• My Favourite Race - Rene Arnoux

'The duel with Gilles Villeneuve is something I will never forget'

Adam Hay-Nicholls January 6, 2010
Rene Arnoux's favourite race the 1979 French Grand Prix © Sutton Images
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Where: The French Grand Prix - Circuit Dijon-Prenois When: July 1, 1979

Rene Arnoux's house, located west of Paris, looks like it must be overrun with children. But only one big kid lives here. It's full of toys and stuffed animals, and even a brace of 80s pinball machines. Ferrari collectables litter the living room, and there are a number of large trophies strewn about the place - not on display, just sort of dumped on the floor and on shelves like they're waiting to be put in a cabinet. It looks like the home of a 14 year-old go-kart star. But the owner of this house - and these trophies - was one half of the greatest wheel-to-wheel race of all time.

His third place trophy from the 1979 French Grand Prix can be found in his office, alongside several of his elderly, plain white helmets. And there's a model of Gilles Villeneuve's Ferrari 312T4.

Arnoux and Villeneuve raced hard and fair, and Dijon 1979 was the finest example of that. It was the duel of the decade. Both men hailed it as their greatest race and, more than any win, it's Rene Arnoux's favourite race.

"Jean-Pierre Jabouille is still not very happy because people forget he won the race," Arnoux recalls, as he thumbs photographs from that day. "All the attention was on Gilles and me. The duel with Gilles is something I will never forget. You can only race like that with someone you trust completely. It was the greatest race ever, and could only have happened between the two of us"

With the chance of a Renault one-two in front of his home crowd, Arnoux was ready to bump and grind his way past Villeneuve's Ferrari. But Villeneuve was just as determined. On lap 76, Arnoux was poised to strike and steal second-place from the Canadian. Villeneuve locked his tyres as he braked for the Vileroy right-hander, and Arnoux slipped through on the inside. The French crowd went completely bonkers.

"Gilles had a problem with his brakes, and I had a fuel pressure problem. We were both pushing so hard."

The Ferrari's tyres may have been spent, but nobody bothered to tell Villeneuve. Two laps later he hit the brakes hard, white smoke streaming off the front tyres, but managed to get the line and take the position on the penultimate lap.

Now it was the Renault that seemed to be struggling, Arnoux pushing beyond the limit. "My engine was struggling, but I wanted second place and I was pushing hard. I tried everything I could to keep it."

No one even noticed, a lap later, that Arnoux's team mate Jabouille had won. All eyes were on the battle for second, half a lap behind. The two cars were side-by-side. Villeneuve locked his wheels, allowing Arnoux to pass, but he fought back scuffing paint and banging wheels. It was enough to throw the Arnoux's Renault off the circuit, but he was straight back on again, scattering the tarmac with dirt and stones.

"Gilles hit me very hard, and I went completely on the outside of the track. I came back and through the next corner it was exactly the same: bing, boom, bang! My chassis got quite badly damaged and I knew the guys at Viry-Chatillon [the factory] would be busy the following week."

Less than a third of the final lap to go, the two cars flew nose-to-tail at 150mph through the La Combe Courbe de Pouas section. But Arnoux was unable to make a final lunge. Second belonged to Villeneuve.

"He beat me, yes, and in France…", says Arnoux, thinking of what might have been, "but it didn't worry me. I knew I'd been beaten by the best driver in the world.

"Maybe against another driver, I would have finished second."