Sunday, 4 September 2011

1979 French Grand Prix - Circuit de Dijon-Prenois

July 1, 1979

Renault's first Formula One race in the modern era was at Silverstone for the 1977 British Grand Prix. They entered a single car for Jean-Pierre Jabouille. What made this particular entry so notable, was the fact that the Renault RS01 carried a Renault-Gordini V6 turbocharged engine which was the first such engine to be used with any regularity in Formula One history.

1977 Jabouille - The fast, but fragile RS01
The car proved extremely fragile. So much so that the British teams cheekily dubbed it the Yellow Teapot because of its tendency to retire from Grands Prix billowing smoke from the engine. It suffered mechanical failures in all five of the races it entered that season. While reliability was clearly an issue the car was able to demonstrate an impressive speed capability and Renault stayed committed to developing the technology. Solving the turbo puzzle proved difficult and it wasn’t until 1979 when they introduced their new RS10 ground effects car (which now had a Renault-Gordini V6 with a twin turbo configuration) that the team began to show progress. That season Renault had expanded the team to two drivers with René Arnoux joining Jabouille.

The team was a national undertaking. Not only was Renault France’s largest automobile manufacturer, the team also partnered with Elf Fuel and Michelin tyres. So when the Grand Prix circus arrived at the Dijon-Prenois circuit it was clear that this was not just another race on the calendar for Renault.

Dijon, abounding in fast corners and with a steep uphill haul towards the end of the lap, is a circuit where horsepower counts for more than anything else. With the twin-turbo Jabouille was fastest from the very beginning of practice and he took a comfortable pole. Less readily anticipated, though, was the presence of René Arnoux's sister Renault on the front row. In the matter of sheer pace, the yellow cars stood alone.

Only Gilles Villeneuve (Ferrari) came closest to disrupting the Renaults dominance during qualifying. Behind the French-Canadian was Nelson Piquet (Braham-Alfa Romeo), Jody Scheckter (Ferrari), and Niki Lauda (Brabham-Alfa Romeo).

The crowd on race day was predictably of epic proportions, variously estimated at between 100,000 and 120,000. They were there in droves to lend their support to the yellow of Renault. Even the Gods seemed to be doing their bit for the home side. After the blistering, if clouded, heat during practice and qualifying, race day was overcast and cool - in other words, perfect turbo weather. All the omens seemed to be pointing in one direction.
Gilles Villeneuve

With all of this stacked against him, Villeneuve, knew the start would be critical. “For me, it is very important to get a good start,” he said on Sunday morning. “Somehow I must at least split the Renaults on the first lap.” He did better than that. When the green light blinked. the Ferrari lit up its tyres and catapulted away. Arnoux, on the front row, very nearly stalled his car, and that was all the gap Gilles needed. Jabouille had got away reasonably well, but it was not enough to hold the Ferrari. Villeneuve led the pack into the first corner, intent on forcing the issue from the outset. All the way round that lap, the Ferrari was on the ragged edge, but the policy was working out. Gilles was leaving them behind.

As the T4 completed lap one in the lead, it was followed by Jabouille, Scheckter, Piquet, Jean-Pierre Jarier (Tyrrell-Ford), who had made a sensational start from row five, Lauda, Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Ford), Alan Jones (Williams-Ford) and - back in ninth spot - Arnoux. After two laps, Villeneuve's lead was over two seconds and growing, but Arnoux was already giving notice of the Renault's potential, dispensing with Jones and Laffite in a single lap. After another, he was past Lauda. 

Rene Arnoux
At five laps, Villeneuve was more than four seconds to the good, with Jabouille steadily dropping Scheckter. Piquet ran fourth, with Jarier fifth, but the Tyrrell was swiftly passed by Arnoux, who needed only another five laps to displace the Brabham.

At the front, Villeneuve's progress was remarkable, but one wondered if he might regret the early charge when tyre wear became critical in the second half of the race. “I am not interested in three or four points,” he had said on Sunday morning. "This is one I want to win, nothing less.”

Although maintaining his five-second lead, it was clear that Villeneuve's Ferrari was making its driver work. The Renault, by contrast, looked as smooth as silk. If Jabouille was content to let Villeneuve lead, Arnoux clearly had very definite ideas about coming to grips with Scheckter, and the South African surrendered without a fight on lap 14. Ferrari, Renault, Renault, Ferrari. Quite suddenly it became obvious that Villeneuve's strategy, while the only one open to him, was not going to work out after all, for Jabouille was closing relentlessly, sometimes by as much as half a second a lap. The two of them were now well clear of the rest, who were led comfortably by Arnoux.

1979 French GP - Jabouille relentlessly pursues Villeneuve.
Jabouille was right up with Villeneuve after 30 laps, and the spectators really began to believe that perhaps a French victory might be at hand. Villeneuve was not about to wave Jabouille by, however, and a combination of lucky breaks with lapped traffic, handled with good deal of verve, pulled the Ferrari's lead out to four seconds again.

“For the second half of the race, my car was all over the place,” said Villeneuve later, this being the price of his early charge. On right-handers, he added, it was oversteering, and on left turns, the very opposite. So when Jabouille moved in once more, Gilles had no worthwhile cards left to play.

On lap 46, Jean-Pierre made his move, diving past the Ferrari at the end of the pit straight. “I remember being told early in my career that it was essential, after overtaking, to go as quick as possible for three or four laps afterwards,” he said afterwards. “It demoralizes the guy behind. That was good advice. and I really went hard for a while.” 

1979 French GP - Once past the Ferrari, Jabouille builds a gap.
In five laps the Renault went three seconds clear. Now the driver had only to keep going, keep praying that this time it would all come right.

Stalemate appeared to sum up the dying laps. Jabouille was a quarter of a minute to the good, with Villeneuve similarly ahead of Arnoux. Jones ran a solid, now lonely fourth, and Jarier appeared to have the measure of Clay Regazzoni (Williams-Ford).

And now it was that the race came alive. The question of victory was never in doubt, of course, for Jabouille had all well in hand. But even he was not without problems. “In the last 30 laps, my brake pedal went 'hard', and required a tremendous effort to push it. For the last few laps, I was in a lot of pain with my right leg, and I don't believe I could have continued for much longer.” Jean-Pierre's problems, however, were as nothing compared with those confronting Villeneuve, whose tyres were now quickly approaching the end of their life's work. The Ferrari's pace had slowed appreciably; and at the same time, René Arnoux, fighter that he was gave the Renault everything he had, closing in on Villeneuve at a simply prodigious rate, something around a second and a half a lap.

With ten laps left, Gilles's position appeared hopeless, for Arnoux was only five seconds back and, as we had seen earlier in the race, he quite obviously had no trouble in passing people.

Five laps to go, and the two cars were almost nose, to-tail, spectators now on their feet, willing Arnoux on screaming frenzied support. Villeneuve surely could not withstand the Renault for long, for surely Arnoux was now quite inspired, swept along by the moment.

On lap 71 he had gone round in 1:09.16, more than a second faster than any other driver in the race! And some measure of Villeneuve's determination was that he, too, set his fastest lap of the race at the same time, hobbled by tyre wear or no. On lap 77, Jabouille went through, then a horde of backmarkers, then ... delirium from the stands, Arnoux was in front! It was going to be a Renault one-two. At the end of the pit straight, he had calmly out-braked Villeneuve and snatched second place. And that, so it appeared, was that. Gilles had gallantly carried the battle to the Renaults and the gamble had failed. Torque - and a healthy dose of French pride - had beaten him. But Villeneuve was not like that. He had sensed that something was slightly amiss with Amoux's car. “When René passed me, I expected him to run away down the straight, just as Jabouille had done, but the gap stayed the same. I couldn't close on him, but he wasn't getting away.”

Arnoux's fuel pick-up was faltering slightly in the last few minutes. “I thought I would try to get him back as quick as possible, because he wouldn't expect it. At the end of the pit straight, I wasn't really close enough, but I dove for the inside and left my braking really, really late ...” 

1979 French GP - The epic duel between Villeneuve & Arnoux.
With smoke from all four tyres, the Ferrari scrambled inside the Renault, and the two cars rounded the tight right-hander side by side. During those remaining 7 or 8 kilometers (4 or 5 mi.), no one really knows how many times they banged wheels, slid wide, went off the track, rejoined it, touched again. It was desperate in a manner not often seen in Grand Prix racing, condemned by some as irresponsible, lauded by more as heroic.

The downhill left-hander into the loop is not a place for overtaking, nor even for lapping unless the back marker is unusually charitable. It follows a top gear right-hander, which dictates line astern formation Therefore, it was with considerable surprise to witness the Ferrari and the Renault emerge absolutely side by side on the last lap. Down through the left they plunged, Arnoux sliding out into Villeneuve, both cars getting way out of line on the exit.

René led up to the hairpin, but Gilles asked one more favour from his exhausted Michelins, braked later than late, and snatched back the place. Desperately Arnoux tried another counterattack, but Villeneuve was not giving way now. Across the line they went, the Ferrari in front. 

There was total pandemonium. As they cruised round the slowing down lap Gilles and René saluted each other, and when they stopped, they jumped from their cars, shook hands and embraced after the race of their lives. There were no recriminations from either man.

"No," grinned Arnoux, "I am not sad to be third. I enjoyed the race very much, and Gilles drove a fantastic race. Most of all, I am pleased for Jean-Pierre. C'est justice!"

"C'est justice!" - Renault and Jabouille achieve the first turbo victory.
"I tell you, that was really fun," said Villeneuve, merry as ever. "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 OK. Tired? Not really, I feel I could go another 40 laps, maybe..."

The same could not be said of his tyres.

Truly a race to remember, a first win for Renault, their turbo and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. And there lay the tragedy. He had driven magnificently, finished the race exhausted. The winner, French in a French car in France, however, it is the legendary battle for second place that this race will always be remembered for. Being a Canadian, Gilles Villeneuve was a childhood hero of mine. I admired him for his strong and true character, but I loved him for his racing. In 1979 at Dijon is why I and many Canadians to this day will never forget Gilles Villeneuve. He was one of the very best drivers to ever race in Formula One.

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