• French Grand Prix

Ickx's first victory darkened by Schlesser death

ESPNF1 Staff
July 7, 1968
Jo Schlesser jokes in the pit lane in the Honda RA302 which would take his life © Sutton Images

Jacky Ickx won the French Grand Prix, and in so doing cemented his position in the Ferrari team, but yet again the day was overshadowed by the death of a driver. Forty-year-old Jo Schlesser, in only his third grand prix, became the 13th fatality in motorsport since the start of the year.

The build-up to the race was dominated by a bitter row involving the Honda team. It had been intended John Surtees, its No. 1 driver, would test the new Honda V8 and bring it to Rouen for development while using the water-cooled V12 for the grand prix. But Surtees arrived to find Honda (France) had formed its own team to enter the V8; he was livid. "The first I knew was when I read the paper," he fumed. "This is the wrong way to go about it. We're supposed to work as a team."

Honda employed Schlesser as its driver; his first drive in an F1 car having competed in the 1966 and 1967 German GPs in an F2-spec Matra. The V12 proved fast and he spun it first time out. Jackie Oliver also had a lucky escape when he slammed his Lotus-Ford into a wall at 150mph, destroying the car and putting him out of the rest of the weekend.

On the day itself more than 100,000 spectators lined the course in drizzle, and watched Ickx take an early lead. On the second lap local favourite Schlesser crashed on a downhill straight, his car caught fire and its highly flammable magnesium body burnt with such intensity the flames leapt 15 feet in the air. Parts were sprayed over the area and five spectators were also injured.

"The burning fuel ran across the track, feeding an horrific wall of fire," Jackie Stewart recalled. "The race continued, and each time we passed the scene of the accident, the rest of us had to drive blind through the flames, smoke and debris. It had been raining heavily and the spray dramatically reduced visibility. I had rarely felt frightened in a car, but I did that day. And Jo was dead."

Ickx increased his lead throughout, and Surtees led the chase followed by Pedro Rodriguez in the BRM. Surtees, however, was having handling difficulties caused by an experimental flying wing, and then he had to pit when a stone smashed his goggles.

By the finish Ickx was more than two minutes ahead of Surtees with Stewart, still hampered by having to wear a cast to protect his injured wrist, a lap back in third. Vic Elford, on his debut, took fourth in his Cooper.

It was Ickx's first victory, Ferrari's first since Monza 1966, and the last grand prix to be held at the daunting Rouen road circuit, although much of the track can still be driven, a pilgrimage often made by enthusiasts on their way to Le Mans.

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