Born and raised in Le Mans, Jean Rondeau dreamed of conquering the 24 Hours in a car of his own manufacture. Through sheer force of personality, he finally managed it
It was an act of breathtaking stupidity and it cost him his life. By all accounts Jean Rondeau was a law unto himself: a driven man, a go-getter with unyielding self-belief. But even he was no match for a train.
On December 27, 1985, this Le Mans local – this Le Mans hero – perished at a level crossing near his Champagne-sur-Sarthe headquarters. Riled after watching a police car snake through gates on either side of the tracks, he decided to follow suit. Queuing was for others. Gunning his Porsche 944 past stationary traffic, he almost made it. Almost.
“He was a lovely guy but a bit of a madster. That much was obvious,” recalls sometime Rondeau team driver Gordon Spice. “It was no great shock that he died the way he did. A terrible shame, but not a surprise. You have to remember that Jean would test his race cars on the road. He’d think nothing of driving balls-out down the Mulsanne. There would be camions coming the other way but he didn’t mind. He couldn’t give a stuff. And the thing is, he got away with it because he was the man at Le Mans. He grew up there, lived there. And after he won the 24 Hours in 1980, he could do anything he wanted.”
The leap from bystander to the top of the podium followed one hell of a run-up. As a spectator at the first post-war running of the Vingt-Quatre Heures in 1949, Jean Rondeau looked on entranced and vowed that he would one day conquer the endurance classic. He was just three-years-old. But this was more than just a childish wish, something to be discarded as the next whim took hold. The dream never left him. It became an obsession.
Making his competition debut 20 years later, there was little early indication that Rondeau possessed any real talent as a driver. A brief spell in Formula Renault aside, he stuck to saloon car racing with Minis (and much later a Bill Shaw-prepared Triumph Dolomite Sprint) before realising at least part of his goal on making his Le Mans entrance in 1972. Sharing a Chevron B21 with Brit Brian Robinson, his was an early bath after engine problems hobbled the car into retirement on the Sunday morning. A year on he was back in a Porsche 908 but failed to qualify. Returning with the same car in ’74, he actually made the flag, finishing a lowly 19th – out of 20 finishers – after a problematic race.
So nothing to shout about so far. Even less as June rolled round again, Rondeau’s weapon of choice for the ’75 event being one of the most unlikely cars to ever start the 24 hours: a works Mazda S124A (RX-3 in the UK). Near standard, this bargain-bucket coupé somehow made the cut (qualifying 54th out of 56 starters) and Jean, along with Claude Buchet, spent most of his time keeping out of everyone else’s way until retiring before half-distance. Another year, another humiliation.
Then matters took a turn for the extraordinary. With no real form behind him, but massive self-belief, Rondeau bagged a sponsor. A big one. His day job as an interior decorator meant that Rondeau was familiar with wallpaper manufacturer Inaltera. Having roped in Vic Elford to help form a new équipe (and act as team manager) under the ATAC banner (Association pour la vulgarisation et la promotion des techniques de courses automobiles), together they tapped its MD, amateur driver Charles James, to fund the design of a new prototype. With considerable assistance from former Porsche and Matra aerodynamicist Robert Choulet, Rondeau’s eight-man crew rocked up at La Circuit de la Sarthe in June ’76 with two beautifully prepared cars and the cream of French driving talent.
Running in the new GTP category, the Inalteras (running ‘soft-cam’ Cosworth DFVs) proved devastatingly quick on the straights with Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo coming home eighth (and winning the class). The boss, sharing with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and (Elford’s companion) Christine Beckers, trailed home 21st after countless damper related issues.
A trip to Daytona in January 1977 ended in retirement for both entries, but this small team came out fighting at Le Mans. Rondeau and that year’s French rallycross champion Jean Ragnotti won the GTP class and finished an impressive fourth overall (only losing third in the final hour). The sister cars were 11th and 13th. But this was to prove a false dawn for Rondeau. After a managerial shake-up, Inaltera abruptly withdrew its backing; ATAC was liquidated and the equipment was sold off to Heini Mader.
Back to square one, then? Not quite. Rondeau had an ally in Marjorie Brosse, wife of the mayor of Le Mans, who drummed up sufficient sponsorship (and a workshop on the Montehard industrial estate) for the team of now largely unpaid volunteers to regroup. She duly received recognition for her efforts, earning the ‘M’ of the new Rondeau M378’s designation, after plans for a six-wheeled car were canned. With just a single entry for the ’78 Le Mans, the largely Inaltera-derived prototype was qualified a modest 41st having been virtually assembled in the pits. Come the race, tradition was maintained with another victory in GTP (and ninth overall) for Jean and rally star Bernard Darniche.
As was to prove thematic of the Rondeau story, success was followed by potential catastrophe: the kitty was now empty and the rented workshop was vacated. Brosse then rode to the rescue once more. With major backing from ITT, a new factory was found in Champagne and two more prototypes were constructed for the ’79 race.
The latest M379 was 26sec quicker in qualifying than the outgoing car, with Darniche and Ragnotti finishing the race in fifth (and taking Group 6 honours) with the reunited Pescarolo/Beltoise pairing five places behind. Rondeau, sharing with old friend Jacky Haran, retired the third entry in the ninth hour. Then the money ran out. Again.
No matter, more was found in time for 1980’s race, in part by hiring out a third car. Enter Gordon Spice: “My being there was down to the Martin brothers [Jean-Michael and Philippe] with whom I’d had a successful relationship running Capris in the Spa 24 Hours and the Belgian [saloon car] championship. They told me that they’d hired a car from Jean Rondeau to do Le Mans and did I know anything about him? My answer was ‘well, no, not a lot’. Well, Rondeau produced this Belga-liveried car which looked very nice. I don’t know what it cost the Martins, but I was invited along because they’d never driven a sports car in their lives. Needing all the support we could get, I roped in KG [Keith Greene] to be our team manager. He was an ace at this sort of thing.”
As the token rosbif in a French squad, Spice’s was an uphill struggle: “From the start, I felt that we really needed to leave our mark on the team; we were very much the rental boys. On the Wednesday night following first practice, we were basically ignored; we were the money. I said to KG, ‘Let’s set the car up, add more wing and all that stuff and show them what we can do.’ Anyway, the next day I did a storming lap and knocked the piss out of Rondeau. I was the only Englishman there among Pescarolo, Ragnotti and so on. They would all disappear off to a press conference – there were endless press conferences – and leave me behind. I was just some Charlie. That lap wasn’t important in the greater scheme of things. It was only important in earning their respect. Later on we went back to the farmhouse where we were staying and I said to the other guys, ‘I thought you were meant to be professional drivers but you’re very slow. Here, have some rum!’”
Days later, Spice would finish third in the race, and scoop GTP honours: “I said to the Martins, the most important thing to do is to save the car. If you hit a kerb, come in and get the car checked out. They took to it like a duck to water. And it was very wet. It rained for most of the distance but obviously a wet race doesn’t take so much out of the car. We won the class because we spent the least amount of time in the pits. I have to say, that was one of the most satisfying wins I ever had.”
But not as rewarding as that earned by the man sharing the winning car. There were no big factory teams competing in 1980. This was – this had to be – Rondeau’s year. Up against an army of Porsche 935s and the Joest/Ickx 908/936 hybrid, Jean endured a torrid time in qualifying with ignition box breakages. In the race, he somehow survived a brush with the barriers at Dunlop Curve during the 21st hour, and co-driver Jean-Pierre Jaussaud made the crucial decision to stay on slicks when chief rival Ickx made his final stop. He bought the car home to record a hugely popular victory, just two years after his first with Alpine-Renault.
“It was a wonderful moment,” recalls Spice. “Jean wasn’t an outgoing guy but I think we drank for the next two days. It was a huge thing for him.” Rondeau had realised his lifelong dream and became the only Le Mans resident to win the race. It was also the first for a driver/constructor.
Triumph turned to tragedy in 1981. Rondeau’s co-driver and friend Jean-Louis Lafosse died in the opening hours of the 24 hours. Philippe Streiff, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jacky Haran finished a distant second, with Spice and François Migault one place behind. Spice: “Jean had actually invited me to drive that year. I remember him coming up to me during the race and saying, ‘Voulez-vous faire un double?’ I replied, ‘Steady on Jean. The worst thing about doing 24 hours is that I can’t have a drink’. Then my wife Mandy pointed out that he wanted me to do a double stint…”
In 1982, the FIA introduced the new Group C category of the World Endurance Championship. Rondeau, together with Pescarolo and Giorgio Francia, won the first event – the Monza 1000Km – in an M382C and, despite the arrival of the Porsche 956 at Silverstone, remained competitive. Until June. “Le Mans was a disaster,” recalls Spice. “I was leading the race when the car let go. The Cosworth DFLs had a faulty batch of rubber on the pick-up for the ignition.” None of the Rondeaus finished.
Nonetheless, armed with a budget of just £600,000, the 22-man crew remained in contention for the Makes title until the FIA controversially allowed Porsche to make use of points accrued at the Nürburgring by a privateer Group B 911. Principal sponsor Otis was outraged and withdrew its backing. The championship was lost.
There was no finance in place for Rondeau to run his new turbo car in the ’83 series but, in time for Le Mans, the local authorities helped with a new factory and Ford France stumped up some cash. The radical-looking M482C created too much downforce, but it was of no consequence as all the DFL runners dropped out one-by-one. At the end of the year, Automobiles Jean Rondeau lurched into receivership.
The marque lived to fight another day by constructing Reynard-derived FF1600 cars for the home market, Jean Rondeau returning to Le Mans in ’84 as a jobbing driver: he joined John Paul Jr and Preston Henn in the latter’s Porsche 956 to record a surprise second place. A year later he was back with another Le Mans favourite, a WM-Peugeot P83B, and finished 17th. It would be his last race.
He may have been on his uppers, but Rondeau still harboured ambitions to claw his way back to the top. In November ’85, the 39-year-old inked a deal with the fledgling Venturi concern: he would assist in developing and manufacturing its road-going sports car. In time, he hoped, it could lead to further Le Mans campaigns. A month later he was dead. Always the chancer, Rondeau had taken one chance too many.