At the end of June, the Formula 1 World Championship moved on to France. Scuderia Ferrari arrived in Dijon leading the Constructors’ Championship and with Jody Scheckter first in the Drivers’ Championship, off the back of two consecutive wins in Belgium and Monaco. The other star of the Maranello team, Gilles Villeneuve, was third. He had also won two races, in South Africa and Long Beach , but had fewer points finishes.
Renault dominated from the start of free practice. The French team with the iconic yellow cars was yet to score a point in the season, even though they had shown potential in the first seven races. Jean-Pierre Jabouille and René Arnoux dominated the first qualifying session and an engine problem for Arnoux on the Saturday did not stop the Boulogne-Billancourt team from locking out the front row, with Jabouille in pole position. The only driver to get close to them was Villeneuve who was third ahead of Nelson Piquet in the Brabham followed by Scheckter.
At the start, the Canadian’s 312 T4 catapulted forward. Gilles got ahead of the Renaults and took the lead ahead of Jabouille. Arnoux on the other hand made a terrible start and dropped back to ninth. The Ferrari pulled away from the group, extending his lead by a second per lap and by lap 20 had a clear advantage, while Arnoux overtook Scheckter for fourth.
On lap 40, Villeneuve started to have trouble with the tyres and brakes, which he had obviously overworked in the first part of the race. Jabouille therefore closed the gap to the Canadian and was able to get in his slipstream six laps later. On the next lap, thousands of Ferrari fans groaned as the Renault overtook the Ferrari. Jabouille pulled away easily, partly because Villeneuve realised immediately that he could not match the speed of the number 15 car and feared a fightback by Arnoux.
Gilles was right to worry as the second Renault closed in on the Ferrari, getting himself into the slipstream on lap 71. Villeneuve’s experience gave him the advantage amongst the backmarkers but three laps from the end, Arnoux attacked on the main straight and got alongside him. The Ferrari held him off on the outside of the first corner but then had to surrender position to the French car. The Canadian however was not one to give up lightly and in any case, his rival’s car lost time every so often due to having a less powerful engine.
On lap 79, at the same place he had been overtaken only a lap earlier, Villeneuve got ahead again, braking really late as he smoked the tyres on his 312 T4. At the beginning of the last lap, Arnoux tried to overtake at the first braking point. Gilles held him off on the outside and the two cars went through the first three corners of the track together, wheel to wheel. It was a tight, old-school duel, but full of respect between the two. For a few metres Arnoux was ahead, but at the hairpin Villeneuve lunged forward and got ahead.
Jean-Pierre Jabouille crossed the finish line and made history in Formula 1, becoming the first Frenchman to win his home race in a French car. The fans on the track were ecstatic. However those watching the race on television at home hardly remember who won. Everyone was just waiting to see who would win the duel between Villeneuve and Arnoux. The final obstacle for Gilles was lapping Jochen Mass in the Arrows, but the German moved aside and the Ferrari powered down the finish straight with a quarter of a second advantage over the Renault.
There was a huge party in Dijon: Jabouille was celebrating his victory despite having a very sore right leg due to a problem with the brakes on his Renault towards the end which had forced him to press harder each time to slow for the corners. However Villeneuve and Arnoux were even happier, having enjoyed battling it out, pushing the limits of the regulations without breaking them. Just after crossing the finish line, Gilles waved at his rival and congratulated him for the good fight, and now the two were looking at each other like two boys grinning cheekily, after having taken risks and enjoying themselves without doing too much damage.
The race, a milestone for Formula 1 because of Renault’s victory, went down in history, but not because of the French team’s achievement. Instead the fans remember those thrilling last laps that everyone now knows as the Duel in Dijon.