Peter Windsor on Ronnie’s first win at Paul Ricard
Back then, though, back in 1973, there was in effect no choice: you drove down to Paul Ricard in your 1969 Ford Escort 1100, worrying a little bit about the water pump gasket but ultimately, disproportionately, amazingly happy that it was all about to happen.
We slept under the car in a lay-by, Peter Collins and I, believing we were safe. I folded up a Firestone jacket into some sort of pillow; feet plodded around us outside on the gravel, apparently in circles, tied to the smoke of Gitanes, linked to oaths, muttered in local French.
Eyes scratchy, limbs stiff, we splashed water over our faces in the public toilet. In a motorway café we sipped something hot and ate croissants. Then we were on the road again, the springs in the seat now digging into our backs, the imbalance on the right front wheel much more of a presence than it had been the day before.
Finally, at the top of the long mountain climb, we reached Paul Ricard. It was a golden dusk on a warm-air Saturday night. Inside the circuit the flags and team names of French motor racing
stretched forever: Elf, BP France, Antar, Motul, Matra, Renault-alpine, Martini, Michelin, Stand 21, GPA, Ford France, Scratch magazine. Their tents and camper vans filled the vastness; it felt as though we were at last at the centre of it all, that summer, that year. Everything else – everything else, by comparison – seemed incidental.
We found a two-star in Bandol, complete with bugs and brackish water, and slept despite the street noise and thumps from the room next door.
The sun was rising as we set off for Ricard Sunday – for the French Grand Prix. I pushed hard on the road up the mountain, stretching the Escort in third before braking deep for the first of the banked hairpins. In the mirror: a flash of blue. A hot Renault 5 darted into view, lights blazing. “Somebody quick’s behind us.” “Check-it-out! Jean Ragnotti!”
I moved over and waved the Renault past. PC and I knew Jean already from a couple of F3 races. He waved back, smoke streaming from a Gitanes.
A little further on, the back end of the Escort juddered as I hit the brakes over the bumps on a downhill section. This time a Ford Granada breezed past, four-up, tyres squealing.
“Francois Çevert, no question,” said Pete. “Probably with the Tyrrell guys…” The Granada powered quickly away, up towards the next right-hander. I checked the mirror for more.
The Escort was shot by the time we reached the summit so we parked it in the shade and walked towards the ticket booths.
“Deux billets a la virage Signes,” I said in my Aussie French. The girl looked at me suspiciously then asked me for my francs.
The PA filled the air with French; the massive crowd pushed its way towards the grass viewing banks. We muscled our way through, finding a location near the front of a makeshift stand. Ahead of us stretched maybe seven layers of catch-fencing. Beyond that: black Tarmac, baking in the heat. From where we stood, Signes looked innocent enough. Tarmac and painted kerbs. Neat. Tidy. Beautiful. I’d never seen a track look so beautiful.
The F1 cars finally made their appearance, steamroller rear tyres harnessed to much lower fronts. L’equipe told us that Jackie Stewart was on pole for Elf Team Tyrrell, with team-mate, Çevert, fourth. Jody Scheckter was shockingly on the front row for Yardley Mclaren – Jody the wild kid, Jody the Next Big Thing. Emerson and Ronnie were third and fifth for JPS Lotus – which meant that Emerson, too, was on the front row alongside Jody and Jackie. Just reading the words brought sweetness. Now we were hearing them in French – and we were about to see the cars racing – right in front of us, here at Signes.
The explosion of the start, the incomprehensible words, the noise, the wisps of tyre smoke – and then… nothing… Like Lawrence in the desert, we squinted into the light, up to the start of the Mistral straight, straining for the first sign of movement. “There! It’s Scheckter!”
A white smudge, shimmering in the heat. The snake of colour grew larger until, finally in focus, it arrived at 190mph, all noise and confusion and speed and frenzy. Scheckter darted the Mclaren to the centre of the road, then back to the left. The nose dipped – and then he was into Signes, hands flicking at the wheel, left-rear Goodyear demanding opposite lock. Behind: Ronnie Peterson, gliding the
Lotus 72 through momentous slides and Jackie Stewart, all-at-one in the blue Tyrrell.
The race took its form. The two JPS drivers, their black-and-gold Lotus 72s perfectly poised, swapped places. Now it was Emerson applying pressure on Scheckter. Jody took Signes in two, clear parts – a hard, quick entry followed by a flamboyant powerslide, beginning about mid-corner. Emerson drifted the JPS from the moment he first turned into Signes, composing one, long, beautiful drift you could never sub-divide. The PA screamed. The fans threw up their arms. Something had happened over in the tight bits!
More squinting. More heat haze. “It’s Ronnie! Ronnie’s leading!”
No Jody. No Emerson. The light blue and yellow helmet in the JPS was angled slightly as Ronnie Peterson headed into Signes. Then, like Emerson, but with slightly more oversteer, Ronnie began to play. He was heading for the win. His first GP win.
The Escort’s water pump began to fail as we headed home, so we took it easy and laughed about the Dutch, Belgians and Germans who all seemed to be migrating south with their caravans, towards the Med, presumably for some sort of holiday.
Didn’t they know? Didn’t they know that they had missed it? Didn’t they know that the French GP was yesterday, Ricard was over for another year, that there was nothing bigger in life?
Forty-five years later, not so much has changed. The traffic jams continue – and the grandstands at Ricard are still temporary. Signes is blunted by a chicane; the fast esses, where we lost Elio De Angelis, are confined to history. On the road out of Bandol you still stop, though, for a quick croissant and a café au lait – and still you look, as you reach the summit, over the valley, to the blue, blue Med.
This time, though, you think of Ronnie just as much as you live for today. Ronnie with the power on, fingertips feathering the wheel. Ronnie through Signes, when all was right with the world.
THE RACE TOOK ITS FORM. THE TWO JPS DRIVERS, THEIR BLACK-AND-GOLD LOTUS 72S PERFECTLY POISED, SWAPPED PLACES. NOW IT WAS EMERSON APPLYING PRESSURE ON SCHECKTER
Paul Ricard in 1973: looking down the mile-long Mistral straight to Signes with the heat haze hanging in the air
Scheckter ahead of Fittipaldi, with Peterson ready to pounce when the pair tangled
Peterson’s first grand prix win came in the evocative JPS Lotus on a hot day in the south of France