Legends: Gilles Villeneuve vs Rene Arnoux – Dijon '79

Dijon 1979

Last month I wrote about the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, after which someone asked if it had been the most exciting race in my experience. And after considering the 1969 Monaco Formula Three race, an unforgettable fight between Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell, I decided that, yes, Adelaide ’86 had my vote, at least in terms of a race in its entirety.

For short spells, though, others were perhaps more mesmeric. The closing laps of the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix, for example, when Jochen Rindt was chasing Jack Brabham, come to mind, but for sheer drama nothing matches the last few laps at Dijon in ’79, and the battle between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux. Ask anyone who was there.

Remarkably, this was not a matter of winning a race, either, although it would have been if Jean-Pierre Jabouille had faltered. He did not, and it remains the day of days in an often underrated career. Jabouille was Renault’s original driver in F1, the man who did all the testing, and suffered all the heartbreaks, as the Regie — which pioneered turbocharged engines in grand prix racing — sought to take on the established teams. Jean-Pierre’s — and Renault’s — first victory came at the French Grand Prix. Jour de gloire, indeed.

Jabouille always had the look of a man who’d walked under too many ladders: “For me the only sad thing is that no-one remembers who won the race — only the fight for second place! Even an hour afterwards I felt that. And when I saw the video, I was not surprised…”

Dijon ’79 has passed into motor racing folklore. When Arnoux retired, at the end of 1989, stories were written about his career, his working-class background, his struggle through the ranks, seasons at the forefront of F1 with Renault and Ferrari. Seven times he was a grand prix winner, but for all-time Rene will be remembered for that day he tried to take on Gilles.

Dijon was the eighth round of the world championship, and as they arrived there Jody Scheckter was ahead on points, followed by Ligier’s Jacques Laffite and Villeneuve.

Renault, though — the only turbo team — was going to be a threat anywhere with straights worth the name. Like Dijon. Lamentable reliability apart, Renault’s abiding problem until then had been throttle lag — indeed, at Monaco, Arnoux and Jabouille had made up the back row of the grid, which would have been embarrassing anywhere, but particularly so at a French race. A good showing at Dijon was vital — and the Monaco grid was turned on its head. This time the yellow cars had the front row to themselves.

For this race the cars had twin KKK turbochargers, which markedly improved torque and throttle response. Given their power advantage, they could run more wing than the rest, and were apparently in a class of their own — until Villeneuve produced a stunning lap to join them in the 1min 07sec bracket. No-one else was within shouting distance. It would be Gilles against the home side.

“Through the trap they’re only two or three clicks quicker than me,” he said, “and usually it’s about 15kph, so they’re using a lot of wing. That‘s where they’re making up the time here — through the turns.

“I need a win here,” Villeneuve went on, “to close the gap to Jody. I’m not interested in three or four points. If Jabouille gets into the lead, it’ll be impossible to catch him, so I have to make a good start. Somehow I must at least split the Renaults.”

Perhaps better at starting than anyone in history, Villeneuve did better than that. Both Renaults got away reasonably well, but the Ferrari sliced between them on the sprint to the first turn. A missed gearchange then dropped Amoux back to ninth.

In the opening stages it was Gilles at his purest, running away from Jabouille at a second a lap: “To go for it was all I could do. We had very little downforce, and I knew I was hurting the tyres, but what was the alternative — run third all the way, and go to sleep?”

The race began to fall into predicted shape finally on lap 15. Villeneuve still led from Jabouille, but now Arnoux was up into third place. Sixty-five laps remained, and Gilles had no-one working in his corner. Still, he charged on. “If you can build up a lead,” he said, “you just might make the other guy put pressure on himself.”

Jabouille, though, was in a calm frame of mind. He knew the degree of Renault’s superiority and readily maintained the gap to the Ferrari. As the 30-lap mark approached, Villeneuve’s lead was pared away: “In my mirrors I saw I had company.”

Taking scary chances through lapped traffic, Gilles pulled it out to four seconds again, but by mid-race his tyres had run up the white flag, and the T4 was all over the place, understeering on left-handers, oversteering on right-handers. By lap 46 he had no more cards to play, and Jabouille swept by at the end of the straight. Gone.

“When I passed him, I could tell his tyres were finished,” Jean-Pierre said. “How he got to the end of the race on them, I’ll never understand.”

In the Ferrari pit, they were getting new Michelins ready for Gilles, as Scheckter — lapping at nothing like his team-mate’s pace — had already been in for a change. Villeneuve, though, stayed out. Alright, Jabouille was history, but now Arnoux was chipping away at the 15 seconds separating him from second place. With 10 laps to go, the gap was down to four seconds, and Gilles seemed like tethered prey. As they went into the last five laps the cars were as one.

The closing minutes of that race beggar description. At the end of lap 70, Arnoux came by ahead, and that was that, we thought: Gilles had carried the battle to the Renaults, and the gamble had failed.

But Villeneuve was not like that. “When Arnoux passed me,” he said, “I thought he’d run away, like Jabouille had. My tyres were gone, and the car was all over the place — but still I could stay with him. So he had to have a problem, too…”

So he had. In the closing stages, the Renault’s fuel pick-up had begun to falter slightly. “I wanted to get him back as soon as possible,” Gilles explained, “because I knew he would not be expecting it. At the end of the pit straight I wasn’t really close enough, but I went for the inside and left my braking really, really, late…”

Smoke plumed from the tyres as the Ferrari scrabbled inside the Renault, and they went through the turn side by side.

No-one — not even the drivers themselves — really knew how many times in those last couple of laps the two cars passed and repassed, how many times they banged wheels, slid wide, went off, rejoined, touched again. It was desperate in a manner perhaps not seen in F1 before or since.

Halfway round the final lap, though, Arnoux seemed to have it done. At the uphill hairpin he felt sufficiently confident of his advantage to take the wide, conventional, line in. Villeneuve, braking later than late, put the Ferrari through the open door. The issue was settled.

Meantime, 15 seconds up the road, Jabouille was coming in for a momentous victory, but everyone was looking behind him. Then it was red-yellow — a blink — over the line. And as they cruised into the slowing-down lap, Villeneuve gave a wave of respect, immediately acknowledged by Arnoux. When they stepped from their cars, they embraced.

In the context of today, that seems more than faintly surreal, but we should have expected nothing else. It had been ragged, wild and frantic, but also clean. “I don’t know how many times we touched,” Gilles said, “but it never happened because one of us was trying to put the other off.

“It was fun!” he giggled. “A real battle. I thought for sure we were going to end up on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it’s very easy for one car to climb over the other. But we didn’t crash; it was okay, and I never enjoyed a race more.” Arnoux says the same to this day.

At Silverstone, the next race, Villeneuve and Arnoux were grilled at a Grand Prix Drivers Association meeting by a selection of F1’s elder statesmen. Lauda, Fittipaldi, Scheckter and others called them stupid.

“From where they were,” Giles drily commented, “what the hell did they know? I couldn’t believe the things they were saying. Jesus, they’re supposed to be racing drivers…”

Mario Andretti, predictably, was not among the critics. As the racer’s racer, his response was swift and to the point. “Nothing to get worried about,” he said. “Just a coupla young lions clawin’ each other.” For most of us, that said it best.

And if it had happened in 2003? As Arnoux says, at the very least there would have been penalties, protests, FIA statements. Gilles, he reckons, would not have understood.