+1.9s|
|9||12||Graham Hill||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||2:00.0||1:59.1||+3.0s|
|11*||14||Jackie Oliver||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||2:02.2||2:00.2||+4.1s|
|12||34||Jo Siffert||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||2:03.5||2:00.3||+4.2s|
- * Oliver would be unable to start after his accident.
After a day off for all of the teams on Saturday the field was ready for the start on Sunday, with all of the drivers allowed to complete a few laps on raceday morning before waiting until late afternoon for the start. It would be a day dominated by support races as the clouds gathered around the circuit, a fact which caused a lot of angst among the Grand Prix teams, with rain scheduled around the time that the race was meant to start. Indeed, as the field returned from their warm-up lap, fifteen minutes later than the start time, the rain began to fall to add to the woes of several drivers.
The French Grand Prix had never been known for being a well organised race, and the start of the 1968 race showed exactly why the event was in trouble. The marshals failed to ensure that the field lined up properly on the dummy grid before the start, meaning the field was one solid lump as they were waved into action while still crawling onto the grid proper. Sixteen cars duly roared off from the rolling start, leaving a disgruntled Jo Siffert on the dummy grid as the Swiss racer had a battery change.
Jackie Stewart took an early lead amid the chaos, leading the field into the first hairpin, Jacky Ickx breathing down his neck as pole sitter Jochen Rindt just held on to third. The track, however, was wetter after the hairpin, and as the field began to make their way down the sweeping curves back to the pits, Ickx would elbow his way past Stewart for the lead. The Belgian was the only man to take full wets at the start, everyone else opting for a late swap to intermediates, and as the rain fell with increasing force the Ferrari was looking to be the most stable car.
Come the end of the first lap and Ickx already had a fair advantage over the rest of the field, who came past the pits in a wall of spray behind Stewart's blue Matra-Ford Cosworth. Rindt came across the line in third ahead of John Surtees, Pedro Rodríguez, Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill, Jean-Pierre Beltoise and the rest, with Chris Amon and Denny Hulme also in the early hunt. Coming through in last place would be Johnny Servoz-Gavin after a spin on the run back to the pits, the Frenchman lucky not to be collected by Siffert as he charged onto the back of the pack after his late problem.
A few changes would occur on lap two, started by Rindt slinging up the inside of Stewart into the first hairpin. Hill used the change up the road to force his way past McLaren, while Amon blasted past Beltoise, who seemed to be struggling in the conditions. Another move could be found among the back markers, where Piers Courage slithered his way past Vic Elford into the Nouveau Monde hairpin, just moments before Jo Schlesser became the latest name on the 1968 casualty list.
The Frenchman was charging down the hill in the spray when, just as he was coming through the right hander of Six Freres where the backend broke away and threw Schlesser's car off the road. The Honda smashed into an earth bank and rolled over, leaving the Frenchman trapped inside as the fuel bladder burst and threw fuel over the hot exhaust, bursting into flame on contact. Unfortunately, the magnesium chassis got hot enough to burn too, meaning any attempts to rescue the trapped Schlesser were stopped, leaving the Frenchman to die in the horrid blaze.
The wreckage from Schlesser's accident was strewn across the circuit, Siffert and Servoz-Gavin having been lucky to avoid the accident as it was going on as fuel was thrown across the circuit before catching fire. Ambulances and fire crews were sent out to the scene almost instantly, but the race would continue on through the wreckage, with the field once again bunching up with only part of the circuit clear at the scene. With pieces of Honda all over the circuit there was a very high chance of a puncture, so it was no surprise when Rindt came limping back to the pits with a metal shard buried in a severely deflated tyre.
It would be a disastrous couple of laps for Brabham-Repco after Schlesser's accident, with Jack Brabham also limping back to the pits with an engine issue. There would be several laps of slow running with the circuit blocked, with Surtees and Rodriguez closing right onto the back of Ickx after they elbowed their way past Stewart who had eased off. Beltoise, like his Scottish teammate, had also backed off as a result of the accident, just ahead of Siffert who had developed a clutch problem while Rindt rejoined over a lap behind.
By lap seven the fire had been controlled and most of the debris cleared away, and as Schlesser's body was whisked away to hospital, the leaders began to pick up the pace once again. Ickx's confidence on the full wets allowed him to push the hardest, the Belgian pulling clear as Rodriguez got ahead of Surtees, although the Mexican could not escape. It would be during their duel that Rodriguez's tyre picked up a bit of Schlesser's ex-Honda, and flung it at Surtees' goggles managing to break a lens.
Despite his broken lens, Surtees would remain stubbornly glued to the back of Rodriguez as both tried in vain to keep with a determined Ickx. Stewart and Hill were a distant fourth and fifth, barely within sight of each other after ten laps, with McLaren leading a drawn out bunch of cars. Courage was leading the chase for the final point, fending off repeated challenges from Elford, Richard Attwood, Amon, Hulme and a recovered Servoz-Gavin, with the two New Zealander's in the middle of the pack having the best cars for the job, but were unwilling to push the limits.
The following laps saw little change among the order, although both Hill and Courage would make progress as they tried to catch Stewart and McLaren respectively. Hill was able to elbow his former BRM teammate out of the way on lap thirteen, just moments after Brabham rejoined the fray, only to retire after his engine began running rough once again while Courage took an extra lap to move past McLaren. Beltoise, meanwhile, decided to try on a set of wet tyres to try and find some confidence after going a lap down but had little joy, while Servoz-Gavin went for a race ending spin into the woods, the Frenchman emerging from the trees uninjured with a wrecked Cooper-BRM.
Back with Ickx and the race leader was putting in a masterful display at the front of the field, dancing his Ferrari round the circuit as he lapped Hulme and Amon, both of whom were falling away from the points positions. Rodriguez and Surtees were still pushing, losing out to Ickx but dropping Stewart, who was back up to fourth after Hill dropped out with a broken driveshaft. Yet, the race order was far from stable in the conditions, and a sudden downpour on lap nineteen was enough to cause a potential seismic shift at the top of the order.
First to come across the sudden sheet of water was Ickx, who subsequently ran wide and slithered off the circuit, just as Rodriguez set fastest lap with Surtees in tow. They were in time to see the sheet of water and take action, tiptoeing through the Nouveau Monde hairpin as Ickx tried to rejoin, leaving Rodriguez in the lead. It would not last long however, for the Mexican and the Brit were still on their intermediates in the downpour, allowing Ickx to cruise past full of confidence on his wets, before setting about rebuilding his lead.
As the weather front swept across the circuit, Hulme had to stop to have a punctured tyre change, giving him the chance to swap to a set of full wets in the process. Attwood, Amon and McLaren were also in for a set of thick treads, although their efforts may have been in vain as Ickx suddenly came slithering out of the final corner on full opposite lock. When the Belgian hit the dummy grid markers his car had suddenly snapped sideways, and only some frantic work on the steering wheel kept the Ferrari pointing in a straight line and out of the barriers.
A gradual shift to wet tyres through the field saw Stewart had fourth place to Courage when the Scot stopped, only for the Englishman to pit with something trailing from the bottom of his loaned BRM. The problem was found to be a harmless strap and not a pipe as Courage had feared, although Reg Parnell Racing decided to repair the strap and bolt on a set of wets as the Brit had already stopped. That left just Rodriguez and Surtees on the lead lap, well behind a supreme Ickx, with both stubbornly holding on to their intermediate tyres despite the amount of water.
After half distance the rain eased off ever so slightly to let the pace rise above the 100mph average mark, as the gaps between the cars opened up. The only ongoing battle was the duel for second between Rodriguez and Surtees, although that looked to have been settled when the latter stopped to replace his shattered goggles. A few laps later an he joined the list of drivers a lap down to Ickx as the Belgian pounded round unhindered, just as Courage made another move after his stop, taking Attwood with ease.
The after effects of Schlesser's accident were still being felt even after the halfway point with several punctures reported, including one for second placed Rodriguez. It was a sharp change in fortunes for the Mexican, whose race was ruined by a combination of puncture, fuel pipe split and gearbox problems, with the Mexican limping back to the pits on lap 46 after completing half a lap stuck in second gear. Two of the three issues would be cured, the Mexican sticking with the intermediates, although the BRM mechanics could only lock the gearbox in fourth and tell Rodriguez not to touch the lever until the end of the race.
The stop had allowed Stewart to get back into a podium spot, and before the Mexican could get back in the fight properly, the BRM was again in the pits having got stuck in second again. The second stop put Rodriguez back down to sixth, once again going out with the car locked in fourth gear, allowing Elford and Hulme to move through. The debutante had been one of the brave few to stay out on the inters during the downpour, and a competent display suggested that Cooper had a new lead driver in the making, provided he could finish the race uninjured.
With that, and a third stop for Rodriguez to drop to the very back of the field, the race was run, with Ickx slithering home to record an excellent maiden victory. Surtees was allowed to get back on the lead lap in the closing stages as he claimed second, with Stewart a lap down in third. Elford managed to survive the final laps and fend off Hulme in the closing stages, while Courage picked up the final point in sixth after a strong, if unfortunate, display.
After the race the drivers were informed of Schlesser's death, leading to a rather subdued podium although most had guessed his fate while the Honda burned at the side of the road.
The full results for the 1968 French Grand Prix are outlined below:
|3||28||Jackie Stewart||Matra-Ford Cosworth||59||+1 lap||2||4|
|4||30||Vic Elford||Cooper-BRM||58||+2 laps||17||3|
|5||8||Denny Hulme||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||58||+2 laps||4||2|
|6||36||Piers Courage||BRM||57||+3 laps||14||1|
|7||22||Richard Attwood||BRM||57||+3 laps||12|
|8||10||Bruce McLaren||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||56||+4 laps||6|
|9||6||Jean-Pierre Beltoise||Matra||56||+4 laps||8|
|10||24||Chris Amon||Ferrari||55||+5 laps||5|
|11||34||Jo Siffert||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||54||+6 laps||11|
|NC*||20||Pedro Rodríguez||BRM||53||+7 laps||10|
|Ret||2||Jochen Rindt||Brabham-Repco||45||Fuel tank||1|
|Ret||4||Jack Brabham||Brabham-Repco||15||Fuel pump||13|
|Ret||12||Graham Hill||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||14||Transmission||9|
|Ret||18||Jo Schlesser||Honda||2||Fatal accident||16|
|DNS||14||Jackie Oliver||Lotus-Ford Cosworth|
- * Rodriguez could not be classified as he had failed to complete 90% of the race distance.
- Debut for Vic Elford.
- Third and final entry made by Jo Schlesser.
- It would also prompt business partner Guy Ligier to quit racing.
- Final Grand Prix to be staged at Rouen-Les-Essarts.
- Maiden pole position for Jochen Rindt.
- Jacky Ickx claimed his first World Championship victory.
- Also the 42nd victory for Ferrari.
- Jackie Stewart claimed his tenth podium finish.
- Elford and Piers Courage earned their first points finishes.
- Pedro Rodríguez earned his first (and only) fastest lap.
Victory for Jacky Ickx meant he became the latest driver to leap up into second place in the table as the Championship reached the halfway mark, with Graham Hill still leading the charge. The Englishman had an eight point advantage despite his failure to score once again, with Ickx level on points with Jackie Stewart. Defending Champion Denny Hulme had slipped down to fourth ahead of Pedro Rodríguez, with nineteen drivers now on the scorers list as John Surtees, Vic Elford and Piers Courage joined in the fun.
As with their lead driver Hill, Lotus-Ford Cosworth were still leading the Intercontinental Cup for Manufacturers standings at the halfway point, despite failing to score once again. McLaren-Ford Cosworth, Ferrari and Matra-Ford Cosworth were all level on nineteen points, ten away from the Norfolk squad as all three took points off of each other. BRM sat in fifth ahead of the Cooper-BRM squad, with Brabham-Repco level with Honda and the second Matra effort in seventh.
Images and Videos:
- 'GRAND PRIX RESULTS: FRENCH GP, 1968', grandprix.com, (Inside F1 Inc., 2016), http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr167.html, (Accessed 29/09/2016)
- 'D.S.J., 'THE FRENCH GRAND PRIX: Very Wet', motorsportmagazine.com, (MotorSport Magazine, 01/08/1968), http://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1968/10/french-grand-prix, (Accessed 29/09/2016)
- 'France 1968: Entrants', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1968/france/engages.aspx, (Accessed 29/09/2016)
- 'France 1968: Qualifications', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1968/france/qualification.aspx, (Accessed 29/09/2016)
- 'France 1968: Result', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1968/france/classement.aspx, (Accessed 29/09/2016)
|V T E||French Grand Prix|
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