THE GOLDEN BOY OF A GOLDEN AGE
Peter Windsor on ’70s Renault
There’s a passionate Saturday-afternoon feel to Renault that I can’t explain but have always loved. Maybe it goes back to 1974, when I’d fly Air France to Orly in the days when croissants were served fresh from a basket rather than soggy in a plastic bag. I’d rent a Renault 5 from Hertz because it would have been crass to have done otherwise. At Viry-Châtillon, home of Renault Gordini, I’d tour the factory with François Castaing, the urbane and multilingual technical director who later joined American Motors. As much as the talk was of the future – of winning Le Mans and building an F1 car – it was also about Amédée Gordini, Alpine, the French GP and Montlhéry. It was about the simple seductions of motor racing, sans politics, ego and middle-management.
I was swept along with it, helped by the fabulous Marie-Claude Beaumont, who is still the best press/PR lady ever to have raced a Corvette at Le Mans. I was mates, too, with Patrick Depailler and all the Jean-Pierres – Jabouille, Jarier and Jaussaud, which made those Le Mans years all the sweeter. Gauloises was the scent; crisp, barking V6s were the audio. Those were the days of the classy, artistic Jabouille and Breakfast in America, of Stand 21, sunny days at Dijon and an amazing, poster-sized French magazine called Scratch. They didn’t represent a new chapter in the history of motorsport: they were a complete new volume.
I was thinking about all this because of the 40th anniversary of Renault in F1. I was at Silverstone in 1977, covering the race for Autocar and, of course, I was impressed that the 1.5-litre V6 turbo had finally started a race. Back then, ‘pressure’ was not part of the vernacular. You could run one car if you wanted to – and you could enter only a handful of races. You could join and depart the F1 grid as your development programme dictated.
Which was kind of nice, of course. It gave ground-breaking teams like Renault-Elf all the time they needed, and made their infrequent appearances the subject of healthy curiosity rather than political derision. They were given the space they required by an F1 world that liked them – and wanted them. If Toyota had competed in Formula 1 in the 1970s, in other words, they would probably still be here now.
Looking back, it’s a bit of a jolt to realise that Renault entered only four other F1 races in 1977 and that the team also missed the opening two rounds of the 1978 championship, when, in theory, they’d had all winter to get it right. It wasn’t until 1979, when they ran a second car for René Arnoux, that they finally won a race.
South America was tough, but at Kyalami, at high altitude, Renault and Jabouille took their first pole, then outraced Jody Scheckter on the opening lap, around the outside, right on the limit. Then came the rain; then came another engine failure. The transmission seized on Jean-Pierre’s car at Long Beach during practice and threw him into the concrete barriers at 260km/h; he escaped with just a broken wrist – something I guess would be a big deal today, but at the time seemed completely innocuous.
Renault’s development continued. The turbo V6 was almost perfect for a narrow, ground-effect car like the Renault RS11/12 (unlike the wide Ferrari flat-12 that clogged the airflow around the T4 chassis); it gained still more power and almost-normal throttle response with the advent of KKK twin turbos and water-air intercoolers; and the ups and downs of side skirts were commensurate with the ups and downs of Michelin tyre grip. Inconsistent, in other words, but good while they were working.
In the build-up to the crucial French GP, Renault were buoyed by the cancellation of the Swedish GP. Suddenly they could set up their own Fiorano on the smooth surface of Dijon. The twin-turbo layout was tried and proven; Renault unearthed a chassis-flex issue easily fixed with reinforcement; and the car covered two grand prix distances. It was the birth of a new era of testing in F1, although Jabouille, still recovering from Long Beach, was exhausted by the end of it, barely able to breathe.
It wasn’t hot at Dijon; we wore our Goodyear jackets. Which is to say it was Michelin weather – and Renault turbo weather. Jabouille was quick in the cool of Friday morning, when times counted for
BACK THEN, ‘PRESSURE’ WAS NOT PART OF THE VERNACULAR. RENAULT WERE GIVEN THE SPACE THEY REQUIRED BY AN F1 WORLD THAT WANTED THEM
the grid. He then saved the rest of his Michelin 200 qualifiers for Saturday, when he set pole with a jaw-dropping 1min 7.19s. René was slightly slower, the victim of yet another broken valve spring.
Jabouille’s race was defined by the brilliance of Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve. With Gilles seizing an early lead, Jabouille resolved in his wake to look after his tyres and engine, rarely stepping out of line, always leaving plenty of space around the back-markers. Then the track picked up oil and rubber; Villeneuve, who had far less chassis-generated downforce with which to play, quickly lost grip.
Jean-Pierre thus won for Renault and for France – and his success was underlined by Arnoux, who dropped to ninth at the start and would have been a wheel-banging second but for a misfire in the closing laps. He finished, instead, third behind his friend, Gilles Villeneuve.
So here’s to Jean-Pierre Jabouille and to Renault and the 40th anniversary of the day when it all started. Pre-Dijon, they used to question Jabouille’s speed as a driver. Was it the car, they whispered – or was it Jean-Pierre? Post-Dijon, they said that it had been easy for him: too easy.
From where I stood, up at Leeukop, at Kyalami, or behind the pits at Dijon, by the esses, the softly-spoken Jabouille made the Renault look as good as it went. He was an engineer-driver of the highest level; he was at the heart of that golden, French era.
A victorious Jean-Pierre Jabouille, flanked by runners-up Villeneuve and Arnoux at Dijon in 1979
The 1979 French GP was a classic race, featuring some nail-biting duels and the first F1 win for a turbo-charged car
This was a first victory for Renault, made all the more special for taking place on home turf. Here, Renault’s sporting director Jean Sage (yellow jacket) celebrates the result with the rest of the team