The story of 1979 before the eighth round of the Formula 1 season was that of Ferrari success. After a relatively slow start the Scuderia had flexed its muscles and won four of the last five races, two apiece for Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve. Scheckter lead the championship by six points (back when six points was a comfortable gap) from Ligier’s Jacques Laffite. Canadian hotshot, Villeneuve, was no doubt looking forward to the opportunity to reduce the ten-point gap to his teammate.
Renault had been a disappointment since first entering the sport in 1977, scoring points on only one previous occasion back in 1978. 1979 was looking like a similarly poor year for the French manufacturer whose car had so far been horrifically unreliable, retiring 10 times from 12 starts.
The 1979 French Grand Prix was held at the Dijon-Prenois circuit. The main characteristic of the circuit was its very long pit-straight which the Renaults, with their turbocharged engines, were no doubt looking forward to. Jean-Pierre Jabouille, driving in his and Renault’s home race, claimed Renault’s second pole position of the season. Rene Arnoux, Jabouille’s teammate, completed the front row. Villeneuve was Renault’s closest challenger in qualifying, Scheckter was fifth and a young Nelson Piquet split the Ferraris in his Brabham.
When the race got underway Villeneuve flew off the line to sensationally take the lead from the Renaults and relentlessly built up a gap in the early stages. When pole-sitter Jabouille overtook Villeneuve for the lead on Lap 46 (due to the Ferrari driver being blocked by Lotus’ Elio de Angelis) the Canadian looked vulnerable to the second Renault of Rene Arnoux who was now closing him down.
Villeneuve kept locking his tyres but consistently hit the apexes and was right on the edge of staying on the circuit and flying off. A lap later and Arnoux in front going into the first corner, aided by a more powerful engine and the Ferrari’s slipstream. However, Villeneuve stayed with him and made a superb diving move a lap later at the very same corner, Arnoux probably didn’t see it coming. The Canadian locked all four wheels, smoking his tyres yet he completed an incredible move.
On the final lap Arnoux made a move, again into Turn 1, but wasn’t far enough alongside to cut the Ferrari off, he then dived through again, banging wheels, but ran wide, lost traction and Villeneuve again took the lead but only for another wheel-banger and Arnoux to get ahead once more. This didn’t last though as Villeneuve sneaked through at the following corner.
They finished just a quarter of a second apart after swapping positions an incredible six times on the last lap alone.
Arnoux’s teammate, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, won the race by nearly 15 seconds after a fine drive but nobody remembers the Grand Prix for that. Everyone remembers this race for what must surely be the most incredible battle in Formula 1 history.
His wheel-to-wheel racing skills is why some consider Gilles Villeneuve to be the best of all time. He was a very special talent and who knows how successful he could’ve been had that fateful day in Zolder never occurred.
This race was also notable as it was the first win for Renault and the first win for a turbocharged car in what would go on to become a staple feature on the grid. It was also a rare occasion where a French driver in a French car with a French engine on French tyres had won the French Grand Prix. Vive la France!