In the wake of the controversial penalty that cost Sebastian Vettel the Canadian Grand Prix, Maurice Hamilton remembers the famous battle at the French Grand Prix -- the next race on the F1 calendar -- 40 years ago between two men fighting for second position.
There's an interesting irony in Renault managing director Cyril Abiteboul's view that discussion about the infamous Montreal penalty should not be forgotten now that F1 is moving on to the next race at Paul Ricard. The paradox is that exactly 40 years ago, the French Grand Prix was gloriously memorable for an "incident" involving a Renault that lasted the best part of a lap and would have sent today's social media into meltdown.
Back then, there was plenty of post-race chatter -- but 99 percent of it was driven by a heady mix of delight and disbelief.
To set the scene: This was Renault's home Grand Prix, staged at Dijon-Prenois almost two years since the French firm had made its F1 debut with a turbo engine that was derisively referred to as the Yellow Teapot, thanks to its habit of terminally spewing smoke.
By 1979, however. the jokes had stopped. The turbocharging alternative allowed by the rules was seen to be the way to go, particularly when Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux made it an all-Renault front row. A fast downhill sweep, followed by a long climb toward the end of the 2.4-mile lap, allowed the V6 turbo to get spooled up nicely and use its torque and power to maximum effect on the only straight worthy of the name. Even the race-day weather -- overcast and cool; perfect for turbos -- seemed to point to Renault's long-awaited maiden win. Saying that, with Gilles Villeneuve a couple of tenths back in his Ferrari, anything was possible.
Sure enough, when Arnoux almost stalled, Villeneuve darted through the gap and snatched the lead from Jabouille going into the first corner. Then he began to pull away. Arnoux, meanwhile, was recovering from ninth and had carved his way into third by lap 15.
As Villeneuve continued to lead, his Michelins began to suffer. Jabouille was playing a waiting game; 80 laps around this twisting circuit was a big ask in a race without tyre changes. On lap 47, France seriously began to live the dream as the predominantly yellow car passed the red one going into the first corner.
When Arnoux's pit board relayed the change of position up ahead, it was all the Frenchman needed to begin demolishing the 25-second gap. When he outbraked Villeneuve with three laps to go, school was out. Renaults were first and second -- and that seemed to be that.
But this did not allow for Villeneuve's utter refusal to give up, particularly when he correctly sensed his rival had a minor fuel pick-up problem. Going into the penultimate lap, Villeneuve locked his left-front massively and dived inside the Renault, retaking second. Somehow Gilles held on even, though judging by the Ferrari's lurid angles, his tyres were completely spent. At the start of the final lap, Arnoux took his turn and the inside line, tyre smoke everywhere as the two cars ran side-by-side through the right-hander.
We were spectating from the dip at the bottom of "S de Sablieres," where the track then swept left toward the back loop of the circuit. There was a very fast entry over the hill; definitely single file and no place to remotely consider overtaking.
What we saw next defied belief. The Renault and the Ferrari appeared over the crest, side-by-side, banging wheels, Arnoux having been off the road and rejoined -- without lifting, of course. The next ricochet of rubber sent Gilles snaking to the right and onto the kerb, René finding himself slightly off line for the left-hander in the dip, but quick enough to regain second -- only for Villeneuve to grab it back going into the next right. The crowd, packed onto the surrounding hillsides, went absolutely wild. Villeneuve held on and took second place by 0.24s.
There was not a single word of recrimination afterward. Arnoux and Villeneuve, of similar slight build, were grinning like a pair of naughty schoolboys. It might have been a different story -- but I doubt it -- had they been fighting for the lead with the championship depending on it.
In any case, there was no obvious procedure (compared to today's clearly defined routine) had anyone wished to protest. The dossier de presse (totally in French, of course) listed two observers from Portugal and Italy, plus six "juges de fait," all of whom were French and doubtless heading for the Renault-Elf enclosure to assist with the consumption of champagne. The celebration of this landmark win was not about to be tainted by outrage from any quarter.
In the absence of immediate internet-driven opinion, the publication of Autosport magazine the following Thursday was the only source of valid comment. The last-lap antics did not merit judgment of any kind on the news pages; Nigel Roebuck's report waxed lyrical about a moment that will live forever in the minds of those fortunate enough to witness it.
It was left to Jody Scheckter to express a word of caution in his column. The Ferrari driver may have been lapped as he finished out of the points in seventh place, but he was still leading a championship he would eventually win.
Nonetheless -- and despite being a fan and friend of his younger teammate -- Scheckter wrote: "Running wheel-to-wheel like that is a very dangerous past-time.
"If either of them happens to be six inches further forward or further back, then either or both of them will be doing a loop in the air. Situations like that are odd. Because they did get away with it, both are heroes. Had there been an accident they both would have been branded as fools and lunatics. In South America [Argentine GP], [John] Watson got fined and pilloried for a wheel-banging incident.
"Today, the two wheel-bangers are applauded. Funny world."
And a different world, too. But proof that, as ever, there are two sides to every story.