Lunch with Jean-Pierre Jabouille

Part of a golden generation of French drivers, Jean-Pierre Jabouille is also the man who developed the first turbocharged grand prix car and turned it into an F1 winner


Cathy Dubuisson

His career stats are quirky – 49 grand prix starts and only three points finishes, two of those being victories – but they encapsulate Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s role to perfection. He was a pioneer, a development driver who took the reliability hits while developing fresh technology that would change the face of Formula 1. When Renault introduced the popping, banging – and often smoking – RS01 turbo to grand prix racing at Silverstone in ’77, rivals sniggered; by the time Jabouille stood atop the podium at Dijon-Prenois two summers later, after dominating in his RS10, the laughter had long since stopped.

To discuss this and other aspects of a long, wide-ranging career, we convene on the Île de la Jatte, in the heart of the River Seine, from where the sirens of everyday Paris are audible, yet seem somehow muted. As a location that inspired French impressionists such as Seurat and Monet, it’s unexpectedly appropriate, too. Given his reputation as a master of set-up and development, you might imagine that Jabouille had some formal engineering qualifications, but no: he studied modern art at the Sorbonne.

“I used to do quite a bit of painting before I took up racing,” he says as we settle at a waterside table in Le Petit Poucet, where Jabouille orders fillet of sea bream accompanied by vegetables in escabeche sauce, plus a single glass of rosé. “I can barely remember when I first became interested in racing,” he says, “but from when I was very young it was something I always wanted to do. At the time, if I’d told my friends that I wanted to be a racing driver it would have been just the same as telling them I wanted to be the world’s best singer – completely unthinkable, so I kept it to myself.”


Jabouille’s creativity knew few bounds, as symbolised by the self-designed Elf 2J with which he lifted the 1976 Euro F2 title 1976


Jabouille cut his teeth at the wheel of an Alpine A110 in French hillclimbs, creating a stir in 1965 when he scored a class victory at Mont-Dore and beat the works A110s. “I don’t think the factory drivers were best pleased,” he says, “because I’d sprung up from nowhere. Jacques Cheinisse was Alpine’s sporting director at the time and didn’t believe it was possible that I could have beaten them. He actually protested my car, though I wasn’t worried because I knew it conformed. I was quite lucky because I lived close to [well-known Ferrari collector] Pierre Bardinon, who had a large estate in Creuse and built his own private circuit, Mas du Clos. He allowed me to practise there to prepare the Alpine and I think my interest in set-up work was already starting to show – I was running Kleber tyres at the front and Michelins at the rear, because I’d noticed that it felt better balanced that way.”

The following year he made his circuit debut by entering Renault’s inaugural Coupe R8 Gordini, for cars so standard that safety requirements amounted to no more than the wearing of a crash helmet. The use of seat-belts was ‘recommended’, a roll cage strictly optional. “My first race was at Pau,” he says, “a fairly challenging venue. I had no idea what to expect but I ended up third. It was a tough championship, with no quarter given on track, but afterwards we were all good mates and would go off playing tennis, or having dinner together. I look back on those days very fondly. Initially I survived on a day-by-day basis, because even then it was essential to find a bit of money, but I was lucky that my results encouraged Esso to give me a bit of backing and I never damaged the car by going off the road.”

That Esso support enabled him to switch to single-seaters in ’67, when he entered the French F3 Championship with a second-hand Brabham BT18 before switching to an Écurie Crio Matra. “I have particularly happy memories of a race at Reims that June,” he says. “It was a big field, all the British drivers were over and at the final moment – booom! – I passed everybody. I was so, so happy – beating the Brits and everybody else really meant something at the time. I have a photo that shows I wasn’t particularly well placed going into the final turn, fourth or fifth, but I’d worked out that I needed to be about there to get enough of a slipstream to be at the front by the time we reached the finishing line. I’d been experimenting with my slipstreaming technique during practice, but never imagined it would pay off as it did.” He beat Henri Pescarolo by a tenth and just 1.1sec covered the top six.

Jabouille remained in F3 the following season, taking second place to François Cevert in the national championship, and was then head-hunted by Cheinisse, the man who had protested him a few years earlier at Mont-Dore, as a development driver for the Alpine factory. “That enabled me to get my first motor racing pay cheque,” he says. “First and foremost I saw myself as a driver rather than an engineer, but at the wheel I was always thinking about potential solutions to make the car faster. In ’68 François had a Tecno and I had a Matra, which didn’t handle terribly well initially, so with one of the mechanics I modified the rear suspension and that made it better. I had an insatiable desire to win, that much was clear.

“When I arrived at Alpine, I already had a reputation for modifying things and to my great surprise people were happy just to let me get on with it. One engineer wasn’t in favour, but I came up with some rear suspension mods that worked well so he had to concede that my instincts were correct. People quickly showed faith in me and began gravitating towards me for feedback. That helped and I always enjoyed having conversations with people who had a good technical understanding – I was taught well and learned quickly. Alpine had a very good aerodynamicist, Marcel Hubert, who taught me all he knew – and bit by bit, in his words, the pupil worked his way ahead of the master. At school I’d always been very good at anything to do with maths, but without any formal training I was just lucky that the technical side seemed to come to me naturally.”

From the archive

For F3 in 1969 he was joined by a compatriot of future repute.

Patrick Depailler and I spent most of our time fighting like idiots to prove we were the fastest Alpine driver,” he says, “but between us we eventually managed to work our way into a position that we could beat some of the bigger factory teams. I came up with a rear venturi that generated lots of downforce – a huge Eiffel Tower-type thing that I balanced by using a small front wing. It was very effective… and promptly got banned. I’m sure I was the first person to try a double rear wing, but everything was done by feel, a sense of what needed to be done.”

Were his instincts fed by his head or what he could feel through his backside?

“Both,” he says. “If you can’t feel things through your backside you won’t get anywhere, fortunately I could – and I could then process their significance in my head.”


Jabouille’s maiden F1 start came courtesy of Tyrrell in France, 1975. He entered grands prix with Williams and Surtees in’74, but failed to qualify

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For the next few years he would be busy sorting – and racing – single-seaters and sports cars, competing in F2 and endurance events and also being hired by Steve McQueen to assist with the filming of Le Mans. “I’d done the race for the first time in 1968,” he says, “sharing an Alpine A220 with [1964 winner] Jean Guichet. I found the whole thing an incredible experience, but I would never say ‘no’ to a racing opportunity. I just wanted to drive, drive, drive. For the film they wanted me to be involved with the race simulation sequences, which at the time felt like being paid very well to do very little.

“When I look back, it’s incredible to think how much I drove – I seemed to spend almost my whole time testing at Paul Ricard. François Guiter [the man behind Elf’s motor racing sponsorship initiative, which catapulted many youngsters up the racing ladder] was a very important figure in French motor racing, helping many different drivers – including me. When things weren’t going well for any of them, I’d be called from wherever I happened to be to sort out their chassis. I enjoyed that, because it gave me so much time at the wheel.”

Having made a one-off European F2 appearance at Hockenheim in 1968, Jabouille would spend several seasons doing partial campaigns at that level from 1970, initially with a Pygmée chassis, then subsequently Tecno, March, Alpine and Elf. He finished second to Reine Wisell in the 1971 Pau GP, a non-championship race, and to Mike Hailwood at Mantorp Park in ’72, but it would be another couple of years before he notched up his maiden victory, at Hockenheim. In 1974 he also made a couple of abortive attempts to qualify for his maiden grand prix, in France with Williams and in Austria with Surtees. He finally made the F1 cut when Tyrrell entered an extra car for him in the 1975 French GP, taking a steady 12th place between F2 commitments, but he was by now 32 and rarely mentioned as a potential future F1 driver. Within 12 months, however, that would all change.

“His ’76 F2 cars were entered as Elf 2Js, but they were ‘Jabouilles’”

In 1976 he contested a European F2 season for a final time. Officially the cars of Jabouille and team-mate Michel Leclère were entered as Elf 2Js, but to all intents and purposes they were ‘Jabouilles’. “I designed the bodywork, the suspension, pretty much everything apart from the engine and gearbox,” he says. “It was quite a tight title fight, the Martini-Renaults of René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay against Michel and I, but I drove strategically and did everything I could to look after the car.”

His tactics proved effective. He won three races to Arnoux’s four, but greater consistency paid dividends and victory in the Hockenheim finale secured him the title.

From the archive

It was the conclusion to a busy campaign in which he had also raced for Renault in sports car events – although that didn’t begin too well. At the Nürburgring in April, he and team-mate Patrick Depailler lined up towards the front for a 300-kilometre race attended by the company’s top brass. “Patrick was on pole,” he says, “and I qualified third, behind Rolf Stommelen’s Porsche 936. I made a good start and took an immediate lead, which was imperative because it was raining and if you weren’t at the front it would have been almost impossible to see anything. I braked fairly late for a downhill left-hander, but Patrick tried to follow me and slid off hard into the barriers.

“We hadn’t touched and I did everything I could to avoid him, but I hit a drainage cover, got sideways and crashed. All the Renault managers were there and after about one kilometre of the race both cars were out. They were absolutely livid, not so much with me, but suspended Patrick for the next three races. I think that was something of a first in the sport…”

The headline news, though, was his role in the development of Renault’s big future project – a grand prix car powered by a turbocharged, 1.5-litre V6 engine at a time when everybody else relied on three litres and natural aspiration.


Victory in the 1979 French GP cemented Jabouille into the history books as F1’s first turbocharged winner

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“Initially,” he says, “I didn’t really see any future for it. When first I tested it, the turbo spooled up only towards the end of the straights – just when you didn’t need it! – so I told [engine chief] Bernard Dudot that I didn’t think we were on the right path. He told me not to worry and that we’d try again, with a smaller turbo. That immediately began to work more efficiently in a 2.0-litre engine derived from the one we were using in sports car racing, so I was happy to press on with the idea, but when we switched to the F1-spec 1.5 it was another story – totally undriveable. The compression ratio was so weak that we couldn’t build up sufficient fuel pressure to start the engine. Every morning, one of the mechanics would get up earlier than the others and put a small camping stove beneath the engine to warm it up – at the time it was the only way we could get it started. It seemed quite a long road from there to having an engine capable of winning grands prix…

“When Formula 1 was first discussed, however, it was always clear that it had to be done in a way that broke the mould. At the time you had Ferrari, Brabham-Alfa Romeo and Ligier-Matra, but pretty much everybody else ran a Cosworth – and Renault had absolutely no interest in doing that.”

“Ken Tyrrell burst out laughing when I drove past with steam pouring out of the car”

The RS01 was pencilled in to make its debut in the 1977 French GP, but wasn’t ready in time and instead pitched up two weeks later at Silverstone.

“It’s well known that Ken Tyrrell burst out laughing that weekend when I drove past his pit with steam pouring out of the car, hence the celebrated théière jaune [yellow teapot] nickname,” he says, “but because I’d done all the testing, and because I’d raced the turbo extensively at Le Mans, I was confident we’d get there in the end. I knew, though, that it would take time.


On the 1979 French GP podium with Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve

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“Today I look back at what Renault subsequently achieved with a relatively small team… and compare it with the way Toyota performed in more recent times – about 1000 people involved, a huge budget and they didn’t manage to win a single grand prix. Resources alone are never enough.”

The car appeared five times in the second half of ’77, retiring on four occasions and failing to qualify once, and Renault skipped the South American races at the start of the following season before committing to the rest. Jabouille hinted at what might lie ahead when he qualified sixth at Kyalami, where high altitude played to the turbo’s strengths, then recorded his first finish – 10th – in Monaco. For the most part the engine continued to falter before the chequered flag, but he qualified third in both Austria and Italy before taking a first points finish with fourth place at Watkins Glen.

From the archive

Between times, he had also looked on course to win Le Mans for Renault-Alpine, sharing the latest A443 sports-prototype with Patrick Depailler. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the team decided to reduce the turbo boost in an effort to conserve the engine, but that caused the fuel pressure to drop and Patrick burned out a piston within a lap of rejoining after a routine stop. It’s the only time I’ve ever cried at a racing circuit.”

Jabouille took his maiden F1 pole at Kyalami in 1979 (when the engine again failed) and two races later, in Spain, the new RS10 was introduced. After an indifferent start with the latest car, he took pole again on home soil in Dijon.

“Despite our reliability record,” he says, “I felt very confident that day. Dijon is at quite a high altitude, which suited the turbo, the temperature was perfect – not too hot, not too cold – and I’d done some endurance testing eight or 10 days beforehand, when everything went well. Everything, that is, apart from my neck – I’d done so much running and pulled so many g that it started to give out. By the end of the day my head was resting pretty much on my shoulder. Even on the straights, it was completely impossible to lift it.

“In the race, though, everything ran to plan. The car handled exceptionally and the engine didn’t miss a beat. Gilles Villeneuve got away in the lead – the naturally aspirated Ferrari tended to get off the line better – but I made a good start, too, and was happy to bide my time. After about 10 laps I started to push a bit harder, he got a bit sideways and I was able to get through and pull 10sec clear very quickly, then control the gap – all very calm. It was a huge satisfaction on a personal level, because it was the culmination of a massive amount of work I’d done with the engineers, all the ideas that had been put forward, all the things that we’d tried.”

Despite the significance of the moment, it was also a day when the focus of attention became not so much the winner as the no-hold-barred, wheel-banging duel for second between Villeneuve and Jabouille’s team-mate René Arnoux. “What those two did that day had previously been unthinkable,” Jabouille says. “If they had interlocked wheels one or the other might have gone flying, and cars weren’t quite as safe then as they have since become, so I suppose I did feel a little frustrated that everyone seemed to be talking mainly about them. But today I find people have adjusted their focus and the name Jabouille means something to them because of that day. I experienced it when I demonstrated the RS10 during the French GP weekend earlier this year. I found the public’s reaction to that very moving.”

“What might have been possible, had I not had that bloody crash?”

It was to be the season’s stand-out moment, but a cocktail of fragility and fate dictated that he would record only three more grand prix finishes over the balance of his career – one of those yielding victory in the 1980 Austrian GP. Speaking to Motor Sport in 2014, Renault engine chief Bernard Dudot said, “Keeping our intake air cool was very important for both performance and for responsiveness, so in Austria team manager Jean Sage bought bags of ice from a local fishmonger as a cooling aid. It must have worked, because Jean-Pierre won, but the Renault pit stank of fish all weekend…”

Speaking about his F1 record, Jabouille says, “Who knows what might have been possible if I hadn’t had that bloody accident?”

He is referring to the 1980 Canadian GP, when his F1 career effectively ended as his Renault RS20 slewed into the retaining wall. “The previous day,” he says, “Nelson Piquet had made a mistake and crashed into me. Our mechanics changed pretty much all the affected parts, except one – a wishbone that subsequently broke. When I wanted to turn right the car turned left. The floor of the car broke in two beneath me and there was no damage at all to the rear section, but my legs finished somewhere around here [he points to his shoulders as he speaks].”

He underlines that he still had a contract with Renault for 1981, then smiles. “Actually,” he says, “I was in the unusual situation of having two contracts. I wasn’t very happy with some of the decisions [Renault team boss] Gérard Larrousse had taken and decided to start talking to Ligier. French writer Johnny Rives acted as an intermediary – and it was during a midnight phone call that I told him I wanted to switch teams.”

He was back for the start of the following season in Brazil, but during practice it became clear that he wasn’t match fit and the team plugged in Jean-Pierre Jarier to replace him. He appeared at the following five races, twice failing to qualify and reaching the flag only at Imola, where he was too far back to be classified. In the circumstances, he soon reached a pivotal decision. “It was during practice in Monaco,” he says. “I was pushing as hard as I could to set a time – but each time I tried, I was unable to apply sufficient brake pressure and ended up down an escape road. That’s when I realised my F1 days were over. There was now a frustrating physical barrier that hadn’t been there before, though I knew I’d still be able to enjoy racing in other categories.”

He appeared once more in F1, in Spain, remained with Ligier for a while as part of the management and then went on to spend more than 20 years racing saloon cars, GTs and sports-prototypes – including a stint with Peugeot in the early 1990s, when he twice finished third at Le Mans in a 905. “I raced whatever I could,” he says. “Jean Todt was boss of Peugeot Sport when the 905 programme started and I told him they could do a lot better with the aero, so he hired me to head the development programme. I’m not sure other members of the team had faith in me [he was in his late 40s by then], but we went to Magny-Cours with some aero mods and other tweaks I’d requested and – people don’t believe me when I say this – we immediately found a couple of seconds. They were happy to listen to me after that.”

He’s not quite sure when he considers that he’d stopped racing for good – he was still competing (and winning) in the French GT Championship in 2005, at the wheel of a Dodge Viper – but he remains very much in touch with the sport.


Two third-place finishes in Peugeot’s 905 Evo capped Jabouille’s Le Mans career

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“I do watch grands prix,” he says, “but sometimes find it frustrating. That penalty they gave Sebastian Vettel in Canada this year? What he did was all about instinct – not steering on the grass, trying to retain control. If he hadn’t done that there would probably have been two cars in the wall.

“When I was racing for Renault, they were getting 1500bhp in qualifying trim from a small engine, if only for a lap or three. Some wonderful things were accomplished in those days. Nowadays, people seem obsessed with things that are far less worthwhile, five-second penalties and so on. We need to rid the sport of that.

“My outstanding career memory? It’s difficult to say, because there were so many strong moments – not least winning the F2 championship in what was effectively my own car. As for F1, whenever we tested at Ricard, our car would work well in the cool of the morning but, once the temperature rose, the engine would get too hot. We eventually got there, though, and everybody later went for turbos, so I’m proud to have played my part in that.”

CV: Jean-Pierre Jabouille

Born: 1/10/42, Paris, France
1966 Starts circuit racing in Coupe R8 Gordini
1967-69 French F3; runner-up to François Cevert in 1968
1968 Le Mans 24 Hours and European F2 debuts
1970-76 European F2; six wins, champion in ’76
1973-74 Third at Le Mans with Matra
1974 Two failed attempts to qualify for grands prix
1975 First F1 start with Tyrrell, French GP
1977-80 F1, Renault; two wins in France and Austria
1978 Sharing with Patrick Depailler, leads Le Mans for Renault until engine fails on Sunday morning
1980 Suffers serious leg injuries in Canadian GP
1981 F1, Ligier; steps down after a few races but remains with team in a technical capacity
1984-87 French Touring Car Championship in a Peugeot 505
1988 Touring cars with a BMW M3
1989 World Sports Car Championship, Sauber
1990 IMSA, Ferrari F40; WSCC, Peugeot
1992-93 Third at Le Mans with Peugeot
1994-95 Becomes head of Peugeot Sport
1996-2005 Diverse GT programmes