F2 1976 – nobody spoils a french party

The European Formula 2 Championship was the most important feeder series for F1 during 18 years, from 1967 to 1984, when it was replaced by F3000. Back then, it was a common feature to see Formula 1 drivers on the grid, mixing it with the young regulars of F2, adding to the spectacle. F1 teams developed junior programs, grooming their unpolished diamonds in a highly-competitive environment. We will take a closer look to some iconic moments from F2, dedicating our first feature to the 1976 season.

Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular season of F2, the 1976 campaign followed after three consecutive french successes.  In ’73, Jarier widely dominated the season, winning the title in a March-BMW with 78 points, 36 ahead of Jochen Mass. The following year, Patrick Depailler defeated Hans-Joachim Stuck, as the French contingent filled in five of the top seven placings. 1975 saw Jacques Laffite running away with the title, ahead of four other compatriots. BMW engines were so dominant, that in 14 races, they occupied 40 places on the podiums, leaving Brian Henton as the only Ford challenger to clinch just a second and a third.

After such a string of French drivers topping the standings, 1976 had an even bigger french flavour, as Renault decided to enter the series, preparing the assault towards F1. The Renault-Gordini CH1 V6 engine powered two teams: the classic Equipe Elf, coated in a beautiful Martini livery and the Swiss Elf team that ran a chassis developed by their widely-talented driver, Jean-Pierre Jabouille. As the three previous French F2 champions had won the title while also contesting the F1 championship, they sometimes had to skip the F2 rounds due to more important commitments, depriving the fans from a hard-fought battle for the title.

It all changed in 1976, as competition between Renault and BMW suddenly mattered more. The whole field had 11 different chassis and 6 engine manufacturers. Moreover, Jabouille decided to focus solely on the F2 campaign, developing his 2J chassis in its second year. His teammate was Michel Leclere, a good F2 driver that never had the opportunity to shine in F1. In 1976, Leclere contested seven F1 rounds in a Wolf-Williams W05, being dropped by Papa Frank in July. The psychological blow had a major impact on his F2 outings as well.

The french Elf team responded to Jabouille’s focused approach, hiring a pair of young French drivers that had no F1 commitments yet: René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay. In the BMW-powered cars, there were future F1 drivers like Alex Ribeiro, Hans Binder (uncle of current GP2 driver René Binder), Eddie Cheever Jr. and a certain Keke Rosberg. Other future stars of GT and endurance racing contested the F2 series that year, such as Harald Ertl (DRM winner in 1978), Jean-Pierre Jaussaud (Le Mans winner in 1978 and 1980), Klaus Ludwig (three times Le Mans winner, 2 titles in DRM, 3 titles in DTM) and Freddy Kottulinsky. Keke Rosberg had a brand new chassis manufacturer named TOJ, a works team lead by Jorg Obermoser.

In order to preserve equity during the season, there was a rule that prevented F1 drivers and ex F2 champions to score points, as they frequently attended the races, outpacing the lesser-experienced regulars. The 1976 calendar had scheduled 22 meetings, but only 13 counted for the European Championship. The actual number dropped to 12, as the Belgian round in Zolder was cancelled.

Round 1 – Hockenheim double-header (Jim Clark trophy)

Hans-Joachim Stuck ran away with the victory in a BMW-powered March 762, but he was ineligible for points, thus giving the 9 points to René Arnoux, who finished more than 75 seconds down the road on aggregate. His teammate Tambay followed him, some 12 seconds adrift, while Jabouille and Leclere didn’t finish. There were other F1 stars on the grid, like Ronnie Peterson or Jochen Mass.

Round 2 – Thruxton

There were no F1 guest drivers for the British round, as Maurizio Flamini lead his teammate Alex Ribeiro in a March-BMW 1-2. The French squadron was decimated, as Leclere and Jabouille failed to finishe once again. Arnoux was classified one lap down, with Tambay the only one in contention for the podium. Patrick finished just a second behind Ribeiro in third, as the public only had eyes for the dominant winner Flamini, that rounded his hat-trick – pole, victory and the fastest lap.

Non-Championship – 39th International ADAC Eifelrennen (double-header)

There was no Renault-powered car present at the 2 six-laps races on the Norschleife, giving the opportunity for others to shine on the Green Hell. Wilfried Kottulinsky inherited the win, once the pole-sitter and fastest lap owner Rolf Stommelen ran into trouble. Klaus Ludwig finished third, while a certain Tom Walkinshaw on a year-old March came in sixth.

Round 3 – Vallelunga

A full 40-cars field entered the qualifying round for the 22 available spots on the grid, the Nordics (Rosberg and Kottulinsky) falling at the first hurdle. Pole-sitter Jabouille finally finished a race, leading from start to finish. Tambay, Ribeiro and Leclere followed, as Arnoux saw his Renault engine giving up in smoke, while Flamini had an accident with just three laps to go.

Round 4 – Salzburgring

Pole-position went to Flamini, but noone stood in Leclere’s way during the race, winning the second consecutive race for the Jabouille 2J chassis. It was the only race of the year when all the top 6 drivers of the season got points: Flamini and Tambay joined Leclere on the podium, with Arnoux, Ribeiro and Jabouille coming next.

Round 5 – Pau

The classic street race in the Béarn region saw another Tricolore domination, with Arnoux mastering the boulevards ahead of experienced guest Jacques Laffite, who crossed the line more than 40 seconds behind. Everyone else was lapped, starting from third-placed Jabouille. IT was a French 1-2-3-4, with another guest completing the quartet: Jarier. Other contenders fell down: Tambay crashed, Flamini and Leclere had technical issues.

But the most resounding name was somewhere behind, as the Pau organizers had seen a certain youngster’s performance in the Trois-Rivieres Grand Prix and invited him to race in a Project Four car of Ron Dennis. The race was cut short after some overheating issues, but the driver had already impressed, starting down in 10th and climbing up to fourth on such a difficult track, at his first outing. His name? Gilles Villeneuve.

Round 6 – Hockenheim double-header

It was time to visit the high-speed German track again, both for the F2 field and for the German experts. Stuck won again from pole, ahead of the four French drivers (Leclere, Tambay, Jabouille, Arnoux). Stommelen and Mass had issues, the same thing being said about Keke Rosberg and Alex Ribeiro. Leclere inherited the win that grouped the top four Frenchmen in the standings in just 6 points, at the mid-year mark: Tambay 26p, Arnoux 24, Leclere 21 and Jabouille 20. The two March-BMW cars driven by Flammini (16p) and Ribeiro (15p) were still in close company.

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Round 7 – Rouen

The March boys retaliated, with Ribeiro on pole and Flammini taking the win after his Brazilian colleague had an electric failure. The Frenchmen were decimated on home ground, with Jabouille as lone survivor, up into second place. Keke Rosberg scored his first points with a solid fourth. A lot of engines blew, as only half of the field saw the flag. Flammini was now just one point behind the leading pair of Jabouille and Tambay (26p).

Round 8 – Mugello

In Italy, the Renault engines stood the test and relegated the BMWs below the podium. Jabouille controlled the race from pole, despite Arnoux’s best efforts. Tambay came in a lone third, some 20 seconds behind the pair, while Leclere encountered a fuel issue in the closing stages of the race. Jabouille was now the sole leader in the drivers’ standings, with five points ahead of the Ecurie Elf pair.

Round 9 – Enna Pergusa double header

Patrick Tambay started from pole, but his race was over very abruptly, following an accident right after the start. Leclere had a similar fate some laps later, while Jabouille didn’t have the pace to challenge for the podium. That left Arnoux in a fight with Ribeiro, the Frenchman dominating the first heat by 16 seconds and losing just 11 in the second sprint, to win on aggregate and take the lead in the championship. Jabouille’s fourth place kept him in contention, just one point behind the new leader.

Round 10 – Estoril

After the Portuguese round, it became clear that only Jabouille and Arnoux were fighting for the title, as Tambay’s gearbox gave up with three laps to go and Leclere was only eighth at the flag. René Arnoux scored a hat-trick and won by more than 20 seconds, while Jabouille had to fend off the challenge from Ribeiro and Hans Binder, securing a second place that kept him in the hunt, four points behind Arnoux. Third in the standings, Tambay was already out of the picture, 18 points behind Arnoux with just 2 rounds to go. As a win equalled 9 points, he could only tie with his teammate, but Arnoux already had four triumphs, while Tambay hadn’t won a single race yet.

Round 11 – Nogaro

Back on home soil, the Frenchmen delivered a dramatic battle, with the two contenders being sidelined by reliability: poleman Jabouille had a gearbox failure on lap 19, leaving Arnoux happy for just four laps, when the Renault engine blew up behind René. Tambay won the race, with guest driver Laffite second on the road, but the 6 points going to Leclere that ended a miserabile run of four non-scoring races. Bad lcuk went Flammini’s way though, for the third time in a succession.

Round 12 – Hockenheim double header

The first heat went to Jabouille, followed by Arnoux and Leclere, with Tambay out of the picture. That left Arnoux isolated between the Swiss Elf team mates for the second heat, as Jabouille needed not only the win, but also Leclere to finish ahead of Arnoux. Jean-Pierre looked at the classification and designed the strategy for the deciding run. He needed to keep Arnoux behind, while Leclere would sprint ahead and make up for the 6.6 seconds deficit, thus obtaining second place. Of course, it had to be so well-timed, as Leclere had to be ahead by no more than 10.2 seconds in order to keep the win in Jabouille’s pocket.

1     Jabouille     41’43.8″
2     Arnoux     41’47.4″
3     Leclère     41’54.0″

Jean-Pierre went ahead, putting the plan into practice. Leclere went ahead and won the race, while Jabouille kept himself precisely 6.6 seconds behind, with Arnoux unable to overtake. Patrick Tambay came from behind, trying to catch up with the leaders, but it was too much to ask during a short 20-lap race, as he ended in fifth. Reliability didn’t interfere with the plan and the strategy paid dividends as the title went to Jabouille for just one point in one of the most exciting finishes, when math and racing went hand in hand.

The champion graduated to Formula 1, as Renault entered the big stage with their yellow tea pot, that Jabouille tried endlessly to tame with his technical skills. He never gave up with that first turbo car, rightly winning the first race for Renault at the memorable Dijon outing in 1979.

René Arnoux stayed for one more year in F2, clinching an easy title ahead of Cheever and Pironi. In 1978, he followed his rival Jabouille into the Renault F1 works team, winning four races in four years, before switching to Ferrari. Patrick Tambay crossed the Ocean, winning the Can-Am series in 1977, before returning to Formula 1 by the end of the year. His Renault spell came later, in 1984-85, after some time spent with Ferrari.

Finally, Leclere had a dreadful season in F2 in 1977, with a severe accident at the Nurburgring. He went on to Le Mans and retired from racing in 1980. There was such a huge competition between so many French drivers at the time, limiting the options for Michel. He is still driving the old Renault F1 cars from 1977-1985 at various events.

The two guests that often battled with the French quartet in 1976 were Hans-Joachim Stuck and Jacques Laffite. At the final F2 round of the year, that counted for the Japanese F2000 Championship, they went to have fun in Suzuka (back then, the F1 race was still at Fuji): Laffite won the 25-lap race by a huge margin of about 50 seconds, while Stuck finished in fifth.

Overall, the 1976 F2 races were exceptionally contested, once the leading drivers of the series took matters more seriously by concentrating on Formula 2. Some F1 drivers occasionally showed them the way, but the title went down to the wire in a fierce strategy battle. Renault were rewarded with a crop of very gifted French drivers that later went to represent the Hexagone manufacturer at the highest level. In 1977, Arnoux was the fifth driver in a row to win the F2 title. At the end of that year, Renault closed down the F2 operations, focusing on F1.

Still, there was such a plethora of valuable French drivers at the time. In 1976, you had 3 ex-F2 champions, 4 at the top of the yearly standings and just look at the names that won the titles in Formula Renault 2.0 Western Europe (Alain Prost) and Europe (Didier Pironi). Once you have such a rich history, it’s totally conceivable to end up comparing then and now, endlessly evoking the past, which is a national symptom in France.

 

 


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