The race, on home ground of all places at the delightful Dijon circuit, is remembered for numerous reasons – particularly the spectacular wheel-banging battle for second position in the result between Renault’s René Arnoux and Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve.
It is a contest that will forever stand as one of the most exciting in F1 history (Villeneuve got it in the end) but it is unfair that it should overshadow the Renault team’s famous first victory that day.
Fittingly, it was the team’s other French driver, Jean-Pierre Jabouille (nicknamed ‘Le Grand’) who achieved the win. Fittingly because it had been Jabouille who had helped Renault develop turbocharging technology right from the start of the pioneering project in the mid-70s.
Together Renault and Jabouille had made their F1 race debut in 1977 (at Silverstone) and many scoffed – quickly nicknaming the car, the RS01, ‘Yellow Teapot’ as it regularly expired in a cloud of steam and smoke.
Team and driver, though, were prepared for the pain they knew it would take to turn the new technology into a race winning proposition and soon into the start of the 1979 season they had made people sit up and take notice by qualifying on pole position and then leading briefly at Kyalami, South Africa.
Kyalami was round three; Dijon was round eight and the two Renaults, using the extra power from their Gordini EF1 1.5 V6 turbo engines along Dijon’s kilometre-long pits straight to the maximum, qualified first and second fastest (another first for the team) to lock out the front row of the grid with Jabouille on pole and Arnoux alongside him.
All did not go to plan at the start, however, as Villeneuve grabbed the lead from Jabouille and Arnoux tumbled to ninth, but by just over the half-way point things started to take quite a change…
On lap 48 of the 80, Jabouille made his move and passed Villeneuve for the lead. Meanwhile, behind, Arnoux was starting come back through the order. Entering the final five laps he was challenging Villeneuve for second – the start of their mesmerising battle that has gone down in F1 folklore.
Fifteen seconds ahead – and barely seen by the TV cameras so focused were they on Arnoux vs Villeneuve – was the redoubtable Jabouille.
As Le Grand rose the crest on the run to the finish line for the last time, finally the TV cameras switched to his car, number 15 – the driver’s arms aloft, the Renault team members spilling over the pit wall in jubilation as, almost two years since the manufacturer’s debut at Silverstone (1 July 1979 back to 10 July 1977), its dream of winning with a turbo engine, had become a reality.
Oddly, after this milestone moment, there would be only one more podium result for Renault in the seven other races that followed (Arnoux, P2 in the following British GP at Silverstone).
Admittedly, Jabouille and Arnoux would continue to be hamstrung by reliability issues over a race distance as Renault – not resting on its laurels – continued to experiment with its technology in the pursuit of excellence.
Indeed, it knew it had to as its win in France had been a ‘writing on the wall’ moment for its rivals and, by 1981, both Ferrari and BMW amongst others had developed turbocharged engines for their F1 programmes.
Also consider that in 1979 Renault’s turbo power ensured its team achieved an unrivalled six pole positions – including four in a row from rounds ten to 13 (Jabouille at Hockenheim, Germany; Arnoux at the Österreichring, Austria and Zandvoort, Holland; and Jabouille again at Monza, Italy).
CLICK HERE for a fascinating video looking back at Renault’s early years as a pioneer of turbocharging in F1.