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

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