5 July 1981
As the season entered its second half, there was a round of driver musical chairs in the run-up to the French Grand Prix. Deciding that he simply didn’t have the pace any more, Jean-Pierre Jabouille had opted to retire from driving and move into the team management side of the Ligier team. His place was taken by fellow-countryman Patrick Tambay, who had been released by Theodore in favour of Marc Surer, who had been without a drive in Spain after his Ensign seat had been bought by Eliseo Salazar. Osella, meanwhile, dropped the luckless Giorgio Francia after just one race and decided to run a single car for Gabbiani in France. Goodyear, meanwhile, had returned to the sport after half a season without too much in the way of silly politicking, and shod the Williams and Brabham cars, with Ensign and Fittipaldi using Avons and the rest on Pirellis.
In amongst all of this, there was racing to be done. With two leading French teams – Ligier and Renault – both fielding all-French driver lineups (Laffite/Tambay and Prost/Arnoux), plus Pironi and French-Canadian Villeneuve at Ferrari, the French public were agog to see their heroes take to this fast, sweeping circuit where Jabouille had gained Renault’s first victory 2 years earlier. In the event, it was René Arnoux whose car sat on pole on Sunday morning – Renault’s first pole of the year and a welcome boost for the team. In an unaccustomed second place sat John Watson’s McLaren, the new MP4/1 working well for a change. Prost was third in the other Renault alongside Piquet, with de Cesaris a superb 5th in the second McLaren ahead of Laffite’s Ligier. Reutemann and Jones could only manage 7th and 9th respectively, split by de Angelis in the Lotus, with Andretti’s Alfa Romeo rounding up the top ten. At the back of the grid, the Tolemans still failed to qualify, though Henton set faster times than Gabbiani and Borgudd – these four plus Stohr would all sit the race out, while Derek Daly finally made it to Sunday afternoon in his March.
Arnoux had an absolutely terrible start and first lap, dropping from pole to ninth, while Piquet darted through the pack to take the lead from Watson, Prost, de Cesaris and Villeneuve (similarly flying up from 11th). Prost got ahead of Watson and Villeneuve overtook de Cesaris, while the Williams of Reutemann also set about trying to carve its way through the field, disposing of both de Cesaris and Villeneuve. Arnoux, meanwhile, was recovering and took fifth behind Reutemann, before overtaking him, running into trouble and dropping back again.
An enthralling race was brought to a premature halt on lap 58 when the heavens opened and the race was halted. However, the rain turned out to be short-lived and the cars lined up on the grid in their race positions, ready for a second start. Piquet’s lead meant nothing now, and he got away badly, allowing Prost, Watson and Arnoux through. Prost stayed ahead until the chequered flag to win his first Grand Prix, with John Watson second and Piquet fifth on the road but awarded third on timings. Arnoux, Pironi and de Angelis picked up the rest of the points.
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