Local hero

Jean Rondeau was the only man ever to drive a car bearing his own name to victory at Le Mans. From his humble start to his needless death, his story is truly incredible. Adam Cooper reports

Jean Rondeau did not always play by the rules; anyone who had the nerve to test pukka Le Mans cars on the public roads was bound to be a little reckless in his approach to life. But, on December 27th 1985, he pushed the limits too far.

Waiting in a queue of cars at a level crossing near his base at Champagne-sur-Sarthe, he was irked to see a police vehicle snake through the gates on the other side of the road. Perhaps thinking that as a local celebrity he had the right to emulate the gendarmes, he pulled his Porsche 944 out of the traffic and accelerated past the incredulous drivers of the other vehicles. It was a decision of mind-numbing stupidity, and it cost him his life.

Some five and a half years earlier Rondeau was in the newspapers for much happier reasons. In June 1980 he became the only man to win the Le Mans 24 Hours in a car bearing his name, a record which seems certain to stand for all time. He was also the first local to win the great race.

Rondeau’s love affair with the Vingt Quatre Heures began in 1949, when he was taken to the first post-war event as a three-year-old. Winning it became his obsession, and this driver of modest talent rose from obscurity to take on the best in the world. Against all the odds, he succeeded.

“If he wanted to do something, he did it,” says French journalist Jean-Marc Teissedre. “He wanted to make a car to win Le Mans, and he did.”

Rondeau began competing in saloons in 1969, and apart from a spell in Formula Renault did most of his racing in British Leyland-produced tintops. But Le Mans was his dream. He made his debut there in 1972, sharing a Chevron B21 with Brit Brian Robinson; they retired with engine problems on Sunday morning. He returned in a French-entered Porsche 908 in 1973, but failed to qualify. The following year he finished 19th after a troubled race in the same car.

Then, in 1975, he drove a humble Mazda entered by one Claude Buchet. Little more than a prodsaloon, the little car proved to be hopelessly uncompetitive, and after qualifying 50th it was out before half distance.

Galvanised by this experience, Rondeau vowed to do things properly in the future. Hitherto his Le Mans record was hardly the stuff of legend, but just 12 months after the Mazda embarrassment he turned up at the track with immaculate, competitive cars, and some of the very top French drivers of the day in his employ. How on earth did he do it? The man who knows best is former rally ace and Formula One driver Vic Elford.

“I had a call from Rondeau, whom I didn’t know at the time,” recalls Vic today. “I think he knew I lived in France and spoke French. I always had a reputation as a good test driver, and I guess that made him think I was a good guy to talk to.

“He told me what his project was — to virtually build a car in the race’s backyard, because he lived in Le Mans. He asked if I would be available to help with the testing and development. As an aside he said, ‘Do you think you could help us with the sponsorship?’ I said, ‘No, I’ve never been any good at that…”

However, Elford had recently made a connection with the boss of the Inaltera wallpaper company, who was seeking to get involved with racing. By pure chance, Rondeau had been in the decorating business himself and knew of Inaltera. Vic brought the parties together in September 1975.

“We met in the dining room over the workshop where Jean lived and worked. We started the meeting at 8am and finished it at 8pm, with Jean’s mum doing the sandwiches! Jean was a very pleasant guy, but extremely strong-willed, not afraid to say what he thought. And he was absolutely convinced that he could do it.”

A deal was hammered out; Jean’s car would be called an Inaltera, Elford would be team manager, and French heroes Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo would be invited to drive.

Built for the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s new GTP class, which later begat both FIA Group C and IMSA GTP, the DFV-powered Inaltera appeared at Le Mans in 1976. It was lightning quick on the straights, and Beltoise/Pescarolo survived niggling problems to finish eighth. Rondeau brought his sister car home a much-delayed 21st, sharing with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Christine Beckers.

After a trip to Daytona in January 1977, the team made an even bigger impact on its second outing at the Sarthe; Rondeau and Jean Ragnotti finished fourth, while the other entries were 11th and 13th.

However, that was to be the final fling for sponsor Inaltera, thanks to a management shake-up. The cars were sold, and Elford dropped out of the programme. Rondeau, however, was determined as ever to keep the team together and began a new car. He had a close ally in the form of Marjorie Bross, the wife of a local politician, who proved adept at finding sponsors. She received due recognition for her invaluable services when her name was duly incorporated into the type number of the new Rondeau M378.

“He was not very good at finding money, because he wasn’t diplomatic,” says Teissedre. “Everything was arranged by Marjorie.”

Jean and rally ace Bernard Darniche qualified the sole entry only 41st for the 1978 race, but they maintained the tradition of finishing, coming home ninth. Next year the latest M379 was 26sec quicker in qualifying, and Damiche and Jean Ragnotti started sixth. They finished fifth, while the reunited Pescarolo/Beltoise squad took 10th. Rondeau himself posted the first retirement for one of his cars.

The Rondeau effort was stronger than ever in 1980. There were no mighty factory teams in the field, but there were legions of Porsche 935s, and a very special 908/936 hybrid prepared by Reinhold Joest for himself and the great Jacky Ickx. The week started well for the local heroes when Pescarolo/Ragnotti put their car on pole, while Rondeau/Jaussaud lined up fifth. Backing them up was a car rented to Belgians Jean-Michel and Philippe Martin, who were partnered in the car by Gordon Spice.

“We were regarded as a bit of a joke by the others,” recalls Spice. “It was a very froggy team, and there was an awful lot of national feeling about. Whenever a press conference was called, all the French drivers would disappear to it, and we were left sitting there wondering where everyone had gone! He took over half the paddock area, and it was all done quite well.

“The French drivers all felt they had to keep fit for the race. They’d go off in the morning from the farmhouse where we stayed, in trainers and shorts and come back two hours later. But Jaussaud used to just run up the drive, take out his book, sit down and read it. He’d cover himself with water from the stream and come back with a fag in his mouth…”

Run in pouring rain for much of the distance, the 1980 24-hour race was a classic. The Pescarolo/Ragnotti car set the early pace, but it retired with head gasket failure, leaving Rondeau and Jaussaud to uphold the team’s honour. The event became a see-saw battle with the Ickx/Joest Porsche, which fought back into contention from several delays.

“Conditions were truly shitty, really bad,” says Gordon. “But obviously a wet race doesn’t take so much out of the car. The car was really super and very nice to drive. It was extremely responsive to any changes made on the aerodynamic side.”

The pace was tough. Shortly after 1pm on Sunday, rival team bosses Rondeau and Joest both skated into the barriers at a soaking Dunlop Curve and both somehow escaped serious damage. Then, in the final hour Jaussaud made the crucial decision to stay on slicks when Ickx pitted, and it was to prove a winning gamble; he brought the black car safely home just two years after sharing Renault’s only win with Didier Pironi. Meanwhile Gordon Spice and the Belgian Martin brothers finished third.

“Jean was absolutely over the moon,” says Gordon. “I think we drank non-stop for three days afterwards. He wasn’t a gregarious sort of bloke, but he was highly dedicated to what he was doing.”

Triumph turned to tragedy in 1981 when Jean-Louis Lafosse lost his life in the opening hours of the race, but Philippe Streiff, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jacky Haran went on to finish a distant second behind the dominant Ickx/Bell Porsche 936/81, while Spice was third again.

“I’d got them all drinking rum and coke instead of just wine,” recalls Gordon. “During the race Rondeau came up to me and said, `Voulez-vous faire un double?’ I said, ‘I don’t actually drink when I’m driving.’ He was really asking me if I would do a double stint!”

In 1982 the FIA introduced the new Group C class to the World Endurance Championship. The rules were tailor made for Rondeau, and together with Pescarolo and Giorgio Francia he won the first ever Group C race at Monza in an M382C. Then the new Porsche 956 arrived at Silverstone and rewrote the sportscar rule book for all time.

At Le Mans, the French cars were wiped out when the new 3.9-litre Cosworth DFLs proved troublesome. Nevertheless Rondeau remained in contention for the makes title until the FIA controversially decreed that Porsche could make use of points won by a private Group B 911 at the Nurburgring. Having nearly beaten Porsche with his 22 employees and a budget of just £600,000, Jean was devastated especially when main sponsor Otis lifts pulled out in disgust. Rondeau couldn’t find the budget to run his new Ford turbo car in the 1983 FIA series.

“What a paradox,” he was to note at the time. “All ready to win the World Championship and we’re out of money!”

Still, the local authorities helped him move to a brand new factory just a stone’s throw from the circuit, and he found Ford France backing for Le Mans. The distinctive M482C, seen briefly the previous year, created far too much downforce, but in any case the DFLs again failed one-by-one. At the end of 1983, Automobiles Jean Rondeau went into receivership.

The company did survive by turning its attention to FF1600, initially building Reynard-based cars for the domestic market. In 1984, there was just a single entry at Le Mans, financed by American rent-a-drivers. The boss himself joined John Paul Jr and Preston Henn in the latter’s 956; they finished a surprise second, beaten only by Joest’s New Man entry. The following year Jean drove for WM Peugeot, the team that was for so long his rival for Gallic affection.

Rondeau still had plans to get back to the top in sportscars, but it wasn’t easy.

“He’d always be ducking and diving,” says Spice, “always short of money. Getting paid was a six month job. But he was a terrific local hero. I can remember going out with the race cars on the road when we were doing all-nighters, and it was accepted that Rondeau was allowed to drive around on the public highways at night! It never occurred to him that it was a bit oitside the law. He was crazy in that way. He really didn’t give a stuff.”

“He was always a nutcase in a road car,” recalls Elford.

On December 27th 1985, at the age of just 39, Jean Rondeau’s luck finally ran out.