13/12/2017

René Arnoux: still a Renault F1 legend

It’s 35 years since little René Arnoux left the employment of Renault’s Formula One team but to this day he remains one of the squad’s most revered drivers.
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News of Arnoux’s departure for Ferrari the following year actually came at Monza of all places – Ferrari’s home Grand Prix.

 

It was September 1982 and the race saw Arnoux take his fourth and final victory for Renault in F1.

 

Normally such a result would have been received with utter disdain by Ferrari’s famous fans, the ‘tifosi’, interested only in their beloved scarlet red cars. But not this time… Even though he was still in Renault colours, Arnoux would be one of their drivers for 1983 and they celebrated his victory almost as much as if a Ferrari had won.

 

Arnoux’s relationship with Renault had begun in the early Seventies when he lifted the French and then European Formula Renault titles in 1973 and 1975. Then in 1977 he won the European F2 title for Equipe Renault ELF.

 

Fast forward to 1982 and some believe that Arnoux should have become France’s and Renault’s first world champion that year. Too often though the team’s turbocharged RE30 let him down.

 

But there were other dramas – he led comfortably from pole position at Monaco only to spin and stall; at Long Beach and Brands Hatch he was the innocent victim of two accidents; at Zandvoort his car lost a wheel and rammed the barriers at Tarzan head on at high speed.

 

It is well documented that Arnoux’s eventual departure from Renault was because of growing friction with Prost. Certainly Arnoux had caused internal uproar earlier in 1982 when he won the team’s home GP at Paul Ricard after apparently defying orders to slow and let Prost take the win. A ‘number two’ driver he was not!

Those wins at Paul Ricard and Monza in ’82 added to the two victories he’d achieved for Renault in 1980, in Brazil and South Africa at the fearsome original Interlagos and Kyalami circuits – results that actually saw him lead the standings briefly.

 

A total of four wins in four seasons does not sound much but Gilles Villeneuve managed only six wins in four and a bit seasons with Ferrari yet he remains for many the greatest of all. Fittingly it was with his good pal Villeneuve that Arnoux contributed to some of the most exciting laps ever witnessed in F1 as they famously banged wheels in their fight over second in the 1979 French GP at Dijon.

 

Indeed, for many, speed achieved by bravado and sensational car control count for much more than number of races or titles won. It’s a flair that money can’t buy and Arnoux had it in spades.

 

Consider in his period that the cars were pretty agricultural compared to modern day designs. There was no power steering and barely any suspension travel (those old enough will recall the ‘skirts’ that sucked the cars to the track). Cockpits were still made of aluminium. Gear changes were very much manual. Engine power was knocking on for 700bhp and there was massive turbo lag.

 

To drive one of these cars at its limit required abnormal levels of bravery, a department in which Arnoux was never lacking.

 

The evidence of that is his 14 pole positions with Renault: two in 1979, three in 1980, four (matched only by champion Nelson Piquet) in 1981 and an unrivalled five in 1982. Luck might not have been with Arnoux in the races but he remains arguably the fastest driver ever seen in a Renault over a single lap. 5ft 6in tall, but a giant of a driver...

Arnoux’s ties with Renault were not severed all together in 1982; these days he often demonstrates its historic F1 cars at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed.