The day Renault’s turbo engine finally came good at Dijon

On July 1 1979, Formula 1 history was made at Dijon-Prenois as Renault became the first manufacturer to win a World Championship Grand Prix with a turbocharged engine.

Although it was a seismic day for the driver who became the first home winner of the French GP in 30 years, the race is perhaps best remembered for the battle for second place between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux.

Arnoux told GP Racing magazine: “Everyone remembers that duel. Somebody asked me recently: ‘Who won that race, you or Villeneuve?’ It was neither – it was Jabouille.”

Indeed, Jean-Pierre Jabouille took pole position and won for Renault that weekend. He was outdragged off the startline by the Ferrari of Villeneuve, who led for 46 laps until he ran out of brakes and tyres.

Jabouille – who was also a stunt driver and worked on Steve McQueen’s Le Mans and both Taxi movies – passed him and won by 14.6s.

He went on to win another grand prix, in Austria two races later, but it’s a bizarre stat that he only scored one other points finish (fourth place in the 1978 US GP) besides those victories from 49 starts. It perhaps also showed just how unreliable the Renault turbo was during its development.

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“Dijon was a very good day for everybody because it was the first race Renault had won in F1,” added Arnoux. “I was very happy for Renault for their first victory, and Gilles and me were on top of the podium also.”

Their battle for second entered F1 folklore, as they banged wheels and locked-up, overtaking each other numerous times in the closing laps around the Dijon track.

“[It] was only possible between Gilles and me because he was my best friend in F1 and I was his,” said Arnoux. “I had a lot of respect for him, and he had a lot for me. It was dangerous at that speed and Dijon was narrow, it was not easy.

Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS11, Jean Sage
Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS11, Jean Sage
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille with René Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve
Winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille with René Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve
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Photo by: Renault

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4, René Arnoux, Renault RS10
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4, René Arnoux, Renault RS10
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Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS10
Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS10
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4, René Arnoux, Renault RS10
Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4, René Arnoux, Renault RS10
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS10
Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS10
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

“He had a big problem with the tyres and I had a problem with the fuel pressure. And I knew I had this difficulty, but I tried to finish second and not third. Dijon has a big bend at the top of the circuit and my engine would stop for two seconds, then come back again! At the flag the difference was too big to pass, even with the turbocharger. I try, I try, I try, but...

“A lot of people still speak to me about Dijon. Someone stopped me in Paris recently and said it was the best duel in F1. ‘Do you want to see it on my phone?’ he asked. I replied: ‘No, I know it very well!’”

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