Remembering Gilles Villeneuve - 25 years on 07 May 2007
This Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Gilles Villeneuve, a driver widely regarded as one of the greatest talents Formula One racing has ever produced. Between 1978 and 1981 Villeneuve took six victories for Ferrari. He passed away on May 8, 1982 after crashing in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. By way of a tribute, we take a look back at what many remember as the French-Canadians finest hour - his epic battle with Rene Arnoux at Dijon
The 1979 French Grand Prix was a landmark race for several reasons. Jean Pierre Jabouille gave Renault their maiden Formula One win and it was the first victory for a turbocharged car. Few people, however, remember these facts. So intense was the fight for second place between Villeneuve and Arnoux in the sister Renault, that it overshadowed pretty much everything else. It was racing at its finest.
With a five-week break between the French Grand Prix and the preceding Monaco round, 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, Nelson Piquet's Brabham, championship leader Jody Scheckter in the second Ferrari and Piquets team mate Niki Lauda.
At the start of the race Villeneuve got the jump on the Renaults and took the lead ahead of Jabouille and Scheckter, as Arnoux fell all the way back to ninth. The opening laps saw a superb recovery drive from Arnoux as lap after lap he picked off the cars ahead to take third place on lap 15. Despite his poor start, the Frenchman and his turbocharged Renault looked 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 yellow Renault disappeared 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 of 80, 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? Villeneuve, despite his Ferrari now handling atrociously, slipped 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 and neither would give up. 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.
Then, on the exit of the final corner Arnoux ran just a fraction wide - it was enough for Villeneuve to sweep through to clinch second place. Jabouille had crossed the line 15 seconds earlier, heralding the dawn of the turbocharged era, but few fans had noticed. 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...