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“Jean-Pierre was really pissed off!” laughs the affable René Arnoux, looking back on the historic 1979 French Grand Prix. “But I wasn’t thinking about his victory, I was just trying to get second.”
And Arnoux had a lot on his mind, going side by side with Gilles Villeneuve, turbocharged Renault vs normally aspirated Ferrari 312T4, wheel banging into the final throes of the race.
It had taken 75 of 80 laps, but Formula One was being treated to a battle for the ages.
It was a genuinely groundbreaking day, because the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s victory was the first for a turbocharged car in F1.
For Renault it was an especially patriotic afternoon: its RS10 was driven by a Frenchman, shod with French tyres and had French oil running through its veins. And, having endured a trying few years standing by its blown beliefs, here it was taking the flag at home, aka Dijon-Prenois.
But despite all the patriotic delight that greeted Jabouille’s win, it was fellow Frenchman Arnoux and his French-Canadian pal Villeneuve who stole the headlines.
“L’Equipe had a photo of the podium, his triumph, on the front page and on the back was our fight,” recalls Arnoux. “They always said that was when people started reading from the back!
“Gilles was my best friend; he wasn’t a driver, he was an acrobat. We had that battle because we knew each other – we would eat together at Ferrari one day and the next at Renault. We trusted each other, I knew he wasn’t going to do something [stupid]. But we had 26 cars on the grid and I had 25 enemies; we are formatted to win, you’ve climbed that pyramid to F1 and you’re not going to give in.”
Those final few laps are still racking up views on YouTube while current Grands Prix struggle to muster as much excitement in a full season.
“We didn’t think at the time people would still be talking about it,” admits Arnoux. “It’s a bit sad really, because they ask why we don’t have that racing any more.”
But it certainly helped, and gave a boost to the reputation of – and reception towards – the car that was busily being worked on in partnership with Bertone.
Its public release came a few years – and one Rallye Monte-Carlo victory – later, and that man Arnoux even owned one.
The perfect vehicle in which, presumably, to recall his most famous of days – even though he was ultimately beaten to second by Villeneuve…
Images: Luc Lacey, Motorsport Images
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