|Rene and Gilles. Friends, rivals, real racers (sport.sky.it)|
|They were called stupid and crazy, criticised by their peers, accused of dangerous driving. But both drivers loved it. (globoesport.globo.com)|
The 3.800 km track in the heart of French wine country resembles a Mexican sombrero with a slightly battered brim. Certainly it gave the F1 drivers a severe battering in ground-effects cars that were negotiating its succession of switchback curves and up-and-downhill plunges at astonishing speeds. Compounding the punishment were tremendous g-forces generated during cornering that caused some drivers to nearly black out. Even for the fittest drivers the prospect of 80 laps in the race was a major headache.
Their extra horsepower put the Renaults on the front row, with Jabouille just ahead of Arnoux. Gilles was next up after a typically energetic performance in his Ferrari, while his team mate Jody Scheckter was fifth fastest. The news of the all-French front row helped lure well over 100,000 spectators to Dijon on Sunday and, though the overcast and cool weather was less than perfect for the crops in the surrounding vineyards it was ideal breathing weather for turbocharged engines.
The turbo motors were difficult to get under way abruptly and that played into Villeneuve's hand. Jabouille lagged, Arnoux nearly stalled, and Villeneuve took full advantage of their hesitation to blast away in the lead. He did a rather ragged version of a Mexican hat dance all around the first lap, intent on putting as much distance as possible on the sure-to-catch-up Renaults. His scorching pace continued throughout the early laps until after five of them he was nearly as many seconds ahead of his pursuers. That Gilles's charge was being made at the expense of his Michelins became evident when the Renaults, led by Jabouille, began to steadily reel him in. By lap 15 the race was between one red Italian car and two yellow-and-black French ones. The Ferrari was behaving ever more luridly, less from the driver's famously flamboyant style than from rapidly deteriorating tyres. It oversteered madly in right hand corners and behaved exactly the opposite way in left handers. Jabouille's constant hounding of Gilles paid off on lap 46 when he dove past him at the end of the pit straight and took the lead he kept to the finish.
And thus the stage was set for the epic Villeneuve-Arnoux battle. There was a small but vociferous contingent of Ferrari-mad tifosi on hand in the heart of France but they had to do their hollering best to make much of a dent in the cheers for ‘Little Rene’ Arnoux. A great crowd favourite, he had come up the hard way into Formula 1, like Gilles. He served a lengthy apprenticeship in the lower echelons of the sport, even doing time as a humble racing mechanic before making it to the big league on driving merit alone. Rumpled and a bit rough around the edges, Arnoux had much of the street urchin about him. His facial expression varied between a look of pure deviltry and perpetual astonishment (the latter aspect seemingly more predominant post-Dijon). Somewhat shy and retiring outside a racing car, he was the reverse behind the wheel, being brave, tough, and determined in much the same way as the man in the Ferrari in front of him.
On lap 71, with just nine to go, Arnoux set the fastest lap of the day, over one full second quicker than the next man, Jabouille, and the French fans screamed mightily at the prospect of a Renault one-two finish. With five laps remaining the second Renault shoved its nose rudely up the Ferrari's gearbox. Two laps later and three to go till the end, the deed was done and Arnoux led Villeneuve over the line. The joyous fans thought it was all over but the shouting - but it had only begun.
Gilles noticed that Rene was not able to pull away from him, and, indeed, the Renault turbo was stuttering slightly, suffering from fuel pickup problems. It put the cars on a more level playing field, with any remaining performance differentials being overidden by the sheer guts of the drivers.
The Ferrari pulled alongside the Renault on the inside line for the approach to the Double Droite de Villeroy, the right-hander at the end of the straight. The Ferrari braked at the last possible instant, locking up all four tortured Michelins in fearsome looking clouds of smoke. The Renault held its position, refusing to budge, and the two cars rounded the corner as if welded together.
Nobody, including the two drivers, was able to accurately count the number of times the cars actually touched in those final kilometers, how many times their wheels interlocked, how many times they both slid off the circuit, only to regain it in unison and bang together once again.
Through the 'S' de Sablieres they careened, around the Gauche de la Bretelle as one, through the Parabolique in unison. Arnoux inched ahead but slid wide and forced Villeneuve into the dirt. Villeneuve held his ground in the flying dust and barged his way back onto the tarmac. Through the Double Gauche de la Bretelle and out onto the Courbe des Gorgeolles they caromed off each other and into the Virage de la Combe. In a final fit of demonic late-braking Gilles nosed ahead. Arnoux threw all remaining caution to the wind and attempted a suicidal-looking counterattack around the Courbe de Pouas - but it wasn't enough. The Ferrari crossed the finish line on the Ligne Droite de la Fouine after one hour, 35 minutes, and 35.01 seconds of racing. It took the Renault twenty-four-one- hundredths of a second longer.
On their cool-down lap the two protaganists, who had just engaged in what was surely the most heart-stopping battle in the 321 races since the World Championship series began, raised their arms in a mutual salute of appreciation. The frenzied crowd, their loyalties forgotten, cheered them madly as one.
The Ferrari and Renault cruised into the pits together to be engulfed in a sea of tumult and pandemonium. Somewhere in the crowd Jabouille was being crowned the winner of his first Grand Prix but all eyes were on the place and show men. The sweat-soaked warriors dismounted, embraced fondly, and congratulated each other. From then on Gilles and Rene were good friends.
"No," said Rene, grinning from ear to ear, "I am not sad to be third. All you needed was for one or the other of us to become frightened and there might have been a terrible accident. But Gilles drove a fantastic race. I enjoyed it very much!"
Gilles was equally high-spirited, laughing and joking. "I tell you that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another. But we didn't crash and it's okay. I enjoyed myself amazingly!"
"I think Ferrari has got a wonderful driver," was Enzo Ferrari's reaction to Villeneuve’s heroics at Dijon. Ferrari team boss Mauro Forghieri, had mixed feelings about it. "I think it is the big story in the sport for Gilles. It was a very good story for automobile racing. A nice picture. Nice television. I was angry that day, but what could I do. In my opinion it was too much risk-taking.”
Most of the rest of the racing world, having viewed endless replays of the battle on television, thought it was wonderful, if very scary to see. Mario Andretti, then driving for Lotus, made light of it: "Just a couple of young lions clawing each other."
But the Grand Prix Drivers' Safety Committee, Jody Scheckter president, condemned Villeneuve and Arnoux for unruly behaviour. The two were hauled on the carpet before the Committee at the next race, in England, and roundly censured for dangerous driving.
Jody (who finished seventh at Dijon) had spoken to Gilles privately before that. "When I saw Francois Cevert killed (in 1973) it was the first time I ever thought about dying in the sport. It was horrible. After that all I was trying to do in F1 was save my life. You have a lot of drivers talking about the excitement, romance and glamour of the danger. For me that was the ugly part of the sport, an unfortunate part. And I believed I had to do everything in my power to drive as slowly and carefully as possible to give myself more chance, just to keep alive. But Gilles was always wanting to prove himself, for every lap. I never knew him to say I will take it easy now. It was always the maximum.
"Because I had such a good relationship with Gilles I could talk to him quietly and tell him he was a silly ass. He was intelligent enough to know that it was a stupid thing to do and that you don't last long doing that kind of stuff. But he liked that image of knocking wheels together and the idea of being crazy. He wouldn't admit it was foolhardy but I think he realised it. At the Silverstone drivers’ meeting we spoke to the two of them in front of everybody. We asked them for their points of view. Then we were tough on them."
Arnoux recalls the heated session vividly. "At Silverstone a lot of drivers - Scheckter, Fittipaldi, Regazzoni, Lauda - said it was too dangerous. 'You guys are completely crazy! You could have a big crash. Etc. Etc.' After Lauda said it was too dangerous, I said, 'Yes, maybe for you and Gilles. But not for me and Gilles.' I said to Niki, 'There is no possibility for you to do that because you would take your foot off the accelerator!' Gilles said to them all it is not dangerous and you are completely stupid to have a meeting for that!"
For Gilles Villeneuve his Dijon duel with Rene Arnoux was the highlight of his career. "That is my best memory of Grand Prix racing. Those few laps were just fantastic to me - outbraking each other and trying to race for the line, touching each other but without wanting to put the other car out. It was just two guys battling for second place without trying to be dirty but having to touch because of wanting to be in front. It was just fantastic!"
- excerpt from Gilles VILLENEUVE The Life Of The Legendary Racing Driver, by Gerald Donaldson