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René Arnoux: Dreaming of Zandvoort

September sees F1 return to the historic Dutch circuit after a four-decade absence. We met the last Prancing Horse driver to win at the track, to spend a day reminiscing behind the wheel of that glorious 1983 car
Words - Davide Marchi
Photos - Anke Luckmann

This weekend the F1 calendar arrives at the renovated Zandvoort circuit for the Dutch Grand Prix, the only racetrack to have ever hosted Formula One in The Netherlands.

Scuderia Ferrari won eight times on that circuit including the first time, in 1952, with Alberto Ascari and the last triumph in 1983 with René Arnoux on-board a Ferrari 126 C3.
In that championship Arnoux was an extraordinary star, battling all the way through to the very end of the very last race of the season and nearly winning the title.

Thirty-eight years after those events, Arnoux and the 126 C2B were reunited at the Fiorano track, the private, Ferrari-owned circuit upon where all Maranello cars since 1972 have driven their first kilometres. “I hadn’t driven the 126 C2B since that season. It happened that I drove the 1984 single-seater at the celebrations for the 60 years of Ferrari in 2007. But I hadn’t climbed aboard this car in 38 years! My goodness, how much time has gone by!” Arnoux exclaims.

Opening the throttle on the 126 CB for the first time in thirty eight years

René was 35 years old during that glorious season. “With the 126 C2B I won – dominating – in Canada,” he recalls. “That weekend I was faster than everybody, starting from the free practice, and the same held true in qualifying. In the actual race, I nailed an excellent start and I passed the chequered flag first, more than 40 seconds ahead of Eddie Cheever and his Renault and almost one minute ahead of my team mate Patrick Tambay.”

René won at Hockenheim as well as at Zandvoort but in the Netherlands the outlook seemed very different: “I remember being a bit angry with myself: 12th place on Friday, which I had improved by just two positions on Saturday in the second session of qualifying,” recalls Arnoux. “But I knew the potential was there. We had suffered a few mechanical glitches and I hadn’t been able to bring out my best. It was just a matter of getting the start right. On the Sunday, I told my team mechanics to prepare well, because I felt that there was going to be reason to celebrate.”

Watch René Arnoux take to the track once again in his beloved 126 C2B

“From my position at number 10 on the starting grid, I focussed on the starting lights: I managed what was perhaps the best start of my career, and was immediately in the group of the best,” Arnoux recalls, his eyes laughing at the memory.

The French pilota arrived at the first curve in seventh position, then he overtook the Lotus of Elio De Angelis and gained another position – reaching fifth – after Andrea De Cesaris withdrew in his Alfa Romeo. In a short time, René closed in on, and soon overtook, Cheever’s Renault, a feat he repeated with Riccardo Patrese, who was at the wheel of the second Brabham. 

At that point Arnoux was gaining quickly on Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost, in Brabham and Renault respectively, who were battling each other.

The name says it all:  René Arnoux, the 1983 star of Zandvoort

The pace of the Ferrari was very good and from the pit it was decided to stop car number 28 to maximise the advantage and attempt what is today called an “undercut”: stopping before your rivals to get a new set of tyres and then trying to overtake them when they make their own pit stops. 

“I took a pit stop,” René continues, “and the mechanics were fantastic. They refilled my tank and changed my tyres in 10 point one nine seconds, the fastest time of the day, by a wide margin. That way I returned to the track with a faster pace than before without having lost a single position – it was a masterpiece.” 

The first time René climbed into his 126 CB, he spoke to the Cavallino Rampante: It's just you and me...we will do great things

Up ahead, Piquet and Prost kept battling. Prost attempted to overtake his Brazilian rival, touched him and sent him against the wall. In the bump, Prost’s Renault also got damaged and Arnoux found himself in the lead. “But I was already ahead,” he takes pride in pointing out, “because that day Ferrari and I were the strongest.” The icing on the cake was Tambay, who after a poor start managed to reach second place, giving the Scuderia its 36th one-two victory in Formula One.

Back in the present, Arnoux reflects on his recent Fiorano visit: “It was so nice having been able to get behind the wheel of the 126 C2B. I like to think of this car as a time machine that has allowed me to return to those days in 1983. They were happy, adrenaline-filled days,” the Frenchman recalls.

"It was so nice having been able to get behind the wheel of the 126 C2B. This car is a time machine allowing me to return to 1983. They were happy, adrenaline-filled days."

“It’s impossible to forget my first test here,” he says about his first time in Fiorano. “I entered the 126 C2B and the first thing I noticed was the Cavallino Rampante on the steering wheel. It came naturally to me to speak to it. I told it: ‘Finally, it’s just you and me. Let’s try and get along and we will do great things.’ The Cavallino didn’t answer, but the test went fine.”

A brief pause ensues; then Arnoux adds: “So, once more getting behind the steering wheel of the same car, I looked at the legendary Prancing Horse symbol on the steering wheel and I spoke to it again, 38 years later, at my tender old age of 72. I said: ‘Hello my friend, we meet again! I missed you, let’s go take another fast drive.’ Then I put first gear and pulled out of the box.”

03 settembre, 2021