Chalk-and-cheese drivers Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux complemented each other at Renault in an unusual Gallic collaboration | by Rob Widdows
The man is dressed all in blue. Artisan smock top, jeans and trainers. Stylish in a French kind of way. The long legs, the beaky nose and the slightly nervous hands behind his back are all familiar. He looks up at the pictures on the walls and, staring back across three decades, sees himself.
The picture shows Jean-Pierre Jabouille in Renault’s RS01, the car that marked the Régie’s return to grand prix racing in 1977 after a gap of nearly 70 years. This pioneering turbocharged machine became known as the yellow teapot because of the number of times it came to a steaming, smoking halt.
Jean-Pierre looks long and hard at the photographs, one of which shows him with René Arnoux, the man he has nominated as his team-mate. He turns away, smiles and holds out his right hand to me. “Bonjour, ça va? Nous parlons en français, oui? C’est plus facile, non?” He settles down to talk about Arnoux, his sparring partner for the 1979 and 1980 seasons during which Jean-Pierre scored Renault’s maiden victory at Dijon, ironically a race where Arnoux stole the headlines after a rumbustious battle with Gilles Villeneuve. We continue through our interpreter, Bradley Lord, from the contemporary Renault Formula 1 team.
Is he frustrated that his historic first win is so often overshadowed by the antics of Arnoux and Villeneuve? “That’s not hard for me because, when you’re a sportsman, the thing that matters is winning the race. I won the race. The luck was that it was the first win for a turbo engine, at a French circuit. Drivers in general like winning on their home turf. I had that: the first win for a turbo engine, for radial tyres, the Michelin tyres, with a French driver in a French car. It was a full house – everything was perfect. In effect, I managed my race and it all went well, I finished the race and we won. Then afterwards, on the TV, I saw the battle between René and Gilles. It was very spectacular, I would go as far as saying they took enormous risks. Everybody said that it was fantastic, but if they had collided and one car had crashed, they would have been labelled idiots. What mattered to me was winning.”
“Why did I choose René? Well, he was a friend also. You know, not a close buddy because we were very different people out of the car, but we got on well, and it was good for the team to have two such different drivers – we had totally different styles.
“We did not have the same view of life, let’s say, but we are still friends and I’m always pleased to see René.”
While Arnoux was, in those days, a rough and ready character, something of a hippy with his casual charm and mischievous grin, Jabouille was always known as a more professorial character, a man who understood the complexities of the new turbocharged cars.
“Yes, maybe, and certainly I was more technically minded than René. He just got in and drove. He was a racer, not a professor. Also, he came to Renault in ’79 when we had already done two years with the RS01 and had so many technical traumas – so the RE10 was more developed and I was very close to all of that. René just wanted to race, and he did.”
The history books relate that Arnoux soundly beat Jabouille over the course of both seasons, finishing well ahead of his team leader in the championship. But the story is not that simple.
“Renault had understood at the time that what you need in a team is somebody who is more precise, more technical, to push things forward. Indeed, even when René was there, everything went through me because we gained time, and the engineers were used to working with me. I remember once at Interlagos we were really struggling with the suspension and after a lot of hard work, we got the set-up right and I took pole. And René was still a long way back, so they came to ask me, because at the end of the day it wasn’t the engineers who had found the set-up, it was me, so they asked if I would share the set-up with René. I said ‘No problem’ and René then set the third- or fourth-fastest time.
We were good together, for the team.
“That race still grates with me because I took pole and then in the warm-up, I broke a turbo. And I said to [team boss Gérard] Larrousse, I want to start in the T-car. And he said ‘No, we’ll fix it’. I replied, ‘You can change the turbo but if you don’t know the cause, it will happen again.’ But he wouldn’t let me start in the T-car: they changed the turbo. From the start I was fighting with Gilles again – it was often that way – and I was leading by around 10 seconds with Gilles second and René already quite a long way back. Then what was always going to happen happened, and the turbo failed. And that day, René won the race.
“And at Kyalami there was a problem when I was leading. I had taken pole and René ended up winning again. It was nice, after the race, that René dedicated his victory to me. He was like that.”
The two Frenchmen were aware of the dangers of that era in terms of the way the cars were designed. “Yes, the front wheel line was alongside our knees and we could touch the front wheels from the cockpit. Imagine! Eventually they would have attached the front suspension to our legs,” he laughs, “but seriously, I told them that with the steering rack just above our legs, if we had a big shunt then both legs would be broken. René and I knew the cars were hyper-dangerous, but the passion was so strong, you know?”
Jabouille has a simple but intelligent take on the driver’s job he did and sees some parallels in contemporary F1.
“I believe that when you are passionate and you have the gift, it’s all a question of hard work with the engineers to improve the car. I quickly realised that I could take the car that they gave me to the limit quite easily, so afterwards I considered that we had to work hard to improve the car, in order to go faster.
“I never saw René, or any of my team-mates, as a threat, although he surprised me sometimes with his speed. He was very fast over one lap, but he did not focus too much on the car. I was surprised when he went to Ferrari because he didn’t seem to be their style somehow.”
Both French, both racers, both gave their all for the honour of the Régie. But two more different people you are unlikely to meet within a racing team.