Close quarters

In the cockpit of the groundbreaking car that took Alain Prost to within a whisker of Renault’s first ever Formula 1 title
By Pascal Dro

Remember when the highest echelon of French sports heroes numbered Bernard Hinault, Michel Platini, Yannick Noah – and Alain Prost? For a generation of Formula 1 fans, ‘The Professor’ had assumed the exalted status of a pop star. It was as if everyone in France owned a share in the Régie Renault diamond badge and craved success as a matter of national pride. Prost beat Ferrari and Nelson Piquet, the reigning World Champion, and in his turn took the crown reckoned to be beyond the reach of a Frenchman.

He had looked a likely contender for the accolade of France’s first F1 Champion in 1982, taking two wins on his way to fourth in the drivers’ championship in Renault’s RE30B. It seemed certain that 1983 would be his year. He carried off the French Grand Prix, the third race of the season, in the second outing for the recently unveiled Renault RE40. A second at Imola and third at Monaco were followed by victory in the Belgian GP leaving Prost with a comfortable lead in the drivers’ championship. The only worry was the RE40’s reliability – particularly electrical faults and the turbo.

Prost recalls that time: “It was a lovely car. Quick, yes, but also easy to control. With it we should have been World Champions 10 times over. It just lacked a bit of reliability.” By July the title – the first for a turbocharged car – seemed assured. Then everything changed…

It should have been coronation year. More than two decades before Fernando Alonso’s first title, the RE40 was nearly the first Renault World Championship winner. If it had won one more race, Prost would have been World Champion. He recalls what held the team back: “That year there was a good turbo to have and a bad one. We had the bad one, and I think we had six or eight failures for that reason.” So why not change suppliers? “It was difficult politically. Just one more victory… In fact I believe we could have taken the championship in 1981 and 1982 as well. And we would have been champions in ’83 if we had protested against the fuel Brabham was using in its BMW engine. There were claims it did not conform, but we didn’t want to win that way.”

A collision with eventual champion Nelson Piquet at Zandvoort aside, Prost drove immaculately in ’83 and also recorded wins at Silverstone and the Osterreichring. A second place behind the Brazilian in the penultimate race (the European GP at Brands Hatch) seemed to put the title within Prost’s grasp, but turbo problems at Kyalami forced him out and Piquet’s third place was enough to secure the World Championship. The margin? Two points.

You can’t alter history; let’s climb aboard and concentrate on the present.

As you settle yourself in place, the RE40 seems simultaneously innovative and slightly crude. Innovative, because the monocoque is carbon fibre and protects the driver’s feet (this is the year after the crash which smashed Didier Pironi’s legs), though unlike today they are still ahead of the front axle line. The bodywork encloses the whole length of the car, including the aluminium ‘crash-box’ where the brake master cylinders are mounted. Beyond, there is only a small cone of composite to finish off the nose. In this, the RE40 differs from its contemporaries such as the Ferrari C2 and C3.

Slightly crude, because everything seems big and heavy – a huge, comfortable chassis, with cockpit dimensions a current F1 driver wouldn’t recognise, and constructed with carbon of a thickness you don’t see today, either. After this cockpits got narrower and narrower, culminating in the McLaren MP4/18 of 2003, but there comes a point when driver comfort must triumph over the aerodynamics…

Settling on board, you briefly wonder about your ability to handle a claimed 880bhp from the twin-turbocharged, 1492cc engine on its way to two huge rear wheels, but the RE40 calms you. The controls are just where you want them, the gearchange seems positive, and the instruments are all in clear view. The car makes you feel good. That’s confirmed by the next step: the motor starts gently, smoothly, a million miles away from the noise of a 3-litre atmospheric engine. It warms slowly; you can’t flex your right foot until the needle hits 90degC. And then… it’s very, very progressive. This is unexpected, but for those who saw Alain Prost race, with his smooth style, never forcing the car but gliding from corner to corner, it’s obvious that progressive engine response was one of his priorities. All these years later, even with reduced turbo boost for this test, you can still feel that. It’s the same with the steering: it never surprises you. It’s responsive, precise, easy to handle.

Patrick Tambay, the last great Renault pilot of this era, had mentioned how disappointing the RE60 ’box was in 1985 compared with the Ferrari he had just left, whose transverse ’box was a marvel. But, says Prost, there were no such worries here. Other problems, yes, but not the transmission. And certainly the change is rapid and firm, fast up or down, but positive enough to avoid mistakes. It’s perfect – which helps in coping with the quick flywheel response and 800 horses.

It only takes two laps before you feel you can put your foot down. One more lap and this is an F1 car doing what it was made for. At this point you are opening the door to another world. With your foot to the floor, the enormous rear wheels scrabble for traction even in fourth. You can sense the rubber flexing under the enormous torque as the steering wheel quivers in your hands. The limit isn’t the car, it’s what your neck can take.

In the confines of Donington Park, it’s not the difficulty of driving the RE40 which gets you, it’s looking for a moment to catch your breath. Because the braking power is also monstrous; the sheer force is hard to brace against, and there is only a second or two between corners.

It’s truly mind-bending, and much more physical than a modern F1 car. The more you attack, the more depths you discover in the power curve, the grip and the sheer speed. You know that going quickly is all about increasing, lap by lap, the revs at the start of the straight, and that’s only possible by coming out of the previous corner quicker each time, accelerating harder and earlier.

As you do so and the temperature of the tyres mounts, the racing rubber stops rumbling and goes quiet; now you’ve hit a new plateau of grip, and you understand. The car’s potential might border on the infinite, but not so much that it can’t be tamed by an ordinary mortal. In that respect the RE40 is astonishing.

Yet with such a valuable machine, it is at this point – when everything is going well, when you’ve got your eye in and you’re in the rhythm – that you should stop. For the progressiveness and civilised character of the car are now clear, and that’s the impression you want to preserve – it’s when you get over-confident and one wheel loses grip that you’ll end up in the barrier. And there’s no question that it’s better to bring the car back in one piece than go looking for that extra tenth of a second…

Renault RE40 F1

Engine: V6 twin-turbocharged
Chassis: Carbon-fibre monocoque
Weight: 545kg
Power: 880bhp at 12,500rpm
Gearbox: Hewland (Renault case)
Number of gears: Five
Fuel capacity: 240 litres
Brakes: Lockheed discs
Wheelbase: 2730mm
Front track: 1740mm
Rear track: 1630mm

Designers: Bernard Dudot, Michel Tétu
Drivers: Eddie Cheever, Alain Prost

1983 race results: 14 races, 79 constructors’ points.
Drivers’ championship standings: Prost 2nd, Cheever 6th.
Constructors’ championship standings: 2nd (4 wins, 3 poles)