Renault F1 story: The first turbo victory
The French Grand Prix has always been a special event for Renault. An opportunity to shine in front of a partisan crowd, it was also the scene of its first-ever championship win.
In 1979, Jean-Pierre Jabouille became a national hero when he drove the turbocharged Renault RS10 to victory. It had not been an easy win, however. When Renault entered the championship in 1977, the distinctive yellow car had impressed with its speed, but had been plagued by reliability woes.
On one-too-many occasions the car retired in a puff of smoke, earning it the name ‘Yellow Teapot’ – a moniker that has stuck to this day.
A near-full season in 1978 had yielded just a handful of finishes, although Jabouille did score the marque’s first points in the USA Grand Prix.
The 1979 season dawned full of promise. Renault had agreed to run a second car for the first time, and Rene Arnoux joined Jabouille behind the wheel. At only the third race of the year Jabouille earned the team’s first-ever pole position, although he retired in race, ironically with engine woes.
But a new ground effect car with a twin turbo set-up was in the pipeline and in July Jabouille proved that the South Africa pole was no fluke. He put the RS10 on pole position, with Arnoux second – a front row lock out for Renault.
Race day came and the pressure to perform on home soil was enormous. Gilles Villeneuve, racing for Ferrari, stormed into the lead from third on the grid. Jabouille kept second but Arnoux dropped back to ninth. Undeterred, Arnoux mounted a comeback charge and by lap 15 was back in third.
Jabouille had meanwhile kept touch with Villeneuve and when the latter developed problems, Jabouille saw his chance and moved into the lead.
Arnoux likewise saw an opportunity and in the closing laps he and Villeneuve entered into a battle that is often highlighted as one of the best on-track duels in the championship’s history.
Arnoux stayed on the tail of Villeneuve, feinting left and right until he passed on the crest of the hill on lap 76 of the 80 lap race. Villeneuve would not cede though and for three corners the pair raced wheel to wheel, never giving an inch.
On the penultimate lap, Villeneuve re-passed the Frenchman, locking up his tyres and almost running himself off track. Somehow, the pair stayed together, less than a car length apart. Arnoux could smell a 1-2 and didn’t relent. On the last lap he got the inside line on the first corner and took back the position.
They banged wheels and Arnoux briefly left the track. Villeneuve seized the chance and went on to pass the finish line less than a quarter of a second ahead. The Canadian later described the occasion as ‘my best memory of Grand Prix racing.’