F1 Blast From the Past: Villeneuve & Arnoux’s Mesmeric France Showdown

Background

Formula 1 returned to action after a five-week break for the French Grand Prix at the fast Dijon-Prenois circuit, the eighth round of the 1979 World Championship.

The Swedish Grand Prix was discontinued for 1979 Following the tragic losses of two Swedish drivers; Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson in 1978. This is what caused the extended interval between Monaco and Dijon.

1976 Champion James Hunt said goodbye to Formula 1 racing less than three years after winning his title.

During the break, 1976 World Champion James Hunt had announced his retirement from Formula 1. His place at Wolf was taken by future world champion from Finland, Keke Rosberg. At Ligier, Patrick Depailler had broken both legs in a hang-gliding accident and Belgian veteran Jacky Ickx deputised. This was Ickx’s first Grand Prix appearance since the 1978 Swedish GP driving for Enisgn.

Qualifying

Ferrari’s Jody Scheckter led the World Championship with 30 points, six points ahead of Jacques Laffite with Gilles Villeneuve, Carlos Reutemann and Patrick Depailler all tied for third with 20 points. However, it was an all-French affair in qualifying, with the turbocharged Renault’s of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux occupying the front row.

Jabouille claimed his second pole of the season, but could he get his and Renault’s first win?

The Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve lined up third ahead of the young Brazilian Nelson Piquet in the Brabham. Championship leader Scheckter was fifth, with double World Champion Niki Lauda sixth.

Race Day

Beneath a cloudy sky, 80 laps of Dijon got underway with Gilles Villeneuve making a superb getaway to take the lead into the first corner ahead of Jabouille, Scheckter and Piquet. René Arnoux made a poor start and found himself ninth at the end of the opening lap.

The Canadian began to extend his lead in the early stages, while further back Arnoux was recovering, overtaking Jacques Laffite at the end of lap two and quickly disposing of Alan Jones’ Williams to move into seventh place.

Arnoux had gotten off to a poor start but was quickly making up ground.

By Lap 11, Arnoux was fourth, passing Piquet’s Brabham at the Villeroy corner. Villeneuve continued to lead ahead of Jabouille and teammate Scheckter. Reigning World Champion Mario Andretti’s difficult season got no better when he headed for the pits with brake problems on the new Lotus 80. On Lap 15, Arnoux moved ahead of Scheckter for third place.

Another World Champion enduring a miserable season was Niki Lauda, the Austrian retiring for the seventh time in eight races after 24 laps. At the front, Jean-Pierre Jabouille was closing on race leader Villeneuve as the pair lapped the tail enders. Scheckter’s Ferrari was also coming under pressure from Nelson Piquet. The South African falling behind Piquet and Jones after 40 laps.

Changing of the guard

The battle for the lead was intensifying on Lap 45, with Villeneuve and Jabouille avoiding a wayward Bruno Giacomelli in the Alfa Romeo in the process. Two laps later, Jabouille utilised a tow from Elio de Angelis’ Shadow to take the lead from Villeneuve down the start-finish straight, much to the joy of the French crowd.

Further down the field, the attrition rate was building up, Jacky Ickx’s return to Grand Prix racing had been an unhappy one and he retired with an engine failure. While Nelson Piquet’s impressive run came to a premature and dramatic end after 52 laps with a shunt into the catch fencing, the Brazilian thankfully escaped unhurt.

Piquet’s dramatic shunt brought an end to his race.

Mario Andretti also retired when the problem on the Lotus’ brakes became terminal. Jody Scheckter addressed his lack of pace by making a pit-stop to change his tyres but this cost him a lot of time and he dropped from third to eighth, one lap down on the leaders.

The iconic scrap

In the closing stages, Jabouille had a comfortable lead, but behind him, a battle for second place was brewing as the Renault of Arnoux began to close fast on Gilles Villeneuve. On Lap 78, Arnoux seized his chance and took the inside line at Villeroy, but Villeneuve would not yield and held on round the outside, Arnoux took the position at Sabeliers.

Neither Villeneuve nor Arnoux would give an inch in this titanic scrap

Despite worn tyres, Villeneuve was not about to give up easily and at the start of Lap 79, he dived down the inside at Villeroy with all-four wheels locked and re-took second place. Arnoux closed back up on the Ferrari and lined up another move on Villeneuve as the pair started the final lap.

The Frenchman had the inside line into Villeroy, but Villeneuve continued alongside the Renault on the outside, the pair banged wheels at Sabeliers and Arnoux ran off-track as he moved ahead. Still, Villeneuve would not give way, the pair making contact again before Villeneuve re-claimed second place going into Paraboliuqe.

Almost 15 seconds ahead, Jean-Pierre Jabouille crossed the line to take his first career victory but behind him the battle for second was still not over. Arnoux tried hard to power past Villeneuve and complete a Renault one-two but the Canadian just had enough momentum to hold the Frenchman at bay. Behind them came Alan Jones, Jean-Pierre Jarier’s Tyrrell and Clay Regazzoni in the second Williams completing the top six places.

Jean-Pierre Jabouille cemented his place in the record books by taking the first ever victory for a turbocharged car, two years after making its debut at Silverstone. The first win for Renault was the start of the French manufacturer’s success over the next four decades, which included multiple championships.

However, the 1979 French Grand Prix will forever be remembered for featuring one of the finest examples of Grand Prix racing in the sport’s history, the legendary dice between Gilles Villeneuve and René Arnoux.

Grid Talk Podcast

Want more content to preview your French Grand Prix weekend? Never fear! The Grid Talk crew have you covered with their latest podcast. George Howson hosted Owain Medford, Steve Jackson and Tom Downey in their French GP Prixview. Both audio and video versions of the show are linked below:

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