Graham Keilloh  |    15 November 2017

Feature: Reflecting on Rene Arnoux


Sometimes F1 gets so wacky that you may assume we couldn’t possibly have seen the like of it before. Take last Saturday at Interlagos, and the claim and counter claim between Toro Rosso and its engine supplier Renault over the cause of Toro Rosso’s recent run of power unit problems.

Particularly when a Toro Rosso statement included the words: “We mustn’t forget that they [Renault] are fighting with Toro Rosso for a better position in the Constructors’ championship.” Renault reckoned it sailed a bit too close to suggesting dirty tracks, and raged.

For a while the rumour swirled even that the French concern might take its engines away from Toro Rosso pronto, leaving the Faenza cars with no method of forward propulsion for the remaining two rounds this season.

Underlining the oddity it took Helmut Marko to pat down the ruffled feathers...

But we have seen the like before, as a team actually was left suddenly without engine due to things said that its supplier took exception to. Indeed the said team was left high and dry a mere two weeks before a season’s opening round. And to those of a certain F1 historical scope it won’t be entirely surprising that the culprit was the inimitable Rene Arnoux.

To many he’s assumed a malign presence, associated with tooling around slowly at the back of F1 races in his Ligier in the late 1980s and getting in the way of the leaders. Sometimes removing them.

We have seen the like before, as a team actually was left suddenly without engine due to things said that its supplier took exception to, a mere two weeks before a season’s opening round. And to those of a certain F1 historical scope it won’t be entirely surprising that the culprit was the inimitable Rene Arnoux.

They might also mention a lauded piece of acerbic James Hunt commentary, since replayed liberally, wherein he and his fellow commentator Murray Walker mused over Arnoux’s, urm, interesting explanation for his lack of pace. Again hardly flattering to Rene.

And once he surpassed himself as his blabbermouth cost his team its engine supply on the very eve of a season.

In mid-1986 it was announced that de rigueur F1 turbo engines were to be phased out by the start of the 1989 campaign. Renault therefore bolted at the season’s end; its customer teams – of which Arnoux’s employer Ligier was one – needed new units for 1987. Ligier decided to throw its lot in with a new in-line four-cylinder Alfa Romeo turbo designed by Gianni Tonti.

That Alfa’s comeback to F1 in the 1980s had floated somewhere between iffy and comical should likely have deterred the French squad, as should that the unit had been sitting on the shelf for 18 months without any takers (it was intended originally for the works Alfa team’s use in 1986, but it pulled out as a constructor at the end of 1985).

Sure enough the worries were borne out in pre-season testing, with the engine down on power, unresponsive and woefully unreliable. And it was during the eve-of-the-first-race test at Imola that Arnoux decided to share his take on the engine’s shortcomings with the Italian media in unequivocal terms. Viewing the resultant gaudy coverage Alfa – citing a clause in the contract – ended the relationship immediately.

But as is often so in F1 there was more to it. The Alfa marque had just been acquired by FIAT, and FIAT was keen that Ferrari should be its only F1 presence, with its demarcation being Lancia to go rallying and Alfa to stick to touring cars. Arnoux’s comments were the excuse it needed to jump through the escape hatch.

And Ligier to its credit only missed one race, and by round two in Imola had accommodated Megatron-badged BMWs in the back.

Mention of Rene Arnoux seldom fails to raise a smile - Doug Nye

Arnoux certainly was one to stand out. “I deeply admired that he had reached Formula 1 by his own efforts, in spite of his timid manner and unpolished tongue,” Nigel Roebuck opined. “In the glister of modern Formula 1, he was someone different, vulnerable.” Almost alone among F1 drivers, of that era anyway, Arnoux’s was a bona fide working class background.

And, as Doug Nye added, “mention of Rene Arnoux seldom fails to raise a smile”. There is it seems an Arnoux anecdote for every occasion.

One story from Zolder in Belgium in 1981 may amuse. Rene left the track on Saturday evening, driving to Zolder village, not in the best mood as he’d not qualified for the following day’s race. And on the way he encountered one of the notoriously over-zealous local traffic attendants.

Struggling to get suitable deference from Rene, the said attendant took it upon himself to lie down on Rene’s bonnet. At this point Rene decided that if the chap wanted a lift to the village he was happy to offer one, leaving his adversary clinging by the windscreen wipers on a high speed ride.

And as an amusing footnote, when the victim later turned up at the racers’ hotel with the police his ‘identifying’ of the culprit led to a bemused Jacques Laffite being marched off…

In early 1982 Arnoux also appeared on BBC’s Superstars programme – for the uninitiated a popular prime time show of the age involving sports stars from various disciplines competing against each other in a range of sporting events. Arnoux apparently was determined to treat the experience as not entirely serious though, with his antics including pursuing a zig-zag path down the 100m sprint…

It’s about as unfair to judge Arnoux by his mishaps out of the car as it is to judge him by his underwhelming final days in it. A little like Nelson Piquet his lingering decline has led too readily to what he did earlier, at his best, being forgotten.

Moreover though it’s about as unfair to judge Arnoux by his mishaps out of the car as it is to judge him by his underwhelming final days in it. A little like Nelson Piquet his lingering decline has led too readily to what he did earlier, at his best, being forgotten. It occurs that it’s just as well for Orson Welles that he chose the arts rather than F1 as his vocation.

As with Piquet, Arnoux’s earlier highs are not to be sniffed at. In his Renault and Ferrari heyday he was a fast and aggressive front-runner of renown, accumulated seven Grand Prix wins (more than Gilles Villeneuve incidentally) and more than once was a genuine world championship contender. Perhaps his greatest boast is his 18 pole positions – a higher total than Jackie Stewart, Stirling Moss and many others.

An early Autosport review described him thus: “Arnoux is what the purists would call a real racer. He will go right from the start, head bowed forward, grim determination. All he wanted was to win.”

After all, for all that we associate Dijon 1979 with Gilles let’s not forget who it was he was battling with, absolutely playing his part in the celebrated scrap.

Yet in and out the car was similar with Rene – if at his best he was sublime the troughs were at least as conspicuous. Sometimes his antics could reach the unfathomable.

Nye summed it up. “The infectiously chirpy little French charger almost always radiated a Gallic insouciance and flair at Renault and later with Ferrari.

“But there were of course the bad days, when insouciance became ennui.”

Arnoux is what the purists would call a real racer. He will go right from the start, head bowed forward, grim determination. All he wanted was to win - Autosport

His Renault opportunity owed to luck as Ken Tyrrell refused to release Regie’s first choice Didier Pironi. But Arnoux seized it and although nominally number two to Jean Pierre Jabouille he quickly got with the pace of his team leader, often beat it, as well as tended to get more results. Even as Alain Prost’s team mate, particularly in 1982, Arnoux didn’t give much ground.

Again like Piquet there seemed a definite before and after in his career though, in Arnoux’s case (again not too far removed from Piquet) the descent started somewhere in the 1983-1984 period, by which time he’d quit Renault for Ferrari.

“To my mind, he has never been the same driver since going to Ferrari at the end of 1982,” noted Roebuck in 1985. “His marriage broke up at the same time, and some of those who know him well cite this as the major cause of the change within him.

“I can only say that I far preferred the engaging little fellow who used to turn up with Nelly and Lotus (the basset) to the dishevelled ‘superstar’ of the last couple of years.”

Although Arnoux at Ferrari became a title contender in 1983 after a late upturn of form (ending his hunt with – perhaps aptly – a silly spin in the penultimate round) even in that campaign his performances had wavered and most thought after a poor first half he was a dead man walking at Maranello.

He was retained for 1984 yet before long the Scuderia must have wished it hadn’t – aside from a brilliant drive in scorching, torturous, crumbling Dallas – coming through from the back to finish a close second – Arnoux did little that year.

In 1985’s opener at Rio Arnoux recovered from an early puncture to finish fourth and some spoke of him perhaps rediscovering his touch. The thoughts swiftly were dashed though as he was fired by Ferrari just over a week later. The reasons have always been somewhat shrouded, but apparently an audience with Enzo Ferrari in the days after that Rio round got heated and ended with Arnoux storming out. There was no way back from that.

To my mind, he has never been the same driver since going to Ferrari at the end of 1982 - Nigel Roebuck

After taking the rest of 1985 off he re-emerged at Ligier in 1986, commencing four seasons that were much to the detriment of his reputation. The first year went well with several runs near the front, indeed he led for a while at Detroit.

But then in substandard machinery for the next three campaigns, which is where we came in, he almost never looked better than his car – indeed often looked worse than it – and as mentioned otherwise was noticeable mainly via getting in the leaders’ way.

Then again other Ligier pilots such as Olivier Grouillard and Philippe Alliot also were notorious, so the habit may have reflected team instructions rather than individual obduracy. In mitigation also Arnoux was well north of 40 by this point.

A bit like Piquet and a few others, perhaps Rene Arnoux is overdue a reappraisal. On more than one level.


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