RENAULT CLIO CUP REMAINS A BRITISH STAPLE AT 25 YEARS OF AGE
It’s a quarter of a century since the popular category started at Donington.
More than 20 Clios stream into Redgate corner all jostling for position off the line.
It could be a scene from the Donington Park rounds of the Renault UK Clio Cup last month. But instead the race in question happened 25 years ago.
This year marks a quarter of a century since the first Clio contest, with the series introduced to coincide with the launch of the French marque’s new hatchback.
It was April 1991 and a 1.8-litre 16-valve Clio car instantly caught the attention of the racing community with 25 lining up on that inaugural grid in Leicestershire.
Steve Waudby has the honour of winning the first ever race, with the ex-formula Ford, XR2 and Honda CRX driver switching to the series after a year racing Renault 5s.
“It was a bit of a shock going from 5 Turbos to Clios,” recalls Waudby. “I expected Clios to be like the 5 just with a 16v engine in. Instead it was a different animal. It looked sporty and did everything that you wanted it to.
“We did our homework on the car and for the first race we were experimenting with oils. We used a particular oil and it increased the power of the engine.”
This gave Harlow Motorsport driver Waudby an advantage over his rivals and he soon built up a lead when the lights went out.
“I started on pole and pulled out a good lead and everything was comfortable,” he says. “Then the engine changed note about three or four laps from the end and I thought it was going to go. Luckily I had such a lead I could give up a bit of ground and I still won.”
Such drama and unpredictability has become a key facet of the championship over the years. As for that first race, Mark Fish and John Wadsworth joined Waudby on the podium.
But it took Waudby another four months and seven races before he triumphed again, although he still became the first Clio champion.
“It was hard, very difficult to win the championship,” he says. “The first race was an easy one but we knew everybody was going to get faster and I said to the team ‘this is when the work starts’.
“I think I had to finish in the top five in the final race at Thruxton to win the title and I didn’t particularly want to lead as I knew it would be difficult with the tow there. But we did what we needed to.”
Waudby may have the title of being the first Clio champion, but he was far from the first Renault one-make series winner as the manufacturer’s racing links to Britain go back much further than April 1991.
“Renault had been interested in one-make racing since the 1970s and before that with the Renault 8s but the continual progression of Renault in one-make racing started with the Renault 5 TL,” recalls Tim Jackson, who helped set up the Clio series. “We then progressed to the TS and the 5 Turbo and when the Clio was launched in 1991, it was natural progression to switch to that.”
Progress is a word regularly used in connection with the series and Jackson is certain it was a step up from the old 5s.
“It felt like it was the start of something bigger than the Renault 5s – and they were a real delight in their day – but the Clio took one-make sport to a completely different level,” he says. “It was a really good option for drivers and we wanted to create a home from home.”
Jackson picks out one Bank Holiday weekend meeting for the 5s in the mid-1980s as a case in point. “It was very wet and everyone stayed in their cars,” he says. “There was no talking, no cups of tea together and I thought something must change.”
So by the time the Clios came along, proper hospitality was provided for drivers and their entourage. It was not only the drivers who were impressed, as the category quickly caught the interest of motorsport fans.
“We always got a round of applause before the start of the first race of the season,” recalls Jackson, “which is unheard of in motorsport.”
Fast forward 25 years and the category is still going strong. Twentyfour cars funnelled into Redgate at Donington last month and the racing is as good as ever.
While it’s still a Clio that is used, the car has come a long way since the first generation model of the 1990s.
After a difficult period when the Renault Spider made a brief appearance ( see sidebar), the new second generation Clio Renaultsport 172 model was introduced in 2000.
Then further advances came in 2002 with the 182 model, in 2007 with the 197, mid-way through 2009 with the 200 and finally 2014 when the current fourth generation car was brought in.
And it’s no surprise that spin-off series have emerged over the years to make use of the older cars. The British Automobile Racing Club runs the Michelin Clio Cup for the 200s, while the 750 Motor Club has a very popular category for the 182s, showing the enduring impact the cars have had.
Despite needing to reinvent itself with each new model, the series has consistently gathered good entries – although there was briefly a drop-off when the current car was first released.
“It’s interesting how the Clio has evolved,” says John Millett, who has been a part of Renaultsport’s technical team since the 1980s. “Renault always look to improve on what they’ve got. We were badgering them for a sequential gearbox and they came up with that.
“It’s got better and better and the latest Clio is the best car when it comes to one-make championships. I don’t really know where they go from here!”
Regardless of what happens on the technical front, the series has the long-term security of being part of the TOCA bill until at least the end of 2019, after an agreement was signed during the winter. It has been part of the BTCC undercard since the TOCA package was created in 1993.
It’s proving as popular as ever and therefore it’s no wonder that Millett still enjoys working with the series after all these years. “I still get a great kick out of it and watching the racing,” he says. “I think the crowds enjoy it – everybody used to watch the Formula Ford races and now people watch the Clios as it’s good fun.”
The series is still proving popular with drivers too, and Jackson attributes this enduring popularity to two key factors: the consistency of the team working on the series and the full backing of Renault.
“It meant something to a racing driver to be part of a manufacturer family and we have also done our racing as a family,” he states. “To that extent it’s easier to sort problems out and it’s easier to make progress.”
And we’re back to making progress. Waudby also acknowledges the developments the category has made since the days when he competed in it.
“It’s lovely to see a manufacturer carry a championship through so many years and their commitment to get started,” he says. “It’s turned now into a proper little touring car and is a really good proving ground for all the up and coming drivers.”
There’s no doubting that the roll call of previous champions is impressive. There is an array of title-winners who have gone on to achieve success in other categories – most notably British Touring Cars. Both Jonathan Adam (2005) and Tom Onslow-cole (2006) have starred in GTS after BTCC stints, while Jack Goff (2012) and Ashley Sutton (2015) are among the next generation of tin-top stars.
Sutton’s story is particularly significant as his battle with Ant Whorton-eales and Ash Hand for last year’s crown helped reignite interest in Clios. The trio were inseparable for much of the season, with the title fight going down to the wire. That Sutton became the first rookie winner of the championship since Jonathan Fildes triumphed in 2003 was also a major milestone.
Besides the past champions, the list of Clio race winners also includes some notable names. Touring car stars Mat Jackson, Sam Tordoff, Aron Smith and Josh Cook are all race-winning graduates.
The BTCC links are becoming stronger still with the involvement of top teams BMR and Ciceley Motorsport, while Cook maintains a close association with Clios through his own Cook sport squad, proving just how significant the series has become.
It’s no coincidence that those involved in that first race have fond memories of their time in Clios. Waudby is still connected to the series
today through his SWR Motorsport company, which is specialist a in
Sadev transmissions currently used in the series, while Millett says: I’ve had some great memories and
worked with some great drivers who have gone on to bigger and greater things. It gives a sense of satisfaction hopefully guiding them in the right direction.”
Tim Jackson adds: “It is one of the highlights of my time being involved
motorsport and the continuing appeal of Clios is something to be proud of. The success of the high performance road cars came on back of the series – the UK the greatest marketplace for Renaultsport high-performance cars. That was because of the way we used
racing to promote the road cars.” And given how successful the championship has proved to be, it’s likely we will see a pack of Clios streaming into Redgate for many more years to come.
Mat Jackson was a winner in 2000
Waudby (right) won first race at Donington Series started in 1991 with Clio 1.8 16V model
Then and now: Current drivers and past stars