• French Grand Prix

Hunt wins as Lauda retires

ESPNF1 Staff
July 4, 1976
James Hunt leads Clay Regazzoni in front of a packed crowd © Sutton Images
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The seemingly effortless procession of Niki Lauda and the Ferraris, which had wobbled in Sweden, came off the rails completely at Paul Ricard. James Hunt kick-started a championship challenge, which had been badly faltering, with victory at the French Grand Prix. In an echo of his previous win in Spain, it was almost four hours after the finish before stewards finished their measuring and confirmed the result.

For the first two days the weekend seemed to be following a familiar pattern, and although Hunt took pole from Lauda, the Ferrari was quicker off the line and moved into the lead. Lauda's preparations had been chequered. He tried out a new De Dion suspended Ferrari but found it less effective than usual - he was subsequently told it did not meet aerodynamic regulations and times posted in it were discounted. Jody Scheckter, who had won in Sweden, was relegated to the second row after a front suspension line broke on his Tyrrell.

Hunt was not worried at Lauda's good start. "They began the race on brand new tyres, which are always faster for a few laps," he said. "We chose tyres which had already covered the race distance because they enabled us to balance the car more effectively." As Hunt waited on the Ferrari's tail, Lauda's engine blew and he cruised to a halt.

"I'm sure I could have closed the gap if it had been necessary," Hunt said. "But I could see something coming out of the back of his car so I felt sure he was in some sort of trouble." Clay Regazzoni put pressure on Hunt but paid for his determination when he slid off the track into fencing on the 18th lap.

Hunt remained comfortably clear of the Tyrrell of Patrick Depailler, and the main interest centred on a battle for third between Scheckter, Ronnie Peterson in a March, John Watson in a Penske and Carlos Pace in a Brabham.

Scheckter was slower than the chasing pack, but crucially had the straight-line speed to hold them off. Peterson eventually got through, but by the time he had Depailler was more than ten seconds clear and out of range. Peterson's day ended when his March expired.

Scheckter had troubles of his own, his engine sounding very unwell as he slid back to sixth, while Watson finished 1.3 seconds ahead of Pace, a tremendous result in the first outing in his new car. It was his turn to suffer anxious moments as stewards ruled his car was too wide. Brabham immediately lodged a protest and for a time Watson was excluded.

Hunt actually created a record when he "won" a second grand prix less than 24 hours later when the FIA ruled his win in Spain would stand, overturning stewards who had disqualified him. The results lifted Hunt into second in the drivers' championship, 26 points adrift of Lauda.

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