It has gone down in F1 folklore, without a doubt – the most thrilling battle of all time, one fought out between two true gladiators of the sport, artists behind the wheel, a breath-taking, no-holds-barred duel...and it wasn't even for victory. So how does René Arnoux remember Dijon 1979 now, more than three decades on?
Arnoux, of course, was one of its two protagonists; the other was Gilles Villeneuve, still in many people's minds the greatest F1 driver who ever lived, in the purest form of the word, at least. Between them, they produced a show that had fans absolutely on the edge of their seats. Forget Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen – this was the real deal.
Never mind that 15 seconds up the road, Jean-Pierre Jabouille was en route to Renault's breakthrough grand prix success – and on home soil, too – because in truth, hardly anybody noticed. Instead, all eyes were utterly fixated upon the struggle over second.
Five times in the space of just two laps, Villeneuve and Arnoux passed and re-passed each other – rubbing wheels along the way – as they energetically duelled over the runner-up laurels in the French Grand Prix at Dijon-Prenois, and they emerged from their cars once the chequered flag had fallen grinning like Cheshire cats. Can you seriously imagine that happening now?
Indeed, it might have been all-out war inside the cockpit, but away from the racetrack, Arnoux and Villeneuve were firm friends, and the Frenchman still clearly regards the scrap with fondness as he recollects his epic overtaking-fest with a driver he describes as always hard – but always fair.
“It's a very happy memory, even if I only finished third,” he told Crash.net. “It was a battle against my best mate in F1 – I didn't call Gilles a driver, I called him the acrobat of the circuits! You could only have that kind of fight with Villeneuve; I think we had the same temperament, the same way of regarding racing, the same hunger to win.
“With the cars the way they were back then, you needed to have complete faith in the other driver, because if you collided, you would be flying immediately. He trusted me and I trusted him, so we were able to tap each other seven times. It's true that Gilles was someone who was trustworthy and loyal, both on the track and in life. He was someone I really liked.
“Now, we're in 2011, and every quarter-of-an-hour I'm still talking about it! It was more than 30 years ago that we had that duel, so if people are still talking about it now, it shows it really touched a lot of people – the fans as much as the drivers. I was just speaking to someone, who said, 'what a race at Dijon – my best memory from F1', and then asked, 'but who won that day, you or Gilles?' I said, 'no, it was Jabouille!' People don't remember that part of it anymore... It really was a great episode in my F1 career.”
Arnoux went on to lament the fact that such battles are a rarity in the more sanitised, corporate, PR-dominated modern era of F1, musing that penalties of the kind handed out to Lewis Hamilton on several occasions this season for excessive on-track aggression would never even have been contemplated back in his day.