Grand Prix de France
7th July 1968
Words by David Phipps
The Rouen circuit, made up of public roads about ten miles outside the town, could well be described as a miniature Spa. From the start it swerves downhill, through a series of fast curves, to a hairpin, and then climbs back to a 180 mph straight. The start/ finish area is very narrow, with little protection for the grandstands and none at all for pit personnel, and the organisation is extremely amateurish.
There were quite a few surprises when the cars assembled for practice, the chief of them being that Jo Schlesser was in the new Honda, which had been taken over by Honda France. John Surtees was furious about this, because he felt that if anyone should drive the car he should. He had only brought it over for testing, and was only told of the change of plan a few hours before the start of practice. Furthermore he said that the power output was considerably less than the advertised 430 bhp.
Most of the other surprises were mechanical, or rather aerodynamic. Both the Lotus Fords and the McLaren Fords had sprouted wings, the Lotus version being enormous and being connected to the top of the rear uprights, while the McLaren one was bolted to the engine. Oliver's Lotus also had larger front wings, both these and the rear ones extending to the middle of the tyres. Strictly speaking this was illegal, for the regulations only permit fuel tanks to extend beyond the inner edges of the tyres, but neither the scrutineers nor other competitors seemed inclined to do anything about it.
Stewart's Matra Ford had neat little spoilers attached to its front rocking arms, but Honda, BRM, Matra and Cooper were devoid of appendages other than vestigial front spoilers. Porsche driver Vic Elford was having his first Formula One outing in a Cooper BRM, and the second Cooper BRM was in the hands of Johnny Servoz Gavin. The Cooper Alfa Romeo was still not ready so Lucien Bianchi was without a drive.
The Ferraris were unchanged since Zandvoort, but arrived in a smart new van. (Until now Ferrari has used an open transporter, which may be all right in Italy but is not so good in more northerly latitudes.) BRM were as before except for new radiator outlets on top of the nose, and the Repco Brabhams were as at Zandvoort except that Jack Brabham had done a great deal of testing. Silvio Moser, who went so well at Zandvoort, could not even get an entry, and Dan Gurney decided to concentrate on getting his Eagle ready for the British Grand Prix.
The first practice session started late and finished early, because the noise was interfering with transmission from a nearby television station! As a result nobody managed more than a few laps, and Jochen Rindt, who thought his car was fabulous, was over a second and a half faster than his nearest rivals, Jacky Ickx and Chris Amon. (Rindt's time was 1:56.1, Ickx's 1:57.7 and Amon's 1:57.8; all three were out together, but although the two Ferraris were helping each other Rindt pulled away from them.)
Equal fourth, with 1:58.2, were Denny Hulme and John Surtees, closely followed by Bruce McLaren with 1:58.4. The McLaren drivers were quite pleased with their times till they heard about Rindt's! Stewart (1:58.7) and Rodriguez (1:59.3) were the only others to break 2 minutes, but Hill did 2 minutes exactly and Attwood 2:00.8. Beltoise got down to 2:01.0 in the V12 Matra, and Servoz Gavin to 2:01.2 in the second Cooper BRM; Vic Elford had fuel pump trouble in the other Cooper BRM and could not do better than 2:33.0. Oliver did 2:02.2, Brabham (who had mixture problems) and Siffert both did 2:03.5, Courage did 2:03.6 and Schlesser did 2:07.0 in the new Honda before spinning off and damaging a wheel.
Friday's practice was extended to an hour and 25 minutes, but the total time was still completely inadequate particularly for people who were learning the circuit or trying out the effects of wings and spoilers. One who was doing both was Jackie Oliver, who finished up with his rear wheels and gearbox about 30 yards away from the rest of the car after spinning into a wall at about 140 mph. Oliver, miraculously, was completely unhurt. First reports said that the bell housing had split and the car had broken in half, but it seems more likely that aerodynamic disturbance, caused by the slipstream of Attwood's BRM, was the reason for the spin; all four wheels were still in position, with their tyres inflated, until the car hit the wall.
The shortness of practice also made things difficult for anyone who had mechanical problems. Rindt was unable to improve on his Thursday time because of trouble with his electrical fuel pump, but he was in little danger of losing pole position because nobody got within a second of him. The nearest, 1.2 seconds slower with 1:57.3, was Stewart, and Ickx completed the front row with his Thursday time of 1:57.7. Hulme improved to 1:57.7 to join Amon on the second row, and McLaren to 1:58.0 to share the third row with Surtees (1:58.2) and Beltoise (1:58.9).
Hill and Rodriguez were on the fourth row with 1:59.1 and 1:59.3 respectively, and Oliver had improved to 2:00.2 before his crash put him out of the race. All the tail enders except Attwood improved on their Thursday times, but Brabham had trouble with his mechanical fuel pump and could not do better than 2:00.8. The new Honda did a lot of laps, getting steadily smokier, but its best time was 2:04.5, and Elford's Cooper BRM put a rod through the side after recording 2:05.5.
Ickx Stewart Rindt
(Ferrari) (Matra-Ford) (Repco-Brabham)
1:57.7 1:57.3 1:56.1
Beltoise Surtees McLaren
(Matra) (Honda) (McLaren-Ford)
1:58.9 1:58.2 1:58.0
Brabham Attwood Siffert
(Repco-Brabham) (BRM) (Lotus-Ford)
2:00.8 2:00.8 2:00.3
Saturday was a free day, ostensibly because the roads could not be closed, though the local hoteliers and shopkeepers didn't look at all unhappy about it, and Sunday's proceedings started with an untimed Formula One practice at 8am and a race for Renault Gordinis at 9:15arn. Then followed events for Formula Three and Formula France, and finally the Grand Prix at 4 pm at least it should have been 4pm, but it was nearly 4:20 before the organisers managed to get the race under way.
It started to drizzle at about 3:30 and the track was quite damp by 4 o'clock, but not wet enough to justify fitting out-and out rain tyres; the only real choice was between grooved or ordinary all purpose rubber.
Stewart was first away at the start, but by the end of the first lap Ickx had a big lead from Stewart and Rindt, followed by Surtees, Rodriguez and Hill. Siffert's engine would not start until a new battery was fitted and he was nearly a minute late getting away.
On the second lap Rindt moved up to second. Already the cars were throwing up a lot of spray, and it was in these conditions that Schlesser's Honda went off the road. The extent of the fire was such that several spectators were burned, and the track was still littered with debris when the leaders came round on the following lap. Rindt got a puncture and crawled round to the pits on the rim, and several other people punctured at the same place later in the race.
So Surtees took over second, but on lap 7 Rodriguez displaced him and started to pull away. All this pushed Stewart down to fourth, and it was not long before he was being challenged by Hill, the Lotus going surprisingly well on dry weather Firestones. Then came McLaren and Amon, followed by Hulme and Attwood, but Amon and Hulme both looked very unhappy and soon dropped back behind Courage and Elford.
After swallowing Stewart's spray for some time Hill moved up to fourth, but two laps later a drive shaft broke and he was out of the race. And almost immediately afterwards Servoz Gavin spun into the guard rail on the fast right hander at the start of the straight, wrecking yet another Cooper but escaping completely unhurt.
For some time Ickx's lead over Rodriguez was about 8 seconds, and Surtees was only two seconds or so further behind. Then Ickx had a moment out at the back of the course, and on lap 19 Rodriguez came through in the lead with Surtees second. At this stage it began to rain really hard, and next time round Ickx was in front again; in two laps he built up a lead of no less than 17 seconds, and two laps later it was 35 seconds. Surtees, and Rodriguez exchanged places briefly but to no avail; by half distance Ickx was over a minute ahead.
While all this was going on Stewart changed to rain tyres, but they didn't appear to make all that much difference. Stewart's stop moved Courage up to fourth place, but then he too came in to change tyres and as a result dropped back to tenth. Hulme, Attwood, McLaren and Amon had all lost time with punctures, and everyone below third place was a lap or more behind.
At three quarter distance Ickx was over 2 minutes ahead of Rodriguez, who had pulled away from Surtees when the latter stopped at the pits with one of his goggle lenses smashed. Then Surtees suddenly began to close the gap, and the reason became apparent when Rodriguez stopped at the pits with a puncture. This let Stewart back into third place, and two laps later Rodriguez was back in the pits again with his transmission stuck in second.
On lap 46 Ickx lapped Surtees, but then he eased off a little and Surtees unlapped himself. By now the sun was shining and the track was drying out and Jackie Stewart was driving through any remaining puddles to keep his tyres cool! Hulme was trying hard to catch Elford but couldn't quite make it, and Tim Parnell was wishing he hadn't wasted time (and two places) changing Courage's tyres. All in all it was a race which most people, even Jacky Ickx, will probably want to forget.
Rouen. 60 laps, 243.9 miles (392.5 km).
1. Ickx (Ferrari), 2 hours 25 min 40.9 sec, 100.45 m.p.h. (161.659 km/h)
2. Surtees (Honda), 2:27:39.5
3. Stewart (Matra-Ford), 59 laps
4. Elford (Cooper-BRM), 58 laps
5. Hulme (McLaren-Ford), 58 laps
6. Courage (BRM), 57 laps
7. Attwood (BRM). 57 laps
8. Mclaren (McLaren-Ford), 56 laps
9. Beltoise (Matra), 56 laps
10. Amon (Ferrari), 55 laps
11. Siffert (Lotus-Ford), 54 laps
12. Rodriguez (BRM), 53 laps.
Fastest lap: Rodriguez, 2 min 11.5 sec, 111.28 m.p.h. (179.088 km/h).
Schlesser (Honda), 3 laps (accident)
Hill (Lotus-Ford), 15 laps (driveshaft)
Servoz-Gavin (Cooper-B.R.M.), 15 laps (accident)
Brabham (Repco-Brabham), 16 laps (fuel pump)
Rindt (Repco-Brabham), 46 laps (fuel leak).