Food Glorious Food...

… and the engines weren’t bad either. In the light of its decision to withdraw from Formula One, Timothy Collings considers the reign of Renault

Inside the motorhome, food was being eaten. Not just any food. Exquisite stuff, well planned, delicious and French. Yes, the sort of cuisine that starts and ends with an ‘Oh!’ Or an ‘haute’, depending on how you feel. There are two of these motorhomes, one providing sit-down service alongside the Williams’ base and ‘one doing a cafeteria job for Benetton. And round the corner, of course, is Elf, a traditional watering hole of excellence in every respect for the lounge lizards and gourmets of the Formula One paddock. And it is a tough choice Where to go?

For several years now, the most difficult pre-race decisions in the Sunday morning build-up to a European Grand Prix have been where to eat, when and with whom. Since returning to Formula One in 1989, Renault has set new standards in every thing it has done from designing and engineering to racing and creating and from inspired public relations crusades and pioneering advertising to disciplined teamwork and meticulous attention to detail. Just look in the record books and you can see the results in a succession of victories, pole positions, fastest laps, drivers and constructors titles.

Yes, when the Regie leaves at the end of next year, it will be missed. But nowhere more so than in the paddock, every race, every other weekend, right through the European summer season.

And, yes, Renault is definitely going. Forget all the rumours about Renault going away, transforming into a privately-owned company (it happened on Tuesday, July 2, two days after their clean sweep at Magny-Cours in the French Grand Prix) and returning, with the right excuses, to resume where it left off. No, this lady is not for u-turning as Patrick Faure, the president of Renault Sport, made unmistakably plain when he talked inside the Benetton version of restaurant Renault only an hour before that historic result was claimed. And, non, there is no chance of the venerable V10’s returning to the market via the Bourges-based Mecachrome label.

“We didn’t come to Formula One to sell engines, but to win races which we hope to do until the end of 1997,” says Faure. “Then the remaining engines will go to the museum… When we stop, we will keep the engines. We have no intention of doing any deals with anyone. It will all stop at the end of 1997 and there will be no Renault presence in Formula One after that.

Poor Poor Monsieur Faure An Anglophile, whose energy and leadership has given Christian Contzen and Bernard Dudot the time and space to design and deliver one of the greatest series of engines in the history of Grand Prix racing, he had the look of a tired man, worn down by weeks of hard dealing, talking and backtracking and, finally, disappointment in discovering that an immovable corporate decision was set to hall the unstoppable rush of Renault s reign at the top.

“We are a big company,” he intoned ‘ When we say we go out, we go out. We said we were coming back to win the championship, we have won it four times, maybe five or six by the end… “

Faure’s talk of ambitions and objectives is synonymous with the Renault philosophy. A glance through the cuttings file proves it. Every quote from Dudot has the word objective in one of its opening sentences. From 1989 onwards, they were achieved, relentlessly, happily and with a shower of champagne that created a new era to follow the less-effusive, much more sober and inscrutable time when Honda ruled the roost.

“I think what we have done is to achieve one or two things that we are all proud of,” said Faure. “First of all, we have always managed to achieve what we said we would do and that is not easy in Formula One. In eight years, we always did what we intended. The second point is that we won with a lot of different people, with two teams, many champions, with Nigel (Mansell), Alain (Prost), Michael (Schumacher) and, we hope, with Damon (Hill) this year. Our only regret is not to have won a championship with Ayrton (Senna). This will probably remain as the only bad memory of this period for us. But we hope that there will be, in the history of Formula One, a Renault era as there was a Honda era. This is something we can be very proud of, I think.”

But (and this question had to be pursued), but what if the new board of directors, created by the newly-privatised Renault, should want to overturn the old board’s decision and resume racing? Would not this great era of Renault be allowed to continue while it is at its peak’? With a verbal sidestep which any politician would have appreciated, Faure answered carefully. “Normally, the chairman develops and delivers the policy and it is then approved by the board… Normally, the board is not involved in these kind of decisions.”

In other words, the newly-constituted company, in which the French state continues to hold 46 per cent of the equity, could change direction after it has restructured itself, studied all its options, installed a new board and introduced any new regulations it requires. In other words, the chairman of Renault, Louis Schweitzer, could find his policy is reversed a prospect that Faure could not contemplate nor even comment on, but which any discerning investigator of the facts cannot ignore if it is found that Formula One is, overall, worth all the effort and cost. The logistics, the embarrassment of a reversal of their decision and the pressure to cut costs following the poor sales of the recently-launched Megane, however, make this unlikely. It is not au revoir, but adieu to Renault for now.

And, so, we are left with 18 months in which to enjoy Renault’s racing, restauration and records. Their heritage is already here, a tangible presence in Formula One. It has prompted Peugeot into the competition, raised the game for everyone and left a trail scattered with memories and a future filled with possibilities.

In the beginning, Renault’s presence was a stubby, box-shaped yellow vehicle which made people smile in 1977 when Jean-Pierre Jabouille qualified 11th at Silverstone with the RS01 and then retired, on lap 11, with turbo failure. It was a testing first season for Renault, with its own car and though qualifying performances improved, there were no race finishes.

The first of these came at Monaco the following May when Jabouille was 10th: the first points came another six months later still at the USA East Grand Prix, at Watkins Glen, where Jabouille finished fourth on October 1 1978. The dogged Jean-Pierre recorded Renault’s first pole en March 3 1979, at Kyalami, but his South African Grand Prix ended after 48 laps with a broken valve-spring. If any of Renault’s pioneers deserved a medal for perseverance, he did.

His reward came, on July 1, at the French Grand Prix at Dijon where Renault filled the front row of the grid, Jabouille lining up on pole with Rene Arnoux alongside. They looked like bees and they learned to sting like them too, but it was clear that while Renault’s engines were powerful, reliable and envied, their chassis, management and general team showings were less impressive.

So, what next? Enter one Alain Prost. Result? In 1982, at the French Grand Prix at Le Castellet, Arnoux came first and Prost second in Renault’s first one-two. Result? In 1983, Prost almost won the title, only losing out by the narrowest of margins, two points, in contentious circumstances, to Nelson Piquet, Brabham and BMW. Prost, unaccountably, was blamed by many for the disappointment and promptly left for McLaren.

It was the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. Lotus, powered by Renault, then rose and outshone the factory team from the Regie and after the Australian Grand Prix of 1985, Renault withdrew and a lesson was heeded. And heeded well.

In late September 1986, Renault announced it would be suspending all its Formula One activities and therefore no longer supplying Ligier, Lotus or Tyrrell with engines. Less than two years later, however, in June 1988, a return as partner with Williams was announced for 1989 and a magnificent era of Anglo-French success was launched at the outset of the post-turbo, 3.5-litre formula.

This time, too. Renault knew precisely what it was doing, what its objectives were and how it would achieve them. From the start, it was a programme pursued with such unrelenting commitment that it soon became apparent that the whole game was being pulled up in every respect. Just to compete, everyone else had to work harder than ever before if they were to have any chance of matching the standard-setting V10 from Paris.

“The Renault RS1 was an ‘all-round engine in so much that at the time of its design, we did not know which team and, therefore, which chassis it would power,” explained Dudot. “As a consequence, we based ourselves on the general view that a modern F1 engine must form an integral part of a Formula One car’s chassis. We consulted a number of chassis engineers about what they thought to be the best type of power unit for F1 – V8, V10, V12. In each case, we also indicated what we thought to be the approximate sizes of the engines in question, as well as their anticipated performance and fuel consumption. Their choice was a V10 with a small-angled vee. It wasn’t the easiest option for us to produce, but we had the advantage of being able to take our time because Renault had suspended its direct involvement in Formula One at the time.”

That RS1 was to be the father of the quintessential configuration of Formula One engines for the 1990s, spawning phenomenal success and imitators in generous measures. None enjoyed it so much as Frank Williams. Once ‘at war’ with the French, during an earlier period of his career, he now embraced them so warmly that together they became the most envied couple in the paddock. Each had the ability to bring out the best in the other and their partnership became as enduringly successful as any double act.

“Renault has made a great contribution to our success and to Formula One in the past eight years,” said Williams, on the night he and his French partners celebrated at Magny-Cours.

“When we first went into partnership with Renault we did not sit down and think about specific targets, championships or whatever, but about doing our best and aiming to win. What we have achieved has been magnificent and I am happy to say it is a superb part of our team a very focused and talented group of people. It is also appropriate to say Renault has been absolutely correct in the way it has dealt with supplying the two top teams. It has bent over backwards to be totally impartial and fair in its dealings with both Williams and Benetton. With Renault, there is no such thing as 99.9 per cent. It is always 100 per cent. I have zero cause for complaint in any area.”

That Renault could introduce a new evolution of its V10 at Magny-Cours and demonstrate its performance with such fabulous results was not lost on anyone present. “It just proved again that they always produce a wonderful piece of kit,” said Williams. “Reliable, powerful and desirable, it performed superbly. As always. It reminded me too of how much we are going to miss it. Our victory in France was the 50th for the Williams-Renault partnership.”

Ah, statistics. Can anyone beat their arguments?

“Well, we obviously don’t want to lose Renault, but I suppose these things come to an end,” said Bernie Ecclestone, Formula One’s ringmaster and a vice-president of the FIA. “They have obviously decided they got good mileage out of F1 and I think that maybe, in a lot of ways, there were people out there who wouldn’t come in because they thought Renault had such a start on them that it would be difficult to take them on. Ecclestone Ecclestone was obviously referring to results on the track where Renault has reigned supreme for so long, but he might also have been thinking of the paddock and those lazy Sunday lunches, the tastes of Burgundy, Provence and the Loire… that era, now drawing towards its close, that will forever be recalled for Renault’s restauration and racing excellence.