For all the reasons making the 1979 French Grand Prix one of the most memorable ever, none sticks in the mind like the battle for second place. Shaun Campbell reports
Motor racing history was made at Dijon on 1 July 1979, and it was written in Gallic-blue ink. Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s victory in the French Grand Prix was the first for an all-French driver/car/engine combination since Louis Chiron’s Lago-Talbot rumbled its way to the chequered flag at Reims in the Grand Prix de France 30 years earlier. It was Renault’s first Grand Prix win since 1906, the first for a forced induction engine for 28 yea’s, the first ever for a turbocharged power plant, and the first for a major manufacturer of road cars since Mercedes-Benz won with the W196 in 1955.
And yet it is for none of these firsts significant though they were that the race is remembered. The abiding memory of the 1979 French Grand Prix is the driving of the man who finished second, Giles Villeneuve.
There are those who maintain that Villeneuve would never have won the World Championship, even if his career had not been so tragically cut short. They said that he drove too much with his heart and not enough with his head, that the intellectual rigour and discipline of, say Niki Lauda or Alain Prost, was what was required to win world titles. There may be truth in that argument, though there is also evidence to the contrary, but the argument itself misses the point.
No racing driver, save perhaps Tazio Nuvolari, expressed himself more vividly from behind the wheel than Villeneuve. This was not simply a matter of talent, an ability to control a car on the ragged edge that no other rival could match. It was something deeper, something felt in the gut, a visceral satisfaction in the art of driving that words like ‘enthusiasm’ cannot explain. People would have turned up in their tens of thousands to watch him drive a bog standard saloon car on an empty track. And Villeneuve would have turned up and put on the same show even if there was nobody there to see him. He was an entertainer, but he didn’t do it for the crowd. And above all these things, he was a racer, a man in whom the competitive spirit burned white-hot.
Villeneuve shouldn’t have finished second at Dijon that day. Third was the best he could have hoped for. There had been five weeks between the previous round and the French Grand Prix and Renault had used that time wisely. A switch from Garrett to KKK turbochargers had improved throttle response and a massive testing programme had finally built some reliability into the yellow cars. Jabouille and Rene Amoux qualified first and second, revelling in the fast curves of the Dijon circuit. Cool and overcast weather on race day perfect for the new-fangled turbos strengthened their position further.
Villeneuve was third on the grid in the Ferrari 312T4. Reliability had been the team’s strong point that season and in the eyes of the seasoned observers, it was the only weapon likely to make a dent in Renault’s armour. Villeneuve, though, had no intention of cruising around in third place hoping the French cars would break down. He was determined to make a race of it.
And, being Villeneuve, he did. When the green light flicked on the Ferrari’s tyres lit up and the red car catapulted between the Renaults to snatch the lead. Within a few laps it became apparent that it was not going to last. Jabouille was holding station a few seconds behind, clearly without effort, while Amoux had recovered from a poor start to take third place with ominous ease.
Well before half distance in this 80 lap race, the Ferrari’s Michelins had already given their best and Jabouille was on Villenueuve’s tail, ready and waiting to use the Renault’s superior straight-line speed to blast into the lead, but it wasn’t until the 47th lap that the Frenchman finally found a way past, leaving Villeneuve scrabbling for grip and looking in his mirrors for the advance of Amoux.
Amoux caught Villeneuve with 10 laps remaining and, like his teamleader, found the Ferrari an almost impossibly wide car. But as they came round to complete their 77th lap, the Frenchman hit the long righthander before the pit straight just right, tucked into Villeneuve’s slipstream and simply whooshed past. The 120,000 or so partisan spectators applauded in relief for a Renault one-two and in recognition of Villeneuve’s sterling effort, and sat back. The wellheeled started opening their champagne. It had been good and close, but now it was all over…
Villeneuve didn’t think so. He had expected Amoux to shoot off into the distance as Jabouille had done. But the second Renault had a minor fuel pick-up problem and although Villeneuve couldn’t close, he wasn’t falling back. As the two cars screamed down the pit straight to start their penultimate lap, the Canadian made his move.
He wasn’t really close enough, and his tyres were shot to pieces. Amoux wasn’t expecting it, neither were the spectators. But as they entered the long right-hander at the end of the straight, Villneuve dived for the inside and left his braking late, impossibly late. Smoke billowed up from all four tyres but the Ferrari had the inside line and Villeneuve’s ability to control the uncontrollable did the rest. Those last two laps passed in a blur of red and yellow swapping positions, banging wheels and taking lines through corners that would not be recognised in any racing drivers’ manual. On at least one occasion Villeneuve was on the grass on one side of the track, and Amoux on the grass on the other. They asked for no quarter and they gave none. Approaching the hairpin midway round the final lap the Renault was in the lead. Villeneuve darted to the outside, Amoux moved to cover and the Ferrari was down the inside while the Renault driver was still looking in his mirrors. Almost unnoticed Jabouille took the chequered flag. Fifteen seconds later Villeneuve flashed by, a couple of tenths ahead of Amoux.
Amoux’s part in the incredible final lap should not be under-estimated, nor the generous manner in ‘which he saluted Villeneuve on the cooling down lap. It’s hard to imagine something similar happening now, just as it’s hard to imagine a battle that close not finishing with at least one of the protagonists in the gravel trap. Hardest of all is imagining any of today’s drivers prepared to fight so hard for the difference between six and four points. But Villeneuve didn’t find it hard at all. He was a racing driver, and that’s what racing drivers did.