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Formula 1

Every French F1 winner ranked

by Sam Smith
11 min read

When Pierre Gasly took the chequered flag as winner of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last Sunday, he became the 13th member of a notable club.

It was started by the extravagantly Maurice Bienvenu Jean Paul Trintignant at the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix and for a while was feared to have been bookended by Olivier Panis’ remarkable triumph at the same track 41 year later.

But it was Gasly who added another thrilling chapter to the Le livre des lauréats du Grand Prix.

We’ve decided to go full GCSE Tricoloure spec in our ranking of the French F1 winners, so have devised three sub-rankings per driver – liberté = natural talent, égalité = performance against team-mates, fraternité = popularity/personality (as you might have gathered, these are not direct translations).

These are then added up to a total ranking score out of 30!

13. Jean-Pierre Jabouille

Wins: 2Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980

Liberté: 6
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 6
Total: 18/30

A racing driver with a technician’s brain, Jabouille was not only a master engineer with a velvet touch but also one who made the most of his chances, no matter how late in life they came.

He didn’t even sit in a cockpit until he was 23 but made up for lost time by winning the 1976 F2 title before embarking on a lengthy development study with the Renault F1 turbo project.

His name will embedded in F1 folklore forever because of his pioneering work with the Regie and becoming the first person to win a Grand Prix with turbo power at Dijon in 1979.

A leg-breaking shunt at Montreal in 1980 effectively ended his active F1 career just after he scored his second win at Osterreichring.

It showed his unquenchable love of the sport that he went on to race in the French Supertourisme series before succeeding Jean Todt as Peugeot Sport boss in 1993.

12. Maurice Trintignant

Wins: 2Act

Liberté: 5
Egalité: 5
Fraternité: 9
Total: 19/30

Apart from looking like an extra from Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Jacques Tati’s comedic silent masterpiece film, Maurice Trintignant had hands down the most unique nickname perhaps in sporting history.

“Le Petoulet” (translates to “rat droppings”) was slightly less unflattering than Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s (“fathead”) moniker, but it was based in a post-war rodent escapade involving his Bugatti.

Trintingnant had a long F1 career which spanned the second-ever official world championship grand prix at Monaco to remarkably the 1964 Italian GP.

Between those bookends, Le Petoulet enjoyed several day of days, not least of which came at Monaco in 1955 at Monaco – when he capitalised on team-mate Alberto Ascari’s infamous harbour divebomb to score the first of two surprise wins in the principality.

11. Olivier Panis

Wins: 1

Spanish Grand Prix Barcelona (esp) 31 02 06 1996Liberté: 6
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 7
Total: 19/30

After fortunate cameo podiums at attrition-riddled races at Hockenheim in 1994 and Adelaide 1995, Panis’ career-defining moment came with his burn from the stern epic at Monaco in 1996

There was also a brief period in early 1997 when Panis was harnessing Bridgestone-inspired grip from the gods in the first F1 car to carry the name of France’s most successful driver – Alain Prost.

The momentum of a majestic meritorious drive to second in Barcelona though was violently parried by the barriers and dodgy tub-lamination at Montreal.

Although he fully recovered, Panis never really got near to a podium again and although there was plenty of pace and promise his F1 career petered out after unremarkable spells at BAR and Toyota.

Panis get the nod on Trintignant for nothing other than finding the biggest-ever Tricolore on his slow-down lap in the principality in 1996.

10. Jean-Pierre Beltoise

Wins: 1

ActLiberté: 7
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 7
Total: 20/30

The pre-Panis Monaco magician, Jean-Pierre Beltoise is actually probably closer to a proto-Johnny Herbert in making the most from a career blunted by injury.

A horrific shunt at Reims earlier in his career left him with limited movement in his left arm but this did little to stop him becoming a fierce competitor. In particular he caught the eye with a sensational runners-up performance at the 1968 Dutch Grand Prix in the symphonic Matra MS11.

What is it with French drivers and one-off Monaco Grand Prix wins?

Beltoise became yet another when he simply trounced the opposition in appalling conditions at the 1972 race where he disappeared into the spray.

There was something of a dynasty created when he married Francois Cevert’s sister Jacquéline in 1968, and their two sons Julien and Anthony went on to have their own professional careers.

9. Patrick Tambay

Wins: 2

Italian Grand Prix Monza (ita) 10 12 09 1982Liberté: 7
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 8
Total: 21/30

Nice guys don’t win. Tell that to genial housewives’ favourite Patrick Tambay!

Here was a baby-faced racer who arrived in F1 too early, fell out of love with the highest echelon and then came back to vindicate the honour of his lost best friend at the very track he’d completed a final toxic grand prix exactly a year before.

Tambay’s career is inexorably linked with Gilles Villeneuve, but actually if Enzo Ferrari, or more pertinently the Machiavellian Marco Piccinini, had not preyed upon Tambay’s laissez-faire demeanour, then quite possibly Tambay would have many more than just a pair of grand prix wins.

As it was, a return to the doldrums with a politically-volatile Renault and then an ill-organised Beatrice brought about a mediocre bookend to his F1 career, which sandwiched a short period when he dined at the top table with Ferrari.

8. François Cevert

Wins: 1

ActLiberté: 8
Egalité: 5
Fraternité: 9
Total: 22/30

There’s a photo of Cevert that often does the rounds on social media these days. It shows him posing with a sultry Brigitte Bardot in the early 1970s, both draped in ludicrously ostentatious and very much ‘of the time’ fur coats.

It is unlikely that anyone in the world could pull off that look but Cevert, who Nigel Roebuck fabulously described as ‘good-looking in a way that had girls gnawing at the back of their hands,’ did it with ease.

But with charisma and beauty came a serious gift for driving racing cars quickly and this was never more evident than at the Nurburgring and Watkins Glen in 1971, the latter of which garnered him his only grand prix win.

It’s now become something of a trope to state that Cevert would have been France’s first world champion. 1974 was certainly a season when Emerson Fittipaldi’s percentage-game title should have been well within a blossoming Cevert’s grasp, particularly aboard a Tyrrell 006 with which a youthful Jody Scheckter claimed a brace of wins and a tilt at the title with.

7. Patrick Depailler

Wins: 2

Act Liberté: 8
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 8
Total: 22/30

Harder than granite, tougher than rock. Patrick Depailler had flair and speed in abundance but it was often to the detriment of constructive consistency.

The reflex-defying acrobatics transcended racing car cockpits to motor bike, hang-gliding and skiing antics that often tested the patience and nerves of his team bosses as much as it did his surgeons.

Depailler had racked up seven runners-up positions with Tyrrell before his breakthrough win at Monaco (continuing the French driver trend) in 1978 and then a move to Ligier a year later.

This promised much and the JS11 enjoyed an early-season advantage, which provided a win for Depailler in Jarama and a brace for teammate Laffite at Interlagos and Buenos Aires.

The momentum was tempered by a rock-face whilst Depailler was hang-gliding close to his home town of Clermont Ferrand that summer.

Despite a brave attempt at a comeback which even tested his iron will, Depailler’s nine lives were exhausted at Hockenheim in August 1980, when he was killed at the wheel of the bulbous Alfa 179 while testing.

Depailler pips Cevert due to his record against quality teammates such as Scheckter, Peterson, Pironi and Laffite.

6. Pierre Gasly

Wins: 1

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Italian Grand Prix Practice Day Monza, ItalyLiberté: 8
Egalité: 8
Fraternité: 7
Total: 23/30

Is the golden French generation starting to shimmer in glory right now?

Monza last weekend thrust Gasly’s name in to the stratosphere and photos of him savouring the experience on a deserted podium are set to be among the most defining sporting imagery of 2020.

It’s been a brief and volatile road, one in which Gasly had to quickly digest promotion and demotion from within the Red Bull rollercoaster.

The steel now appears to have been smelted well and with it a growing confidence is being found for a driver capable of matching his peer and friend Charles Leclerc’s assurance in the future.

The big question now will be if Gasly will become an Alesi or a Prost in France’s pantheon of greatness. Much of that destiny is likely to ride on a second promotion to Red Bull’s top table which at present seems inevitable.

5. Jean Alesi

Wins: 1

San Marino Grand Prix Imola (ita) 26 28 04 1991Liberté: 9
Egalité: 6
Fraternité: 9
Total: 24/30

It is a fact that meteorites impact their destination or burn up on entry. In the case of Jean Alesi, a name almost preceded now by default with the word ‘meteoric,’ his career is probably more of the latter.

The acrobatics in F1 cockpits between 1989 and 1995 were enough to raise the blood pressure just by watching them. But what it must have been like to manage or engineer, it could leave some immobile in wonder and fear.

It wasn’t just that Alesi wore his heart on his sleeve and became an instant cult tifosi hero in the shadow of Villeneuve and Mansell. Alesi wasn’t just box office. He could put a race together too, but the issue was they rarely came in more than fives or sixes during any given season of 16!

He was never going to get near his great friend, brief team-mate and mentor Alain Prost on stats, but for love and pure affection with fans he fostered something that not even The Professor could have. Blind love and devotion.

4. Jacques Laffite

Wins: 6

Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980Liberté: 7
Egalité: 7
Fraternité: 10
Total: 24/30

Like Jabouille and Depailler, Lafitte came to racing late and it wasn’t until he was 26 that a professional career began. Indeed prior to that he had donned spanners for future brother-in-law Jabouille during the 1968 F3 season.

Remarkably, just six years later Lafitte, like Jabouille, made his grand prix debut driving for Frank Williams before a seven year association with Guy Ligier’s evocatively nationalistic team.

Had Carlos Reutemann not skittled Laffite out of the 1981 Dutch Grand Prix, Lafitte could easily have gained necessary momentum for a strong stab at the title rather than merely being an outsider to Piquet and Reutemann’s anti-climactic duel in Las Vegas.

1984 apart, Laffite’s Indian summer was brilliant and he was a genuine podium contender at the beginning of the Prost, Senna, Piquet, Mansell era in ’85 and ’86.

Laffite just shades Alesi for at least getting in to one title fight in 1981.

3. Didier Pironi

Wins: 3

British Grand Prix Brands Hatch (gbr) 16 18 7 1982Liberté: 9
Egalité: 7
Fraternité: 8
Total: 24/30

Stereotyped and maligned as a dark political force in the final season of a lively F1 career, Didier Pironi has right to stake a claim as the first truly ruthlessly ambitious modern grand prix star.

As aloof and calculating as Pironi undoubtedly could be, his sheer pace and skill was never questioned and he was genuinely liked and revered by team bosses Ken Tyrrell and Marco Piccinini.

In the summer of 1980, when he was untouchable for a time in the adorable Ligier JS11/15, Pironi looked a dead cert for at least one title.

There was little question that a wake-up call via Villeneuve’s 1981 brilliance would last too long, and perhaps it was really this that inspired him to interpret and then practice devastating dark arts at Imola in 1982.

They were completed to shocking affect and triggered a fearful series of events that contributed to Villeneuve’s death and Pironi’s own career ending shunt at Hockenheim.

Pironi just gets the nod over Lafitte for his superior 1980 qualifying head-to-head record and in particular his pole heroics at Monaco and Brands Hatch.

2. Rene Arnoux

Wins: 7

Italian Grand Prix Imola (ita) 12 14 09 1980Liberté: 9
Egalité: 8
Fraternité: 8
Total: 25/30

Was there only one Rene Arnoux?

Can the devastatingly quick 1980-spec firebrand really be the same as the wayward nuisance that caused James Hunt to froth at the mouth in fury a few years later?

The more appealing earlier model Arnoux was capable of great things in both qualifying and races. Who else could take it to Alan Prost and occasionally beat one of the best of all time? Rene-could.

A fine 1983 season that included three wins saw Arnoux at his often coruscating best. It could well have been four that year had his appetite for not eating his Goodyears at Silverstone been suppressed. It wasn’t always pretty, but Arnoux had pace that could beat all before him, but only when he felt like it.

Fame and wealth were enjoyed by Arnoux, who came from very modest beginnings. His murky firing from the Prancing Horse in early 1985 jolted a career which had lost direction anyway.

1. Alain Prost

Wins: 51

Brazilian Grand Prix Jacarepagua (bra) 05 07 04 1985Liberté: 10
Egalité: 10
Fraternité: 9
Total: 29/30

Who else could it be but the great Alain Prost. Not only the greatest Frenchman to ever to race in Formula 1 but possibly the greatest-ever to do so period.

As elegant a racing driver that has ever lived, Prost re-defined sporting zen in an era of turbo lag, wastegate-popping violence.

Deceptively quick to the point of paranormal, Prost soaked up racing knowledge by the lap in his early career where he quickly adopted an inevitability of success aura that few had done before, or indeed since.

Prost built and executed victories with panache, embodying a pure 80s thirst for style and substance.

There was little he didn’t have. His detractors often said his Achilles heel was racing in the wet. Yet his performances at Dijon in 1981 (wet/dry) and Monaco (pre monsoon) in 1984 belie the fact he couldn’t cut it in the murk.

Risk management was never greater than in the 1980s and 1990s. Prost learned that lesson after watching in horror as Didier Pironi cartwheeled to destruction in 1982. That he achieved what he did with this ethos in his armoury is perhaps his greatest achievement.

His biggest test came against his greatest rival, Ayrton Senna. He beat Senna on points in both seasons that they were team-mates (’88 and’89) but lost out on the former title due to a moribund dropped scores rule.

And don’t let people tell you Prost was boring. He could party as hard as anyone and his off-track life was just as colourful as some of the more vibrant drivers on the grid.

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