40 years after that epic French GP, has the title of F1’s best ever battle been nabbed? By Keith Adams and Ben Miller
1979 French GP – was it really all that?
Are you kidding? Rene Arnoux’s turbo Renault and Gilles Villeneuve’s flat-12 Ferrari all out of shape and clonking bodywork in mortal combat? YouTube would be a cold and empty place without it. And the battle royale was over second place – Arnoux’s teammate, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, had checked out for the win.
‘It’s such a great pleasure to recall this race, and I remember it like it was yesterday,’ Arnoux told CAR recently. ‘That race was Renault’s first win, but for me it was all about the fight with Gilles Villeneuve. We were able to battle like this because Gilles was my best friend.
He had confidence in me, and I had confidence in him – when you lose that trust, F1 becomes very dangerous. ‘With five laps to go I began to slow, as did Gilles. I had a fuel pump problem, and Gilles was struggling with his brakes and tyres. The battle began when he caught me at the end of the start/finish straight on the penultimate lap. I took the racing line for the corner and Gilles went inside me, braking late, taking the kerb. We touched, and I knew we could have some fun, because I really wanted to finish second.
‘In the last two laps we touched each other seven times, and two of the times we banged wheels very strongly. At the time I said thank you to my car for finishing! It was really interesting, this race with Gilles. He was not a racing driver, he was an acrobat. I said this to him – “When we race, you make the car dance.”
‘After the race everyone said we should be really angry with each other, but instead we shook hands. We had the biggest smiles. At the press conference I saw the last five laps on TV and I was more afraid watching it there than I had been in my car. After the race, Ferrari’s Mauro Forghieri raised his arms aloft, looked at me, and said, “This wasn’t even a battle for the win, this was for second! You two guys are completely crazy!”’ and how Good was the 2019 British GP?
Pretty damn good. The scrap, between Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, began on lap 10 and lasted – on and off – a full third of the race. It was the defining battle in one of the best Grands Prix of recent times. Hostilities began with an aborted overtake from Max’s Red Bull at the end of the Hanger straight. Leclerc defended and held position into lap 11, but the two were side-by-side onto the Wellington straight. Leclerc was robust; Verstappen – unusually (see also Austria, when Verstappen, elbows out, passed the Ferrari driver for the win) – backed down. On lap 14 they pitted nose-to-tail, with Verstappen emerging ahead, only for Leclerc to re-pass him. Lap 17 and they were at it again. Lap 18 and there was flying dust as the Red Bull ran wide, so unwilling was Max to give an inch. And after a tyre change and a safety car, the final act, the two banging wheels as the Ferrari finally eased ahead of the Honda-powered Red Bull.
Leclerc claimed third. Like Arnoux versus Villeneuve, this one wasn’t for the lead. And, like the ’79 conflict, the drivers loved every moment. Leclerc’s verdict? ‘Very, very fun, always borderline.’
Renault’s win in the ’79 French GP was the first by a turbo F1 car. Villeneuve’s Ferrari was already outdated, with an engine too wide for ground-effect aero and no turbo
‘He was not a racing driver, he was an acrobat’ – Arnoux on Villeneuve