The year was 1980 and Arnoux was now starting his third season with Renault alongside its ‘team leader’ Jean-Pierre Jabouille.
The opening race of that season, in Argentina, had not gone well with both Renault RE20s retiring. However, the next two circuits, Interlagos in Brazil and Kyalami in South Africa, were located several thousand feet above sea level and this played perfectly into the hands of Renault’s 1.5 V6 turbocharged EF1 engines.
Their power output at high altitude was not affected as badly as the normally-aspirated engines. Furthermore, both circuits boasted huge straights these added further to Jabouille’s and Arnoux’s already sizeable power advantage.
Three years after its debut, Renault at that time remained the only team to run turbocharged engines and, even though Jabouille had won a race the previous year, the technology, although improving all the time, could still prove troublesome.
At both Interlagos and Kyalami, Jabouille led from pole position, dutifully followed by Arnoux.
In each race, though, Jabouille hit problems – a broken turbocharger in Brazil and a puncture in South Africa – and each time Arnoux was perfectly poised to take advantage and achieve the first two Grand Prix victories of his career. Arnoux himself only just made it across the line in Brazil (pictured) when his engine ran out of fuel shortly after taking the chequered flag…
Poignantly, back-to-back wins meant suddenly that Arnoux now also led the F1 drivers’ standings although this was to be short-lived as the Renault was not the most competitive car on the circuits that followed.
Arnoux was just about able to keep leaders Alan Jones’ Williams and Nelson Piquet’s Brabham in sight for a while but by mid-season, his title prospects were realistically gone.
However, there were still more top performances to come… For the Austrian, Dutch and Italian Grands Prix – again all circuits with long straights – he qualified on pole position. In Holland, there was a glimmer of hope when he finished second but in the end, he had dropped to sixth in the final table – still a fine effort.
Those two wins would be Arnoux’s only two for more than a year, for it was not until 1982 that he next got to stand on the top step of the podium. The 1981 season was a near disaster, save for four pole positions and a second-place race result.
Arnoux was one of only three drivers to win more than once in 1982, with victories at the French and Italian Grands Prix (where, ever the maverick, he drove the celebratory slow-down lap without his helmet as he waved to the crowds). But again, any hopes of a title challenge were lost through a mixture of poor reliability and a couple of on-track incidents – including, infamously, when he’d spun out of a comfortable lead at Monaco.
Thus early 1980 marked the only time that Arnoux ever led the F1 drivers’ championship, all thanks to Renault engine superiority at altitude…
In the past two decades, Arnoux has regularly demonstrated Renault’s race cars of the past at special events such the UK’s Goodwood Festival of Speed where he is pictured some years ago with fellow Renault Sport ‘greats’ Jabouille, Jean Ragnotti and Jacques Villeneuve…
Photos © Groupe Renault