An entertaining chat with René Arnoux, one half of one of the greatest duels F1 has ever seen
With scorching pace over one lap, René Arnoux blazed a trail through Formula 1 at Renault and Ferrari. His duel with Gilles Villeneuve at Dijon in 1979 is the stuff of legend, as are his later years at Ligier – for rather different reasons. Happily for us
That impish smile, the twinkle in his eyes: little René Arnoux was always a character – and as French as the Eiffel Tower. He fills his retro Renault overalls snugly these days, but hey, he’s 69 and he’s lived well since his days as the enfant terrible of la Régie during their first superpowered Formula 1 bloom. He looks great, and, as we discover over the course of a glorious hour, he’s fantastic company, too.
For those who remember only the notorious tail-end blocker in the blue Ligier at the end of the 1980s, it’s vital to wind back further to when turbos first ruled the earth. Over one lap, Arnoux was perhaps the fastest and most spectacular of a golden French generation that included Jean-pierre Jabouille, Didier Pironi, Jacques Laffite, Patrick Depailler, Patrick Tambay and his arch-nemesis Alain Prost. There were only seven wins from his 149 grand prix starts (four for Renault, three for Ferrari) but his qualifying record is more telling. His 18 pole positions are a match for Mario Andretti’s, eclipse Jackie Stewart’s tally, and are the most set by any F1 driver without a championship to his name. That unfortunate status might have been wiped, too, had Renault wound back their lust for power, but grenading turbos cost both driver and constructor too many victories in those cavalier wildwest races of the early ’80s.
Today, he is in deepest Oxfordshire paying what is his first visit to Renault’s Enstone F1 factory. This morning he’s driven the company’s turbo trail-blazing first, the RS01, into a workshop to a rapturous welcome from the staff, many of whom (but by no means all) are too young to have witnessed his pomp. On the near horizon is the Goodwood Festival of Speed and further celebrations of Renault’s 40th anniversary in F1. But for now, and for the first time, he’s all ours. In the team’s local pub, after a burger that’s barely touched the pan, he reflects on a colourful career that is best remembered for a race in which he finished third.
F1 Racing: What made you fall in love with this sport? René Arnoux: I burn with passion for motor racing. I have two passions: motor racing and technology. We are in the middle of a high-technology era in F1 and it’s really interesting.
F1R: Did it start when you were young? RA: Now it is normal, but I started in a kart at eight years old. Karting is the best way to begin because you are close to the road and in the middle. When I started in 1973 in Formula Renault I won in my first year. Afterwards I went to Super Renault because Formula 3 was dead. I won the European championship in ’75, then did Formula 2 for two years.
F2 was really exciting and the competition was a big war between Hans Stuck, Keke Rosberg, Jacques Laffite, Didier Pironi, Patrick Tambay and Eddie Cheever. The racing was spectacular and a lot of F1 team managers wanted to see the races. I tried to win the European championship in ’76; I was close. There was a big war between Jean-pierre Jabouille and me, and I lost the title at Hockenheim by one point. Jabouille had Michel Leclère, but [René’s Ecurie Elf team-mate] Patrick Tambay didn’t help me with a tow. I was between Jabouille and Leclère and I led the race, but I knew at the end I’d lose.
F1R: You made up for it in ’77. And you stepped up to F1 with the same constructor with whom you’d conquered F2. RA: Yes, I went to F1 with Martini for ’78, which was bad. A big disaster. We didn’t test the car, we didn’t have any experience, we broke a lot of engines. Then I had a call from John Surtees. He said: “René, you must drive for me in Canada and at Watkins Glen.” I had nothing at this time, so I said okay. It was a good experience for me. The Martini was impossible, but I understood that only after I had driven the Surtees.
F1R: And then your big break followed with Renault. RA: After those two races I wait, I wait, I wait – because Renault were not sure about running two cars in 1979. John said: “I would be happy if you stay with me for the next season.” After some time he asked me what I’d decided. I said I’d had no answer from Renault. I had a 50 per cent chance to drive for a big team, so I waited. John understood because he’d been a driver before he was a constructor. Christmas passed, then it was January – no answer. Eventually John said: “I give you one week and then you must say yes or no.” It was a bad moment! I waited for two or three weeks, in my house in the middle of the country near Nevers. I received a call late at night and it was Gérard Larrousse [Renault team manager and former driver]. He said: “René, are you sitting very well? You are in the team.” This was really fantastic.
At Renault we started with a new turbo engine. The team was small but strong and I spent four fantastic years there. To develop the car and the tyres with Michelin, was very nice.
F1R: You had a fantastic record in qualifying. Can you describe what it was like in those days, with full boost, heading out for a qualifying run? RA: It was really exciting. Also, you had qualifying tyres and an engine with more horsepower. You could take 1.5s off your lap time. In those four years, each season you’d get 50-60bhp more from the turbocharger. It was incredible. When I stopped with Renault at the end of 1982 we had maybe 850bhp, and everyone was going in this direction with this type of engine. At the start everybody said the engine is shit, it doesn’t work. Later, everyone was quiet. The development was fantastic.
Only one thing, and it’s easy to say now: we worked too much on the power and not enough on the reliability of the engine – and we lost a lot of grands prix.
F1R: Yes, you could have been champion in 1980. RA: With just 20bhp less we’d have found the reliability and won just the same. But it was exciting. And I like to make a pole position. For one lap only, you ask everything of your car and everything of yourself. But after, you must prepare to race. Now it’s time to move on to the big one: his famous wheelbanging duel with Gilles Villeneuve at the 1979 French GP…
F1R: We have to ask you about Dijon. RA: Dijon, I’ve said before, was only possible between Gilles and me because he was my best friend in F1 and I was his. I had a lot of respect for him, and he had a lot for me. It was dangerous at that speed and Dijon was narrow, it was not easy. He had a big problem with the tyres and I had a problem with the fuel pressure. And I knew I had this difficulty, but I tried to finish second and not third. Dijon has a big bend at the top of the circuit and my engine would stop for two seconds, then
come back again! At the flag the difference was too big to pass, even with the turbocharger. I try, I try, I try, but…
A lot of people still speak to me about Dijon, even though it was 38 years ago. Someone stopped me in Paris recently and said it was the best duel in F1. “Do you want to see it on my phone?” he asked. I replied: “No, I know it very well!” I wanted to know how old he was. He said 22!
F1R: What a great memory that must be for you! RA: Dijon was a very good day for everybody because it was the first race Renault had won in F1 after Le Mans in 1978. I was very happy for Renault for their first victory, and Gilles and me were on top of the podium also. Everyone remembers that duel. Somebody asked me recently: “Who won that race, you or Villeneuve?” It was neither – it was Jabouille.
Time to move on to the Prost years. Within his reflections, he makes mention of perhaps his most famous win – and surely France’s greatest moment in F1 history. In 1982, Arnoux led a French one-two-three-four at Paul Ricard, beating Prost and the Ferraris of Pironi and Tambay. There was controversy, however. Arnoux had been expected to give up the win for his team-mate, but had stubbornly ignored the order. He remains unrepentant: quelle surprise.
F1R: Would it be fair to say that life at Renault became more difficult for you when Alain Prost joined the team for 1981? Did that change anything? RA: Maybe for Prost – not for me. First, we had the same contract: there was no number one and number two. Second, at this time we had a lot of development of the car. During the winter we’d be going to Brazil, Argentina, Paul Ricard – sometimes for ten days. For one driver it would be a lot to do: tyres, suspension, engine, turbo, aerodynamics. And to move forwards you must have two very good drivers, so I was happy about that. But when you are at the same level there are things you have to accept. When I was driving in F1, there were 26 cars on the grid – and I had 25 enemies. Not 24… 25 of them.
F1R: How was your relationship with Alain? RA: I tell you, it wasn’t any better with Jabouille. Maybe it was possible for me to have a better relationship with Prost. I won at Paul Ricard in 1982 and he was not happy. Everyone else at Renault was happy. The manager of Renault – not Renault Sport, the whole company – Gérard Larrousse, Bernard Dudot [legendary engine boss], they were all happy. After the race, the big man at Renault said: “René, we have a private plane here and you go directly with me to Paris.” The same day, Bernard Hinault won the Tour de France with a Renault-elfgitane bicycle and we make a disaster on the Champs-elysées: a big party, which finished the next morning!
People said: “Why did you not give your place to Prost?” Why? Because I had the same contract, I was not the second driver, I had the same possibility to win the race. Crazy. And at this time we are in the middle of the world championship, not at the end. That is very important. F1R: So why did you leave Renault at the end of 1982? RA: It was a difficult decision because I had a contract with Renault if I wanted it. I had a fantastic time with everybody there – everybody. But at the end of June I went to Maranello because I was told: “Mr Ferrari wants to speak with you.” And it was a really nice lunch, just Enzo and me. No lawyer or manager, I go by myself – and he was very happy about that. We discussed everything and I decided to go to Ferrari. You know, everyone wants to drive for Ferrari, and it was my dream. But it was not easy – I cried when I left Renault. And I won at Monza ’82, which was incredible. Only one thing: after 20 laps I have the fire in my ass – there was fuel in my seat! We were on the limit with the fuel and I thought I might not finish. But I did, and I stopped the car on the track. I was on the podium, with Tambay and Andretti [both Ferrari], and I came back to Paris with Larrousse and he showed me a newspaper. There was a big photo. The newspaper wrote: ‘Three Ferrari drivers on the podium!’ Ha, ha!
F1R: Your first year with Ferrari in 1983 was good…
RA: Yes, the car was very strong and I had an opportunity to win the championship. At the last race in South Africa, Nelson Piquet, Prost and me, we had a chance [although by this time René was an outside bet], but I knew at Kyalami that my car would not be competitive. I lost two races that season. I was leading in Detroit and I had a stupid problem – an electrical failure – and I lost the race in Austria also [he doesn’t mention that Prost passed him to take the win!] – and so I lost the championship.
F1R: And then 1984 was a tough year… RA: The car was very difficult to drive. I was with Tambay in 1983 and the next year I was with Michele Alboreto, who was a very nice person, one of the best I’ve known in my life. But the car was not competitive; it was very difficult to adjust the chassis and find a good balance.
Now onto another sensitive subject. Arnoux split with Ferrari early in 1985, after finishing fourth at the Brazilian Grand Prix. The reason for his departure has never been confirmed, although rumours about his conduct and lifestyle at the time have always been rife. How will he respond? Let’s find out…
F1R: It all ended abruptly, early in 1985, after Brazil. Why? RA: Nobody knows that – ha, ha, ha! I’ll tell you only one thing. After Brazil I had a problem with somebody, I go to see Enzo and… I wasn’t really disappointed because the car was not in a good position. But I don’t understand why. Michele, everything was good for him [Alboreto would challenge Prost’s Mclaren for the championship], but for me it wasn’t good. I wanted someone to explain. It was very difficult under braking, to turn, I had too much power that I couldn’t use, I wasn’t confident in the chassis. I am a man of principle.
F1R: You’ve never gone into details – and you never will? RA: No! A lot of people in Italy have asked me, ha ha! But Ferrari was a good experience, especially in 1983. And I had so many very nice lunches with Mr Ferrari… When he started out, he sold cars for the road to pay for cars on the circuit. He had no sponsors and that was how it was for a long time. I had
a lot of respect for this. He was a nice person. Everybody said the opposite because of the black glasses and so on – but that was bullshit. And it was a nice life.
F1R: You chose to wait and come back fresh in 1986 with Ligier. Had you needed a break? RA: Yep. I think sometimes it is necessary. Not a long break like Michael Schumacher, though. For me, Michael’s break [from when he left Ferrari in 2006 to his return with Mercedes in 2010] was too long. You know, when you stop you have nothing in your head and you are very clean – everybody said after Ferrari it was a disaster for me, but I was very happy. And I arrived in ’86 with Ligier and a good car with a Renault turbocharged engine. Renault were very strong at this time. Poh! In qualifying it was amazing. We had 1,500bhp. In the race we had 1,200bhp, then we had the button to give 100bhp more to pass another car. Ha ha! It was incredible.
Only one thing: we had Pirelli tyres. In those days we had 16 grands prix. For five of the races the Pirellis were good, and for the rest they were a disaster. Then for 1987 Ligier signed a contract with Alfa Romeo. It was a big, big disaster! It was impossible to make two laps.
F1R: You were quite vocal about that at the time. RA: Yes, I spoke in my interviews about the reality and exactly what would happen if we continued. So instead we had a BMW Megatron engine. Very difficult to drive. Then we decided to have a normally aspirated engine [from 1988], first with Judd, then Ford Cosworth. I had one very good race in Canada [he finished fifth in ’89], then I said to Ligier: “At the end of this year, I will hang up my helmet and my overalls. I stop the F1.”
Once more it’s time to raise a tricky subject with this colourful man. They don’t make F1 drivers like this any more. Some would say that’s just as well, but we don’t agree!
F1R: You did have a reputation at the end of your career for not being easy to pass when you were being lapped. What do you have to say to your critics? RA: It’s a good quality! [Cue much laughter all round] I know a lot of drivers like that.
F1R: But did you ignore blue flags? RA: No. This reputation arrived when I was driving a car that was not competitive – it didn’t exist with Renault and Ferrari. Sometimes I was really disappointed if I made a mistake when I was driving for Ligier. My car was uncompetitive and I didn’t always see the guy suddenly arriving from the back. It’s true I’m not happy with these mistakes. I gained nothing. But when the big bend arrives, you must turn also…
F1R: Did the criticism from the likes of James Hunt on the BBC commentary bother you at all? RA: No. To criticise is very easy. The only thing is, I’m really sorry if I made a mistake and a driver tried to pass me and I didn’t see him. I am sorry about that, sure.
This story shouldn’t finish on such a sour note. Let’s move on.
F1R: You had a great career in a great era of F1. Which of the drivers you raced against did you respect the most? RA: Ayrton Senna was sitting near me on a flight to Australia one year. I liked the man. Intelligent person – and very quick. For me, Ayrton made some pole positions purely because he was a very strong driver, even in a car that didn’t have that possibility. People said he was crazy, like me, but he wasn’t crazy. He made some mistakes, but not a lot.
F1R: What are you most proud of? RA: I gave everything to the teams I drove for. And I had a high respect for all the mechanics, not only the team at the track but at the factory, too. I said this morning at the Renault factory: I exist because people like you exist. I have a factory now and build pieces for watch companies, and I have nearly 300 people. I spend a lot of time there. The value of the factory is not the machines; it’s the men and women who work them.
F1R: What’s your relationship with Alain like now? RA: [This prompts a massive Gallic shrug] Hello, bye-bye. That’s it. We have a lot of people in the world, I don’t have any time to lose… I don’t want to criticise Alain. For me, Alain had a very strong career, big results… that’s all.
To celebrate Renault’s 40th anniversary, Arnoux pays his first ever visit to the team’s Enstone factory where he is reunited with his old turbo RS01
Arnoux returned to F1 in 1986 with Ligier (above). He enjoyed the car’s phenomenally powerful Renault engine, but it was in his later years here that he picked up a reputation for blocking faster cars