France 1979 - Villeneuve's finest hour? 02 Jul 2003
The French Grand Prix of 1979 was a landmark occasion for it was here that a car with a turbocharged engine won a Formula One race for the first time. The race also saw one of the most legendary battles in the history of the sport. Although the day was memorable for the first turbo win, few remember that it was at this race that the feat occurred, and fewer still that Jean-Pierre Jabouille was the man to take what was also Renault's maiden victory. So intense was the battle for second place between Gilles Villeneuve in the Ferrari and Rene Arnoux in the sister Renault, that it overshadowed pretty much everything else. This was racing at its finest.
With a five-week break between the Monaco and French Grands Prix, most Formula One teams had been testing intensively. When they arrived at Dijon, the Renaults were blisteringly fast and duly took the front row of the grid in qualifying. They were followed by Villeneuve in the Ferrari, Nelson Piquet's Brabham, championship leader Jody Scheckter and Niki Lauda.
At the start Villeneuve took the lead ahead of Jabouille and Scheckter with Arnoux falling way back to ninth. The opening laps saw a superb drive from Arnoux as lap after lap he picked off the cars ahead to take third place on lap 15. Truly, this turbo-charged Renault was a force to be reckoned with.
This fact wasn't lost on Villeneuve who, with a now ill-handling Ferrari, slipped behind Jabouille on lap 47. The Renault leapt off into the distance and didn't look back. Villeneuve meanwhile, was being pulled in at a rate of knots by Arnoux. On lap 78 battle commenced.
Arnoux blasted past the French-Canadian on that lap but then his engine started to misfire. Maybe the turbo wasn't as perfect as everybody thought? Villenueve, despite his Ferrari now handling atrociously, jumped back ahead on lap 79. The last lap would go down in legend as corner after corner the pair raced flat out, two-abreast for the majority of the lap. Tyres touching, both cars bumping around over the rumble strips, millimetres away from causing an accident, both drivers wanted second place. However, neither wanted to give up and as the sparks flew, the fans held their breath in awe, anticipation, fear and excitement. If either driver made a mistake, the ending was unlikely to be a happy one.
But on the exit of the final corner Arnoux ran just a shade wide and Villeneuve swept through to clinch second place. Jabouille had crossed the line 15 seconds earlier and had heralded the dawn of the turbo-charged era, but nobody really remembers that. The only image people carried from the 1979 French Grand Prix was of two drivers putting everything on the line out of grit, determination and pride. Some thought it was out of stupidity though, and both drivers were reprimanded.
Villeneuve would recall the race with affection: "That is my best memory of Grand Prix racing. Those few laps were just so fantastic to me - out-braking each other and trying to race for the line, touching each other but without wanting to put the other car out. It was just these two guys battling for second place without trying to be dirty but having to touch because of wanting to be first. I loved that moment."
And so did the fans...