The 1978 French Grand Prix, officially known as the LXIV Grand Prix de France, was the ninth race of the 1978 FIA Formula One World Championship, staged at the Circuit Paul Ricard on the 2 July 1978. The race would see Lotus return to their position of dominance at the head of the field, claiming their third one-two in four races.
The two black-gold cars would have to fight for their victory, however, for John Watson, using a down-graded Brabham BT46, claimed pole, ahead of Lotus leader Mario Andretti. Niki Lauda put the second Brabham into third ahead of his old rival James Hunt, while Ronnie Peterson piloted the #6 Lotus 79 to fifth.
Watson duly managed to fend off Andretti's attentions at the start, while Patrick Tambay stunned the field to shoot into third from sixth. Lauda was next ahead of Peterson, while Hunt tumbled to sixth after making a small mistake trying to pull away from the grid.
Before the end of the opening lap, however, the race was all but over, for Andretti sent his Lotus skating past Watson at the end of the Mistral, before disappearing into the distance. Lauda would subsequently become the centre of attention, weaving his way into second, dragging Peterson with him.
Unfortunately second would be as good as it got for Lauda, for his engine expired in a cloud of smoke at the end of lap ten. Peterson duly inherited second and disappeared from Watson, who was fighting a terrific rear-guard from the two McLarens of Tambay and Hunt.
Tambay soon dropped to the back of the pack with a puncture, meaning it was Watson versus Hunt for the final podium spot. Unfortunately that too would be decided before half-distance, with Hunt scything past the Brabham at the end of lap sixteen, before beginning a fruitless chase of the two Loti out front.
Indeed, there were no significant changes to the order during the second half of the race, meaning Andretti and Peterson claimed another dominant one-two for Team Lotus. Hunt secured his twenty-third and final podium visit, with Watson a distant fourth. Alan Jones was next ahead of Jody Scheckter, with the South African racer just fending off Jacques Laffite across the line.
Formula One's annual trip to France would be made on the weekend of the 2 July in 1978, with the circus setting up in the paddock at the Circuit Paul Ricard. Indeed, it was the "high speed test track's" turn to host the oldest Grand Prix in the world, with Dijon-Prenois having hosted the race in 1977. The Paul Ricard circuit itself remained unchanged, meaning all of the pre-race attention could be placed on the machinations of Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Bernie Ecclestone.
Indeed, having survived several appeals regarding the Brabham BT46B "Fan Car", Ecclestone had arranged an extraordinary meeting of the Formula One Constructors Association to outline his intentions. The meeting, designed more to maintain Ecclestone's grip on F.O.C.A. rather than benefit Brabham, ultimately saw the group decide to allow Brabham to run the cars until the end of July. That agreement was then submitted to the FIA's technical body the C.S.I., although their five man panel ultimately rejected the agreement.
Instead, the CSI decided to ban the car on the grounds of safety, despite the fact that they agreed that the effect of Gordon Murray's fan design was "70% cooling and 30% ground effects". Rather the CSI reasoned the performance gain from the fan design, which effectively sucked all of the air out from under the BT46B to generate a significant low-pressure zone under the car, would raise cornering speeds to the point that all 1978-edition safety measures would be instantly made obsolete. They declared that the car should be banned from all subsequent races, but it did, technically, conform to the regulations, meaning Brabham could keep their victory in Sweden.
With their design effectively outlawed with immediate effect, Brabham were forced to downgrade their cars back to "A-spec" for the race in France. As such both Niki Lauda and John Watson were issued with their downgraded cars, with the radiators re-mounted onto the nose and front wing. The spare car was, however, given a hybrid design BT46A/BT46B, featuring longer skirts on the edge of the sidepods, and extended side-plates to hold the rear wing as had appeared on the "fan car".
Elsewhere Lotus, who had led all of the protests against the Brabham "fan car", arrived in Paul Ricard as the favourites with no changes made to their "ground effect" Type 79s. Indeed, both Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson were so confident in their new cars that the team's pair of spare 78s were used as show cars to promote the race and the team. Instead, team boss Colin Chapman had been busy investigating his own "fan car", with a test-bed 79 developed with two small fans located under each sidepod. However, the aforementioned CSI meeting that banned the fan concept was staged before Chapman could test the design, although Chapman did declare that he could have a working version ready for the British Grand Prix.
Into the section of the field that was fast becoming "also-rans" and Ferrari arrived largely unchanged from their exploits in Sweden, with the same three cars shipped to France. Indeed, the only major revision to either Carlos Reutemann or Gilles Villeneuve's cars would be the addition of cockpit-adjustable anti-roll bars, allowing the duo to adjust their setups on the fly. However, the way in which the roll-bars could be adjusted did not prove that effective on the billiard table-esque Circuit Paul Ricard, with both Reutemann and Villeneuve not bothering to use it at all.
Tyrrell had brought some aerodynamic upgrades for Patrick Depailler and Didier Pironi, with all three 008s equipped with more angular aerfoils, as well as a larger capture tank in the fuel system. McLaren, meanwhile, had four factory cars ready for the French Grand Prix, with James Hunt and Patrick Tambay racing for the factory team, and Bruno Giacomelli back in action for the their satellite entry. The fourth, non-racing, M26 the team brought had some interesting design elements, with various cut-out sections in the bodywork intended to extract air from the underside of the car, although their impact was not entirely clear.
Over at ATS the team had been busy preparing a third HS1, bringing their pool of updated Penske PC4s up to three for Jochen Mass and Keke Rosberg. Renault, meanwhile, had two cars prepared for Jean-Pierre Jabouille, although one of those cars was given to Jackie Stewart to drive on the formation lap, having been modified to carry a camera. Fittipaldi had their usual pair of F5As for Emerson Fittipaldi, while Williams had likewise made no changes to Alan Jones' pair of FW06s.
Shadow, meanwhile, had managed to get a new DN9 ready to race at Paul Ricard, although Hans-Joachim Stuck and Clay Regazzoni would instead use their usual chargers. Their rivals, and impending court opponents Arrows were also in attendance with their collection of suspect FA1s, with Riccardo Patrese and Rolf Stommelen at the wheel. However, the Milton Keynes based squad were hard at work creating their second F1 car, in case their defence against Shadow's court action failed.
Elsewhere, Wolf were back with an updated WR5 for Jody Scheckter, although "WR6" was little more than an interim measure before they released a new "WR". Their old pair of cars, WR3 and WR4 were sold to Teddy Yip of Theodore, whom announced that Rosberg, racing for ATS, would be piloting those cars later in the season. Regardless, Mr. Yip and his team would not be in attendance at Paul Ricard, although some of their engineers were working with Walter Wolf Racing in preparation for running their customer Wolves.
Ensign arrived with a new driver for their N177, with Derek Daly taking over from Jacky Ickx. Ligier-Matra had their mix of 1978 and 1977 ½ equipment for Jacques Laffite, while the little Martini was back for René Arnoux to race. Completing the entry list would be the two familiar privateers Brett Lunger and Héctor Rebaque, the latter with a Lotus 79 on order, and Arturo Merzario with his eponymous marque.
Into the Championship and Lauda's controversial victory in Sweden last time out had ensured that the Austrian ace moved into the top three, although he was still a whole win behind Championship leader Andretti. Indeed, the naturalised American had maintained his lead atop the table despite failing to score, with only teammate Peterson within striking distance. Behind Lauda, meanwhile, would be Depailler and Reutemann, with three points covering that trio, while Laffite left the mid-season race a long way behind in sixth.
In the International Cup for Constructors it was still Team Lotus-Ford Cosworth who led the way, the Norfolk squad's lead having grown to eighteen points in Sweden. Their closest challengers proved to be Brabham-Alfa Romeo after Lauda's questionable victory, with the FIA deciding against retroactively disqualifing the Austrian from the results. Elsewhere, Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth had remained ahead of Ferrari, while Ligier-Matra completed the top five.
The full entry list for the 1978 French Grand Prix is outlined below:
Qualifying for the 1978 edition of the French Grand Prix would be a fairly simple affair, with no need for a pre-qualifying session due to the length of the Circuit Paul Ricard. As such, the ever familiar format of two timed periods on Friday, combined with a third "qualifying" session on Saturday, would be followed, with an hour and a half of Saturday's running also given over to race practice. As for a target time the old circuit record of 1:47.82, set by Niki Lauda in 1975 French Grand Prix was expected to fall, although there was no clear guide as to how much it would be beaten by.
Ultimately it was Lauda who would prove that his old mark would be no fit guide for the 1978 field, for the Austrian ace quickly got into the 1:45.00s within a couple of runs. Indeed, his best effort of 1:45.52 would stand as the fastest time for most of the morning session, with a rain shower mid-session preventing anyone else from seriously pushing. Indeed, those who tried to push on the damp track would find themselves in trouble, as demonstrated by Mario Andretti when his Lotus 79 was flicked into a airborne spin after grazing a wet kerb.
Andretti's Lotus would be fixed in time for the afternoon session, although a big scar from the accident remained on the top surface of the cockpit. Regardless, the American ace would spend a lot of the session at the top of the timesheets, only to be beaten to provisional pole by Lauda's teammate John Watson towards the end of the afternoon. Indeed, the Ulsterman would record a 1:44.41 in the dying seconds of the day to snatch top spot from Andretti by 0.05s, a gap which caused some to question whether the "fan car" had been as potent as believed in Sweden.
Elsewhere, it was a relatively calm session throughout, with no major incidents barring the odd, minor, engine issue. Most of the field would get within sight of Lauda's morning effort, with the Austrian racer himself ending the afternoon third fastest, a fraction faster than Ronnie Peterson in the second Lotus. Best of the home contingent would be Patrick Tambay in fifth with a 1:45.07, suggesting McLaren had rediscovered some form, with James Hunt a fraction behind.
The unusually tame atmosphere would carry over into Saturday morning's "untimed" session too, with no major incidents resulting from that hour and a half of running either. Furthermore, and rather worryingly, it seemed as if the teams were using the session for its prescribed purpose, with both Michelin and Goodyear restricting their teams to race worthy tyres. It was therefore down to the amateur drivers in a Renault R5 support race to create the chaos, with a large accident in their race delaying the final qualifying session for the Grand Prix as they wrecked a set of barriers.
As such it was an even slower start to proceedings in the final timed session than expected, with Lauda the first to drop into the 1:44.00s after a large chunk of time had passed. He was soon joined by Peterson and Hunt, as Andretti instead focused on finding the perfect set of Goodyear tyres. Indeed, the American tyre manufacturer had brought along a collection of tyres barely able to complete a whole lap of Paul Ricard, all in hopes of embarrassing Michelin at their home race.
That, ultimately, proved to be the result, despite the fact that none of the pole contenders, bar Lauda, managed to beat their best efforts from Friday. In truth this was hampered by a late rain shower with fifteen minutes to go, just as Hunt, Peterson, Andretti and Watson all posted their best efforts of the afternoon. That left Watson on pole ahead of Andretti, with Lauda's early improvement proving just enough to keep ahead of Hunt and Peterson's final flings.
At the back of the field, meanwhile, it would be an equally undramatic end to qualifying, although there would be one late change to the final qualifying spot as the rain began to fall. Indeed, as the first drops of water hit the circuit, Keke Rosberg managed to slip his ATS into the 26th and final grid slot, ousting Arturo Merzario by 0.02s. The Italian therefore joined Derek Daly and Héctor Rebaque on the sidelines ahead of the race, although they had been at the bottom of the pile throughout the weekend.
The full qualifying results for the 1978 French Grand Prix are outlined below:
|1||2||John Watson||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:47.20||1:44.41||1:45.97||—|
|2||5||Mario Andretti||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:47.50||1:44.46||1:45.02||+0.05s|
|3||1||Niki Lauda||Brabham-Alfa Romeo||1:45.52||1:45.02||1:44.71||+0.30s|
|4||7||James Hunt||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:46.20||1:45.32||1:44.92||+0.51s|
|5||6||Ronnie Peterson||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:46.46||1:45.10||1:44.98||+0.57s|
|6||8||Patrick Tambay||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:47.06||1:45.07||1:46.15||+0.66s|
|7||20||Jody Scheckter||Wolf-Ford Cosworth||1:46.10||1:45.20||1:46.33||+0.79s|
|12||35||Riccardo Patrese||Arrows-Ford Cosworth||1:48.30||1:46.39||1:46.32||+1.91s|
|13||4||Patrick Depailler||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:48.67||1:46.37||1:46.74||+1.96s|
|14||27||Alan Jones||Williams-Ford Cosworth||1:47.89||1:46.55||1:46.40||+1.99s|
|15||14||Emerson Fittipaldi||Fittipaldi-Ford Cosworth||1:47.89||1:47.04||1:46.70||+2.29s|
|16||3||Didier Pironi||Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth||1:49.36||1:48.10||1:47.12||+2.71s|
|17||17||Clay Regazzoni||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:50.44||1:48.73||1:48.55||+4.14s|
|18||31||René Arnoux||Martini-Ford Cosworth||1:49.48||1:48.68||1:49.46||+4.27s|
|19||19||Vittorio Brambilla||Surtees-Ford Cosworth||1:50.39||1:48.68||1:50.07||+4.27s|
|20||16||Hans-Joachim Stuck||Shadow-Ford Cosworth||1:48.89||1:49.07||1:50.18||+4.48s|
|21||36||Rolf Stommelen||Arrows-Ford Cosworth||1:51.07||1:49.14||1:50.51||+4.73s|
|22||33||Bruno Giacomelli||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:54.67||1:50.77||1:49.53||+5.12s|
|23||18||Rupert Keegan||Surtees-Ford Cosworth||1:52.22||1:50.10||1:49.54||+5.13s|
|24||30||Brett Lunger||McLaren-Ford Cosworth||1:51.26||1:49.65||1:49.55||+5.14s|
|25||9||Jochen Mass||ATS-Ford Cosworth||1:51.53||1:50.10||1:49.90||+5.49s|
|26||10||Keke Rosberg||ATS-Ford Cosworth||1:57.92T||1:51.01T||1:50.09T||+5.68s|
|DNQ||37||Arturo Merzario||Merzario-Ford Cosworth||1:50.11||1:50.47||1:50.80||+5.70s|
|DNQ||22||Derek Daly||Ensign-Ford Cosworth||1:54.28||1:50.19||1:50.61||+5.78s|
|DNQ||25||Héctor Rebaque||Lotus-Ford Cosworth||1:54.03||1:51.54||1:50.40||+5.99s|
- T Indicates a driver used their test/spare car to set their best time in that session.
- Bold indicates a driver's best/qualifying time.
The sun finally made an appearance in France on raceday, prompting a huge crowd to squeeze into the Circuit Paul Ricard to watch the Grand Prix. There would be no major revisions to the grid ahead of the start or after the pre-race warm-up, with several teams making late engine or gearbox changes to ensure their cars were in the best condition possible. With that, Jackie Stewart led the field around in the spare Renault RS01 on the parade lap, which had been equipped with a cinema camera at the behest of sponsors ELF.
Once Stewart, whom had previously vowed that he would never sit in a Grand Prix car again, had disappeared into the pits, pole sitter John Watson led the field onto the grid to await the flash of the starters lights. A brief pause at the field was away, with Watson and fellow front row starter Mario Andretti making identical getaways. They duly headed towards the first corner with millimetres separating their wheels, before Watson ultimately grabbed the lead with the better line into turn one.
James Hunt tried his best to follow the Ulsterman through into the opening corner, only for Andretti to halt his momentum by snapping across the track. That caused Hunt to slip back behind teammate Patrick Tambay, Niki Lauda and Ronnie Peterson, while Andretti slipped right under Watson's rear wing. The American then waited until the end of the Mistral straight to make his bid for the lead, sending his Lotus skating inside the Brabham-Alfa Romeo on the brakes into Signes.
Andretti therefore completed the opening tour in the lead, with Watson unable to respond before the American racer pulled out a small advantage. Tambay was still an impressive third ahead of Lauda and Peterson, while Hunt was pushing the trio hard to try and get back to third after Andretti's rather rude move at the first corner. Elsewhere, Clay Regazzoni limped into the pits with a misfire, while Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the lead Renault was already out, his engine having expired in a cloud of humiliating smoke for the French manufacturer, having been swapped out for the perfectly healthy unit that Stewart had used in the camera car.
The early stages would see Andretti complete his now familiar race plan, quickly pulling out a healthy lead, before allowing Watson to dictate the pace from second. Behind, Tambay's strong start came to an end, with the Frenchman unable to resist the attentions of Lauda and Peterson for very long. Those two then joined the Andretti/Watson sprint away from the pack, leaving the Frenchman to fend off his teammate Hunt and a determined Alan Jones.
Lauda would soon surge past teammate Watson for second, although this change would not upset the rhythm of Andretti out ahead, whom remained elusively out of reach. Watson, for his part, was left to fend off the attentions of Peterson, but a bullish dive by the Swede at the end of the Mistral ultimately relegated the Ulsterman to fourth. Peterson duly set his sights on Lauda, although the Lotus would just fall shy of taking the Brabham at the end of the straights.
That was, until Lauda's engine expired in dramatic fashion, the left bank of valves having disintegrated and been destroyed in a matter of seconds. He slowly cruised back to the pits to retire, allowing Peterson and Andretti to escape from the sole remaining Brabham of Watson in third. The Ulsterman was therefore left to defend from the McLarens and Williams, while the two Loti settled down to hold a commanding lead.
Indeed, the fight for third would be the centre of attention for most of the following laps, with Tambay pulling into striking distance of Watson, only to pick up a puncture. The Frenchman duly slipped to the back of the field as a result of the change, leaving Hunt and Jones on the tail of Watson. There was more French misery further down the order too, with the Michelin shod Ferraris of Gilles Villeneuve and Carlos Reutemann already on their second set of tyres, while Patrick Depailler was out with an engine failure.
Hunt, meanwhile, was on the warpath with Tambay out of the way, and duly settled the fight for third with relative ease, diving past Watson at the end of the Mistral, akin to Andretti and Peterson's moves. He would, like the two Loti, quickly disappear up the road from the Brabham, leaving Watson to defend from Jones, who had quietly slipped away from the fight and into the sights of Jody Scheckter and Jacques Laffite. Indeed, within the space of a couple of laps the Williams went from being on the nose of the Wolf to the gearbox of the Brabham, but seemed to lack the power to draft past the Alfa engined Watson as the top three had done.
Half distance came and went with no change to the order out front, although Peterson had pulled right onto the tail of Andretti, and was seriously considering a move. Hunt was still pushing despite being in a near guaranteed third, while Jones was having no joy in taking fourth away from Watson. A few seconds behind them, Laffite was making even less progress while stuck behind sixth placed Scheckter, while the Ferraris were still at the back of the field, having switched to their third set of Michelins.
There would be a brief hope of a fight for the lead as the race wore on, for both Andretti and Peterson would drift back into the sights of Hunt after the halfway point, with the Brit pushing as hard as ever. Peterson, knowing his reluctantly agreed position as the number two driver in the Lotus squad, duly moved to defend Andretti's lead, allowing the American to ease ahead once again without pushing too hard. He would not, however, get too far ahead before Peterson and Hunt re-closed the gap, although the distance between the trio never closed up enough to allow any change in position.
Into the closing stages and Emerson Fittipaldi was putting in one of his best performances in recent years, the Brazilian's little yellow Fittipaldi carving its way through the lower end of the top ten. Indeed, an expertly timed dive on Riccardo Patrese had left the Brazilian in eighth, only for his hopes of further progress ended when the suspension collapsed on the Mistral. Even more frustrating for the former Champion was the fact that he had been closing in on the Scheckter/Laffite fight at the time, with the Wolf just able to swat the Ligier's attentions aside.
Onto the final lap and Hunt was beginning to struggle at the wheel of the McLaren, fatigue from having pushed car, mind and body to the full for an hour and a half beginning to tell. Ultimately, that would cause the Brit to make his first mistake of the afternoon, sending himself into a pirouette at the end of the Mistral having briefly entertained a dive on Peterson into Signes. That left the two black-gold cars to sweep home to claim another dominant one-two, as shown by the lack of exhaustion for either Andretti or Peterson, while Hunt managed to limp back to the finish in third.
Behind, Watson was able to ease clear of Jones in the closing stages to claim fourth, with the Australian an otherwise secure fifth having fought until the Williams picked up a fuel issue. Scheckter and Laffite, meanwhile, would start the final lap side-by-side, but no amount of crowd inspiration would push the Ligier ahead of Wolf, meaning Scheckter snatched the final point by less than a tenth. Elsewhere, Tambay completed an excellent recovery drive to finish ninth, and only needed another lap to take eighth away from Patrese, while Michelin reclaimed some lost honour when Reutemann claimed the fastest lap, albeit five laps off the Goodyear shod victors.
The full results for the 1978 French Grand Prix are outlined below:
- Williams made their twentieth entry as a constructor.
- John Watson claimed his second and final pole position.
- Tenth career victory for Mario Andretti.
- Lotus secured their 68th win as a constructor.
- 23rd and final podium finish for James Hunt.
- It was also the Brit's final point scoring finish.
A third victory in four races ensured that Mario Andretti extended his Championship lead in France, the American ace leaving the Circuit Paul Ricard with a nine point advantage. His teammate Ronnie Peterson proved to be his closest combatant, with the Swede eleven points clear of third placed Niki Lauda. It therefore seemed to be a two horse race for the title with less than half the season to go, depending on how Lotus wanted to manage their drivers.
Indeed, with the Lotus 79 clearly the fastest "legal" F1 car in the 1978 field it was unsurprising that the Norfolk squad extended their lead in the International Cup for Manufacturers. Indeed, their 58 point tally dwarfed that of second placed Brabham-Alfa Romeo, with 24 points separating the two teams. The latter squad were a clear second, nine ahead of Tyrrell-Ford Cosworth, with Ferrari and McLaren-Ford Cosworth completing the top five.
Images and Videos:
- 'French GP, 1978', grandprix.com, (Inside F1 Inc., 2015), http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr306.html, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
- D.S.J., 'The French Grand Prix: Lotus still ahead', motorsportmagazine.com, (Motor Sport, 01/08/1978), https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1978/68/french-grand-prix, (Accessed 16/08/2018)
- D.S.J., 'The Brabham-Alfa Romeo fan', motorsportmagazine.com, (Motor Sport, 01/08/1978), https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1978/33/brabham-alfa-romeo-fan, (Accessed 12/08/2018)
- D.S.J., 'Notes on the Cars at Paul Ricard', motorsportmagazine.com, (Motor Sport, 01/08/1978), https://www.motorsportmagazine.com/archive/article/august-1978/66/notes-cars-paul-ricard, (Accessed 16/08/2018)
- 'France 1978: Entrants', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2015), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1978/france/engages.aspx, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
- 'France 1978: Qualifications', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1978/france/qualification.aspx, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
- 'France 1978: Result', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2016), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1978/france/classement.aspx, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
- '1978 French Grand Prix', chicanef1.com, (Chicane F1, 2015), http://www.chicanef1.com/racetit.pl?year=1978&gp=French%20GP&r=1, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
- '9. France 1978', statsf1.com, (Stats F1, 2015), http://www.statsf1.com/en/1978/france.aspx, (Accessed 15/08/2018)
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