RACER’S EDGE

THE GOLDEN BOY OF A GOLDEN AGE

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS - PETER WIND­SOR @F1Rac­ing_­mag face­book.com/ f1rac­ing­mag

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

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