René Arnoux is known for many great drives in Formula One, but there is one in particular that stands out in the memories of all Formula One fans...Dijon 1979!
What is your first recollection of Gilles Villeneuve? When did you meet him?
I don’t remember exactly. Probably I saw him first time when I finally made it to Formula 1. I drove for Renault and he drove, of course, for Ferrari. But I know that we had a good feeling for each other immediately, I always considered him my best friend in Formula 1. In nutshell, the name Gilles symbolized to me a real acrobat behind the wheel. He drove at the limit on each corner, each bend... always.
But he also had quite a few accidents…
Yes this is true, but Gilles didn’t understand the meaning of the word “danger”. One time he said to me, “René, if you have a steering wheel and brakes, you can achieve everything!”
To the fans the real race that resonates with them is the duel in Dijon in 1979. How do you remember this race?
Dijon 1979 was the best race in the world! It was possible only between Gilles and I. I knew Gilles very well and he also knew me very well. Yes, it was quite dangerous, especially the wheel banging. In normal circumstances I also would have said it was dangerous, but I knew we could control the situation. I wanted to finish second, but I was experiencing some fuel pick up problems and I always feared that in the big corner before the start-finish line the car would stop or hesitate. I kept pushing and trying. In the end, it wasn’t that important, coming second or third. The best of it was the fight between us.
And Renault won anyway that day!
Exactly! Everybody tends to forget it. Only one man remembers it, Jean-Pierre Jabouille!
How did you feel on the podium?
After the race everybody said that with these two guys they were like boxing. On the podium Gilles and I shook hands. We had a big smiles on our faces. We were both exhausted. After the celebrations someone came over and said, come see the last five laps you did. I was on the television in the press room. I took a seat because I was more than a little tired...and then I saw the four or five final laps! At this time, so not during the race, but now as I was sitting on my chair, I was really afraid of what would happen! My eyes opened bigger and bigger and I said to myself that’s a crazy thing. I had to thank as it was in a really bad condition when I passed the finish line. I remember Mauro Forghieri was there sitting close to me watching this scene. He threw his arms towards the sky and shouted that “These two guys are completely mad!” If it was for the win I’d understand, but it was only for the second and third place!”
Did Dijon strengthen your friendship?
As said, we were always good friends. But after Dijon we always remained somehow together and for the longest time people talked only about what happened in Dijon. I would say our friendship became even stronger.
As a French-Canadian did Gilles belong the French family? There are many photos with you, Laffite, Pironi, Tambay, and Prost.
We were all friends to a certain extent. What I can tell you is Gilles often invited me to their pits. He’d say, “René...come over to us at Ferrari and enjoy some good Italian food”. And the next day it was my turn, I call him to come to Renault to have a real French lunch. It was totally normal in those days. We had fantastic time together. I can swear to you, he was completely crazy, I mean, when he was driving, but out of the car a very fine and interesting man. I’ll tell you a story: one year in Watkins Glen before the second practice, when I was eating together with Gilles, I asked him if he took the last corner flat out or does he lift a little bit. He answered that so far he hadn’t taken it flat out, but in the afternoon practice he would try. I knew, if he said he would try, he would do it - definitely. When we run during practice just three minutes from the end I saw a Ferrari in the catch fencing. It was totally destroyed! There were no wheels...nothing on it. Gilles had already walked back to the pits. I was happy at least upon seeing him that nothing had happened to him. After returning to my pits, I jumped out of my car and went directly to Ferrari and said to him, “So, is it possible to do the last corner flat out or not?” He just smiled, “Well...it’s not possible”.
I’ll tell you something else: in Imola in 1980 he had a really big crash. It was on the 2nd or 3rd lap. It was only when I come to this spot as the leader, I suddenly had a Ferrari in the middle of track with no wheels, no wings, no engine, no gearbox – but the body of the car was somehow intact and not bad at all. At this time we had no radio communication, so I was very much afraid of what had happened. I finished the race and after returning to the pits I immediately hurried to Ferrari. I saw Gilles there, and I asked, “Gilles, how are you?” and he said, “Well...fantastic!” He continued with, “I am really happy…” I tried to guess why he would he say he was he happy and he went on saying, “You know, René, I had a big crash with 280 km/h and nothing happened to me. My car saved me. It has such a strong body. That makes me happy.”
He was lucky then, but not in Zolder. How do you remember his accident?
These were the most difficult moments in my entire career. I saw the whole accident because I drove quite close after them, Gilles and Jochen. When I speak about it each time this film runs in my memory… I stopped on the grass and went to other side of the road to the body of Gilles. It was just evident he was dead. That was a terrible moment, because he wasn’t simply a colleague, but also a good friend. He was a generous, charming man. I also think this accident was completely stupid. Gilles had many more heavier accidents in the past, but this one was just unnecessary. After, for me, racing was different.
Many say he overdrove, that his style itself was dangerous. What do you think?
Well, as a colleague I would say he wasn’t a dangerous driver, at least not for us, maybe for himself. He drove like an acrobat. Maybe he would never have won the Championship because from the start of every race he asked too much from the car, always the maximum, each lap. Sometimes he found himself with no tyres, no brakes, but still he continued with the same spirit of using his car. You cannot deny he had some fantastic races. Like in Jarama in1981. I stopped quite early because of an engine problem in my Renault. I remained at the end of the long straight to watch the race. There was Gilles and right behind him guys like Laffite, Reutemann, Watson and others, all strong competitors, and still he was unbeatable. Although his Ferrari was not easy to drive he pushed and pushed and pushed.
The year after Gilles’ death you became a Ferrari driver yourself. Did you still sense Gilles’ absence in the team?
When I signed for Ferrari I didn’t know who would partner me. I had an appointment with Mr Ferrari during 1982, very early. So I didn’t know if my teammate would be Gilles or Pironi. It would have been very nice to be together with Gilles, but life turned out to be different. Still, my time with Ferrari was very good in the sense that my driving style did not change after Gilles’ death. In Formula 1 if your best friend’s death affects your driving, you would better to stop. Each time you start a race without your friend on the starting grid, it was something difficult to accept.
A few occasions you had the chance to drive Gilles’ 312T4. What kind of feeling was it?
I was very impressed and excited. These were so special moments, I felt it in my heart. Many things came to my memory, all those weekends when we drove together on different circuits, Ferrari versus Renault.
Check out this, too: http://www.amazon.com/Villeneuve-Racing-Legend-Allan-Plante-ebook