The racing legend takes a break from driving Schumacher's F2004 at Fiorano to talk about racing past and present
He had not driven a Formula One car for 10 years, since the celebration of Ferrari's 60th anniversary, right in Fiorano: 'But, that time, I was in my 1984 126C4, today it was a totally different experience…’ René Arnoux is enthralled as he speaks after driving a F2004 around the Scuderia test track. 'I owe this opportunity to a friend who joined Ferrari's F1 Clienti [clients] programme and bought this car. It’s an incredible car; it’s not a coincidence that many of the records on tracks around the world still belong to the F2004 and to Michael Schumacher.
‘It is a peerless synthesis of technologies and, in many aspects, is still state of the art. It is not at all comparable to the cars I used to drive. It’s easy to take to its limits, comfortable and extreme at the same time. We Ferraristi love it, but many hated it, starting with the British constructors, as it beat them regularly...’ He breaks out into a big grin.
Being in Fiorano, Arnoux re-lives his first day with Ferrari: ‘I remember that I came alone. I was very selfish; I wanted it to be my very own day. I think that Il Commendatore appreciated this simple approach: we dined at the Fiorano house; the cook prepared incredibly tasty dishes and it was difficult to avoid eating to excess... We chatted about places, people, sports, and other drivers. Only at the end did we speak of my future with Ferrari.
‘We found common ground immediately because driving for the Scuderia had always been my dream and we departed without even signing any papers... Ferrari shook my hand and this was worth much more than a scrawl on a piece of paper...’
Arnoux won seven grands prix, three of them with Ferrari, but, amazingly, everyone remembers him for a race in which he only finished third: the 1979 French Grand Prix. ‘The Dijon race was incredible. With that duel, [Gilles] Villeneuve and I wrote a page of history. Only with Gilles could I ever put on a show like that… We were close friends; I had great affection for him. I feel like borrowing Enzo Ferrari's words. We spent a lot of time together on the circuits. If the Renault managers weren't in the pits, I sneaked over to Ferrari to eat pasta with him, while when Villeneuve was in the mood for French cuisine we had lunch in the back of my pits.
‘We knew each other perfectly, so the duel was extreme, but incident-free. He knew that I would not push him off the track and I was certain that Gilles would not go beyond a few wheel contacts... Both of us had problems: fuel draw for me, tyres and brakes for him; but, sometimes, perfection is born out of chaos...’
Arnoux doesn’t really like the current F1: 'The rules have become too overbearing: Ferrari had to give up its legendary 12-cylinder engines, engine schemes are all the same for everyone and both aerodynamics and technology are being limited. They might as well cancel the Constructors Championship because the teams are no longer free to innovate. Many people tell me that they no longer follow it and I have to agree that F1 has lost its personality.
‘In addition, the drivers are robots that repeat memorised statements. I don’t think it’s a matter of personality; it happens in all sports. Athletes have discovered that, by smoothing out one's personality edges, one avoids problems and makes the media happy.’
He breaks out into that famous mischievous grin again. ‘Equally, the teams keep the drivers away from the public and this is completely wrong. I would require everyone to stay in the paddock after the race, meet the crowd and sign autographs; no more rushing away even before the podium ceremony is over...’
There is another consideration: ‘In the final analysis, the best way to observe the single-seaters is to go to the events organised by Ferrari. The Racing Days are ideal: they combine the sports element of the single-constructor championship, the F1 show, and the supercars of the XX Programmes, truly incredible cars. I see that, perhaps, people come to the circuit for the F1, but, in the end, they cannot take their eyes off the FXX K.
‘Only Ferrari could accomplish such a feat, because the firm is the descendent of a genius like Enzo, who, starting from nothing, was able to found a company that has become a legend around the world, dominating in all fields, with road as well as racing cars. Ferrari has the DNA of its founder, an incomparable winning code. It is unique.’
Finally, Arnoux talks about the current line and has no doubts about his favourite Ferrari: 'I was amazed by the new GTC4Lusso, its power is overwhelming, but it is also easy to drive and versatile and its boot is very spacious; it is an entirely new dimension.’