René Arnoux: Blinded by the light
Rene Arnoux, on a good day, was probably the fastest driver in F1 once Villeneuve and Pironi had gone. But he was never going to be the best. Mark Hughes reveals the man behind the wild image
Rene Arnoux’s is a story with echoes from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. A story of a shy, working-class boy imbued with a passion in a world which at first belittled him then realising the scale of talent beneath his small-time provincial ways — embraced him, offering him everything. A story of how this turned his head and rattled him off the rails, leaving the fickle world to look elsewhere for its thrills. Rut it’s a story stitched together by high-octane, adrenaline-fuelled driving of a rare order. Eighteen times in F1, Rene successfully returned from another zone with pole position. The last, at Silverstone, July 1983, was something to behold. Of the six drivers in contention for pole, five had already used up their qualifying tyre allocation. Number 28 Ferrari burbled down the pitlane, the labels still visible on its sticky new qualifiers, sun glinting off the red bodywork, Arnoux’s plain-white helmet in characteristic head-forward stance.
There was enough time left for one warm-up lap, one flyer. Pure theatre. As he accelerated away to where Maggotts met the sky, a thin trail of black exhaust smoke testified to qualifying boost off the scale. The lap was raggedly magnificent, untidy but awesome, and it secured him pole by almost 0.7sec. Afterwards, when the faraway look in his eyes had faded, he sunbathed behind the pits, cold drink and stunning blonde to his side, overalls rolled down to his waist. Rock ‘n’ roll. It was all a long way from Grenoble, rural France. His father, a company accountant there, had built Rene a kart and the passion was ignited. “He didn’t have a lot of money,” says Rene, “but we did everything together.” Rene raced the kart locally and, on leaving school, became a trainee mechanic with a Grenoble garage specialising in Alpine Renaults.
“The two parts of motor racing driving and technology — always fascinated me,” he says. “A friend of my father’s knew a guy in Turin who ran a proper racing team, so I went there as a mechanic and stayed for two years.” The team was Alfa Romeo experts Conrero, and Rene worked on touring and sports cars for, among others, Giorgio Pianta between 1969 and ’71. He moved back to Grenoble for ’72, ready for the next stage of his dream — the Winfield Racing School at Magny-Cours. “My father and I would set off at four in the morning,” he recalls, “and drive the 400 kilometres, do the driving on the track, then drive
“They became known by the other pupils as Pere et Fils,” school boss Mike Knight remembers, “they were always together.”
At the end of the year, pupils could enter for the Volant Shell award, the prize for which was a fully paid drive in Formula Renault. “Rene was in a class of his own,” says Knight, “quite outstanding. A lot of the pupils were saying, ‘It’s not worth me entering this year.’ He completely destroyed them.”
“I was a member of the jury,” says journalist Jabby Crombac, “and I went down to a corner with Jean-Pierre Jarier. Rene was the second or third guy through. We saw him arriving obviously too fast and the car went sideways and he caught it in an absolutely beautiful way; Jarier and I looked at each other and said, ‘You can tell the others to go home’.” “He wanted it desperately,” says Knight. “He was going to take his chance and grab it by the throat.” He demonstrated as much by winning the Formula Renault championship with his prize drive. Along the way he moved to Magny-Cours to be taken under the wing of constructor Tico Martini. A girlfriend, Nelly, who would later become his wife, began to accompany him.
“He was very shy and didn’t have much money,” recalls Martini, “but he was bloody fast, very aggressive — completely different outside the car — made very few mistakes and, once he had someone in his aim, he would just not let them go.
“I helped him but I think this caused a certain animosity among some drivers who had big budgets but weren’t going as quickly. Certain people found his weak point was that he didn’t have a fantastic outgoing personality, couldn’t express himself very well, and they played on it. Just basic racing stuff; really. It bothered him a bit, but it just made him even more aggressive on the track.” Then Shell pulled out of motor racing. He worked for Surtees in 1974, not as an F2 driver as planned, but as a storeman in between an abortive F5000 programme and a Lotus Fl testing contract that failed to yield a single lap.
“Really, to have any future at that time as a French driver,” recalls Crombac, “you needed to be on the Elf ladder. I pushed very hard to get them to take him on. A colleague of mine was at the same time pushing them to take on Richard Dallest instead, but luckily they chose Rene.”
Back on course, he immediately repaid the faith. He won the ’75 Renault Europe title —”sometimes that year I didn’t know where I was going to sleep, but as long as I had my new tyres and a good engine, I was happy,” — and in 1976 was the fastest man in F2, even though he narrowly lost the championship to his future Renault team-mate Jean-Pierre Jabouille. He took that crown in ’77. But still there was resentment “A lot of it came from the guys who were with Elf already,” says Knight. “He was still considered a rock ape from Grenoble, and a lot of these guys were sophisticated Parisians.” Yet he was blowing them away.
Even as the drivers he’d comfortably beaten graduated effortlessly to F1 as fashionable new names, it was difficult to see how Arnow( could go with them. His face just didn’t fit, somehow.
Martini came to the rescue, putting together his first — and last — Fl project, for 1978. It was an underfunded effort, plagued with problems, and only two late-season races with Surtees rescued Arnoux’s F1 career. “Gerard Larrousse was watching him carefully in America, assessing him as a potential Renault driver,” confirms Crombac.
There were some boardroom grumbles about the strong provincial accent and the image, but Arnoux was duly confirmed as a Renault driver for 1979. He’d made it. It took a while to adapt to turbo lag, but by Dijon he was getting on top of it. He threw away his front-row grid position with a muffed start — the trigger that allowed him to show F1 just what it had nearly missed. As he scythed through the pack his speed was of a different order to anyone else’s, his best lap a full second quicker than team-mate Jabouille, who was in the process of winning the race. Rene was up to third when his engine began cutting out; then came the battle with Villeneuve that has since passed into legend. Rarely, if ever, has a duel featured such raw desire, and of all the fabulous moves and counter-moves in those final couple of crazy laps, none was better than Arnoux’s side-by-side pass into the fast downhill left-hander, never previously thought of as a passing place.
There was an animal quality to Arnoux’s fighting spirit, as though he couldn’t help himself once the buttons had been pressed — all instinct, nothing cerebral. It gained him access to some special personal territory and produced performances like those at Dijon or his pole lap of the Osterreichring in 1980, a full 1.2s quicker than the rest, or his staggering drive from the back to second at Dallas 1984. None of them were pretty performances — there is the story of how a passengering Carlos Reutemann was unimpressed at how Arnoux didn’t release some steering lock as they traversed mid-corner ridges across the road — but for all the lack of technical niceties, Reutemann would have been well served if he’d had just half of Arnoux’s gloves-off fight.
Qualifying in the turbo era was made for Arnoux. “There were two qualifying sessions in those days,” he recalls, “at one o’clock each day. At these times I would be very excited. Each part of the car is there just for this one lap where you have an extra 200300 horsepower and fantastic grip.
“You had no time to build up to it; you just had to do it, to get everything from yourself to do one fantastic lap. We had a button that gave even more boost, but you couldn’t use it the whole lap or the engine would blow — you just hit it when you had a second in between fighting the car. You couldn’t remember what you had done afterwards.” In between Renault several turbo blow-ups, Arnoux’s career was progressing nicely, but in 1981 came a development which mixed turmoil into Rene’s previously serene environment: Alain Prost arrived in the team.
“Alain came at his racing from a completely different angle to anyone else I have ever met,” says Knight. “There are drivers who think a lap ahead, or a race ahead, or even a season ahead, but Alain — even in the junior formulae — was thinking a whole career ahead. He applied so much thought and so much guile. Rene couldn’t possibly have competed with that; his mind just didn’t work that way.”
“Alain always wanted my engine, or my gearbox, everything, and the atmosphere in the team changed. It became more nervous and I found it difficult,” says Arnoux. “Alain came in and took the initiative,” says then-team manager Jean Sage. “Rene didn’t respond well.” There were flashes of the fiery Arnoux that were year but no more than that. He seemed dispirited, outpsyched. “In between then and the following season, Gerard Larrousse helped Rene a lot,” says Sage. “He helped him get his confidence back up, made him see that there was nothing to stop him competing with Alain.” Arnoux, 1982-spec, was a different driver. All the old fire and aggression returned, but now more relentless than it had ever been before. At Kyalami for the season-opener, he out-qualified Prost by 1.8sec; at Monaco, his early laps were stunning as he left the field behind at 2sec per lap. There were victories too — a dominant one at Monza and a controversial one at Paul Ricard. “It was Rene who suggested he let Alain past if we were running 1-2, for the sake of the team’s championship chances,” recalls Sage, still dumbfounded by what transpired. ‘Then he just changed his mind. He was no longer working for the team.” Prost helped ensure the fallout was volcanic. Rene’s Renault days were numbered.
Even in the midst of his frustration with him, Sage could not help but be impressed by the new Arnoux’s driving. “He was quicker than Alain over one lap, for sure. But he was not as intelligent.”
It wasn’t just Rene the driver who’d changed, though. Rene the man was somehow different. “He was more sure of himself. I think that’s what Gerard had helped with,” says Sage. It was as if his eyes had suddenly opened to his position and the possibilities surrounding him.” “He definitely changed,” confirms Knight. “Noone could quite figure it. Maybe it was the pressure; we always thought Fl was a big deal for a lad like that. Even now, although he seems settled, you
sometimes still see the mark it left on him.”
His marriage to Nelly came to an end just as he signed a Ferrari contract for ’83. For someone of the disposition he had recently displayed, the position of Ferrari driver seemed sure to offer limitless temptations away from the track. Old friends wondered about his new circle of non-racing acquaintances with whom he enjoyed the life of a Ferrari driver in Italy — an Italian-speaking one at that. On-track, he was still delivering. He was a title contender right up to the last round in 1983, and won three times. Had an ignition wire not come adrift when he was dominating Detroit, he’d have been the champion. In ’84, however, his performances dropped off alarmingly. There was the unbelievable drive at Dallas where, on a melting tack, on a day the Prosts and Laudas stuck it in the wall, he was magnificent as he shaved the concrete, millimetre-perfect from beginning to end. But that highlight aside, this was not old Arnoux. After the first race of ’85, Ferrari sacked him, using the pretext of an off-season operation he’d had to relieve pressure on a leg muscle, without the team’s consent. ‘There was a lot of politics about it all,” is as much he’ll say about it today.
He disappeared for the rest of the year, making a low-key comeback in the Macau F3 event in November, in preparation for his F1 return with Ligier. The ’86 Ligier-Renault was a reasonable car and there were days — notably when he led in Detroit — that he looked his old self. Away from the track he seemed to be living a cleaner, healthier life too. But the French team was on a downward spiral and for the next three years produced terrible cars. It eventually showed in Arnoux’s driving and, after a desultory 1989, he called it a day. With the spotlight off him, he’d recovered a personal equilibrium that had looked in real danger when he was at the height of his career. The magnificent fighting driver was no more, but at least he’d faded away rather than burnt out.