25 July 1982
Like the British Grand Prix, the French race was alternating between two circuits; in this case Dijon-Prenois and Paul Ricard, and in 1982 it was the latter circuit at Le Castellet in the south of France that hosted the race. As the teams headed south with just a week between the British and French races rumours began to circulate that the Renault senior management were beginning to lose patience with the F1 team’s string of expensive failures and would reduce the budget for 1983 or even pull the plug altogether if things didn’t improve – all eyes would be on Prost and Arnoux at their home race. “Silly Season” was in full swing as well, with Prost rumoured to have been offered a Williams contract to partner Rosberg in ’83, while Ferrari were said to be considering Arnoux as a permanent replacement for Villeneuve. Paul Ricard would be a good place for Renault to try and restore their reputation, though, as it could have been designed with Turbo engines in mind with a back straight over a mile long ensuring that power was the only thing that mattered.
Nigel Mansell’s return for the British GP had proved premature and he had aggravated his arm injury so the Lotus would need a new pilot – after poor Roberto Moreno’s dreadful showing in Holland, Chapman would plump for Geoff Lees. Fittipaldi continued with their new F9 car and Ligier’s internal wrangles showed no signs of abating – two JS19s arrived at Paul Ricard as the team now decided to persevere with the new car.
Even weather conditions favoured the Turbos – sunny but with a nice breeze to cool the engines (though Brabham still broke several BMWs during practice and qualifying) – and the Renaults duly dominated qualifying, with Arnoux pipping Prost to the pole by about 0.2s, with a full second over Pironi in third. Patrese, Tambay and Piquet made it an all-Turbo top six, then came the two Alfas with their V12 grunt. Lauda was the best Cosworth DFV runner, back in 9th and 3.3s off the pole time – not a promising omen for the Ford teams. Lauda’s team-mate, Championship leader John Watson, could only manage 12th, the Ligiers were 16th (Laffite) and 19th (Cheever), with Geoff Lees doing well to qualify 24th with little prep time. Chico Serra had broken down in the new Fittipaldi F9 and couldn’t set a time in the spare F7, so he sat out the race in the company of Guerrero, Lammers and Boesel.
Race day, then, would be interesting: the Renaults were fastest but shockingly unreliable; the Ferraris had better reliability but the car was heavy and more sluggish; the Brabhams were also fickle, but could their pit-stopping strategy prove decisive? As the lights went green, everyone got away cleanly (except Jean-Pierre Jarier whose driveshaft broke instantly) and Arnoux led Prost, Pironi, Patrese, Piquet and Tambay, followed by Derek Daly who had got a great start from 11th. With their lighter fuel load, the Brabhams were able to move up quickly; Patrese got past Pironi in the first lap, then blew past Prost on the straight, with Piquet following suit. The two Brabhams then caught up to Arnoux in short order and, despite his jinking around, both got past easily enough on lap 3. It was now a case of seeing if the light, fast Brabhams could pull out enough of a lead to make their pit stops. It certainly seemed that way as they began to pull away, but on lap 8, Patrese was touring, flames licking from the
back of his car – though Patrese himself didn’t seem to notice this until he’d parked. Piquet thus took the lead, at this stage 5 seconds ahead of Arnoux. A horrific smash further back saw Baldi and Mass collide; the whole left side of Baldi’s Arrows was ripped off, while Mass’ March was catapulted through the air and into the catch fencing, landed by a spectator area and promptly caught fire. Baldi and some marshals got the German out of his cockpit, physically fine but obviously shaken.
Daly now came in for tyres on lap 13, and Lauda followed suit two laps later, leaving Rosberg the leading non-Turbo car after having passed Watson and Giacomelli – the Ulsterman disappeared with a flat battery shortly afterwards. As half-distance approached, the Brabham mechanics began setting out their stall to bring in Piquet for his fuel stop. The Brazilian didn’t have enough of a lead over Arnoux to emerge in front, but with the ability to go faster on rejoining it could still work. Unfortunately, we never got to find out: on lap 24 another BMW went up in smoke and off went the defending champion, to leave Arnoux and Prost leading once again, with a considerable gap back to Pironi and Tambay. Rosberg, duelling with Alboreto, was further back again, then another gap to Daly. The race was stringing out and the second half of the race saw little in the way of incident on track. However, there was still drama in the Renault garage as they decided to order Arnoux to give way to Prost, who after all still had a shot at the title. Arnoux, though, was going faster than his team-mate who was suffering a slight handling issue, and stayed resolutely put. Most observers thought he would leave it till the last moment and then make an obvious gesture to prove he could have won. Every lap, the board went out and every lap, Arnoux tore past in the lead, which was 16 seconds on the last lap – and it was Arnoux, not Prost, who took the chequered flag. Both Ferraris held station too, so it was French drivers with turbo engines in positions 1, 2, 3 and 4. Unlike Reutemann and Jones, or Villeneuve and Pironi, though, Arnoux and Prost seemed to have no real enmity on the podium – both were just relieved to have finally put in a good result at their home race. For the rest, Rosberg and Alboreto came home 5th and 6th, a lap down, with ten further finishers – unusual on a power circuit and a sign of how processional the racing had been for the most part. Of those 16 finishers, the local Ligier team were 14th (Laffite) and 16th (Cheever), 3 and 5 laps behind. A lot of work for Ligier, but otherwise a great day for France if not a classic race.
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