“The best race in the world,” is how Rene Arnoux described his five lap battle with Gilles Villeneuve at the Dijon Prenois circuit in the 1979 French Grand Prix. It is still regarded as one of the most thrilling Formula 1 duels ever.
Today, that race, that wheel bashing bravura performance from two young men at the height of their powers is part of the legend of the sport, all the more amazing as the Frenchman and the French-Canadian were scrapping, not for the win, but for second place.
In many ways, the forgotten hero that day was Jean-Pierre Jabouille, the Frenchman who took his ‘Made in France’ Renault to victory in the French Grand Prix, running French Michelin tyres. It was an historic day for another reason too, in that it was the very first victory in Formula 1 for a turbocharged engine. Renault pioneered the turbo, first running it in 1977 when it was so unreliable it was cruelly nicknamed “The Yellow Teapot!” But that day in Dijon, Jabouille gave the French national squad its only win of the year.
However, all eyes were glued to the battle behind him. With four laps remaining, Villeneuve was second in the Ferrari, but it was clear his Michelins were completely shot and, in the second Renault, Arnoux was hunting down his friend, passing him at Villeroy corner. But on the penultimate lap, with his wheels locked up, Villeneuve managed to dive past again, the wheels of the two cars dangerously overlapping one another. Arnoux again had the advantage coming into the Parabolique, running wide and off the track.
Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari 312T4) leads Rene Arnoux (Renault RS10) at the finish after their epic battle. They finished in 2nd and 3rd position respectively. Image courtesy Motorsport Images
On the very last lap, the Renault held the inside line but the Ferrari somehow found some grip and tried to go round the outside as they bashed wheels, scrabbling to accelerate again, with Arnoux having the edge. But then it was Villeneuve who got the better line on the downhill section and again Arnoux ran wide into the dirt at the side of the track, bouncing over a kerb and once more the two cars collided as the Ferrari got completely out of shape. Amazingly, Gilles caught the spin before it happened and the two were still side by side. Into the slow left hand downhill corner, again they touch wheels and Arnoux came off best, charging towards the hairpin, seemingly assured of second place.
That’s how it should have ended, but a half-chance for most drivers was a full chance for Villeneuve and when Arnoux took a wide entry into the final hairpin, the Canadian dived for the open door to secure an unlikely second place for Ferrari. As they slowed down after the chequered flag, both men waved to each other, seemingly acknowledging that something rather special had just happened. When they got out of their cockpits, soaked in sweat from 80 laps of pure effort of driving those fearsome ground-effect cars, they hugged and a great friendship was born.
The adrenalin was pumping after the race and Gilles had a huge smile on his face.
"I tell you that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another. But we didn't crash and it's okay. I enjoyed myself amazingly!"
Former F1 Driver talking about the French Grand Prix, 1979
“I always considered him my best friend in Formula 1,” said Arnoux many years later talking to Hungarian journalist Karoly Mehes. “To me, the name Gilles Villeneuve symbolizes a real acrobat behind the wheel; someone who drives at the limit on every corner, every time… Gilles didn’t understand the meaning of the word “danger”. One time he said to me, “René, if you have a steering wheel and brakes, you can achieve everything! Dijon 1979 was the best race in the world! It was possible only between Gilles and I knew each other very well. Yes, it was quite dangerous, especially the wheel banging, but I knew we could control the situation. I wanted to finish second, but I was experiencing some fuel pick up problems and I always feared that in the big corner before the start-finish line the car would stop or hesitate. I kept pushing and trying. In the end, it wasn’t that important, coming second or third. The best was the fight between us.”
If you’re telling yourself that this sort of wheel-to-wheel action would not be allowed in modern day Formula 1 and how much better the racing was back then, it’s a less well reported fact that the madcap antics of the two daredevil friends did not meet with universal approval. The two of them were given a dressing down by Jody Scheckter, Villeneuve’s Ferrari team-mate and then president of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Safety Committee at the British Grand Prix, the next race on the calendar.
The antics of the two daredevil friends did not meet with universal approval, with Jody Scheckter giving the duo a dressing down ahead of the next GP. Image courtesy Motorsport Images
The sad sequel to this tale is well known to all racing enthusiasts, Villeneuve dying as the result of an accident in qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Arnoux started that race from the front row, but retired after a handful of laps when the turbo on his Renault failed.