RACER’S EDGE

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS - PETER WIND­SOR @F1rac­ing _mag face­book.com/ f1rac­ing­mag

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

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