Interview - Gerard Larrousse

A man with a responsibility to win at Le Mans and in F1

Gerard Larrousse takes the role of driver-turned-professional manager to a new level. Many team managers are like their football equivalents, participants freshly charged with the task of exhorting and guiding their former team-mates to even greater things. None of the motor sporting directors I have met can really match Larrousse’s record before he became the man responsible for Renault Sport’s enormous competition programme. Enormous? Certainly a valid word in this case, for together with ELF, Michelin and Cibie they budget to win at Le Mans this year (four cars plus full-scale testing) and they will have three similar Formula One Renault RS turbo cars to contest the World Championship, though only one driver, Jean-Pierre Jabouille. Even that is only the tip though, for Renault are actively involved with the development of two rally cars (Alpine-Renault A310-V6 and R5-Alpine) and a Formula Three engine sales and support scheme. Then to consider is the promotion of three categories of Renault racing formulae (two single-seater and R5 saloons) which involves countries outside France as well. Truly a gigantic sporting effort, even for one of Europe’s biggest and most successful vehicle manufacturing groups.

What sort of man is Larrousse, and how does he form the policies that guide the 150 Renault Sport employees, who operate from four bases? To discover a little more about the man and his current feelings regarding Renault’s mighty commitment to “our” sport it was necessary to meet him in Paris. The venue was a modern office block, enlivened by Gallic wall decorations that leave the eyes watering and out of focus, on the grey concreted banks of the Seine at Billancourt.

Initially it is worth studying Larrousse’s own sporting record. As simply as possible it amounts to winning major international long-distance races and rallies that matter, driving for Porsche, Matra and Renault-ELF. Ah well, you might say, that is not especially clever; Jochen Neerpasch and Roger Penske had a lot of success in sports-car racing too. The quick answer is to agree, but point out that Larrousse began his Porsche career driving rally cars. Who else has finished second overall on the Monte (three times!) and won the Tour de Corse, plus many other (mainly French) events of lesser status —and succeeded in racing, including winning Le Mans twice? I suppose Vic Elford’s record is about the only racing and rallying one to outshine Larrousse’s, the Frenchman racing but once in Formula One, and that in a then-outdated Brabham BT42.

Born in Lyon in May 1942, the dapper Larrousse looks every inch the Parisian today. He began to rally in 1961, using a Simca 1300: a rear-engined device that might have been mandatory for those who needed to, acquire the skills of car control. The following year he switched to another rear-engine device, the Renault 1100 Dauphine, and scored his first win in a French event. By this time he was in his first year at business school in Paris, and was 20 years of age.

The next two seasons were also spent studying commerce and rallying Dauphines. He had some remarkable results in that third year with these Renaults, winning three good quality French events, including the Lyons-Charbonnieres. He also attempted a Coupe des Alpes in an R8 Gordini (even quicker car control !), a car that he used in 1965 as well, though only one win came his way.

For 1966 he was driving for the Ceida NSU team, and it could be seen that rear- or mid-engined cars were to be his forte: the only front-engine cars he has competed with seem to be BMW or Ford touring machines, with r.w.d. In fact 1966 was good enough to reap a second place on points in the French Rally Championship, and Alpine-Renault scooped him up as a works driver in 1967. Together with present Renault Sport rally manager Marcel Callewaert as co-driver, Larrousse took eight wins in Alpine A110s of various capacities and again took the runner-up placing in the French Championship. He started racing in 1967, giving up that and rallying at the end of 1975, when he obtained his present position.

Alpine-Renault again employed Gérard in 1968. It was as successful in sheer results but he diversified, driving a 3-litre Alpine sports car to finish sixth and ninth in the Paris and Nurburgring 1,000 km., sharing with Patrick Depailler. The double career was established.. . . .

Porsche took Larrousse on from 1969-71. In his first year he won both the Tour de Corse and Tour de France for them. Since he also finished second at Le Mans and on the Monte Carlo Rally, scored a third overall in a 908 at Zeltweg, and competed in 21 events for Stuttgart, the Germans must have noted him as a hard and adaptable worker, at very least!

The following year he did 29 events, but four were in other marques, including a rally win in the interesting Chrysler-powered Simca CG prototype. The major wins of the year all came in Porsche 908-2s, and two 1,000-km. classics went his way (Spa-Francorchamps and Nurburgring), plus an event at Hockenheim. He also won the Marathon de la Route at Nurburgring in a mid-engined 914-6, one of that model’s few good results.

Again he was second at Le Mans and at Monte Carlo, but this time he drove a 4½-litre Porsche 917 in the 24-hour race. So, if Gerard Larrousse says a car is quick, he has more than enough experience to put the remark in proper perspective.

The final year with Porsche saw Larrousse driving other makes as well. He finished half of the 34 events he was entered in and won major internationals at Sebring and Nurburgring (both with Elford) and won the Tour de France again. This time it was an adventure, taking a Matra MS 650 sport racing V12 and French journalist Johnny Rives. Larrousse is not a humourless man . . . that beautiful engine note must have cheered up the intervening road sections too!

Also in 1971 he had some fine results with a sports Chevron-Ford B19, and shared a 3-litre Alpina BMW CS saloon with a certain N. Lauda for part of the Spa 24-hours. He finished neither Le Mans nor Monte Carlo that year.

For 1972 he had a far more free-ranging season, driving Lola sports cars (winning four events with four different type numbers) and sharing a Ford Capri with Jochen Mass, the pairing taking a win at Monza and Jarama. Yet another second place was his lot in the Monte Carlo rally 1972 (2.4-litre Porsche 911) and he did not finish Le Mans, but his racing career was due to take a real leap forward.

As he says today, “the seasons with Matra were fantastic (1973-74). Driving alongside Cevert, Beltoise and the others, I really learn a lot. I have much more confidence.” Paired with Henri Pescarolo he not only won Le Mans twice but also scored four other major wins for Matra in 1973 and three others the following year, at tracks as diverse as Watkins Glen, Kyalami and Vallelunga.

In that first year with Matra he also drove Lola T292s for Archambeaud, Switzerland (this time with BMW power) and had another four outright wins. There were also three class victories in French rallying with a 2000 GTV Alfa Romeo, some more saloon car racing with Ford; a single outing with a Datsun 240Z, and an unsuccessful assault on the Tour de France with a Ligier JS2.

In fact 1974 was his most successful year with twelve outright wins scored mostly with Matra, or the Switzerland Archambeaud-ELF factory Renault-Alpine A441 sports-racer. A Lancia Stratos was used to win the Targa Florio and a Ligier for another Tour de France victory. At one stage he had scored six international victories in six weekends.

Gerard Larrousse’s final competition year was all about Renault-Alpine sports or F2 cars in racing, save for a retirement when trying his luck again in Corsica’s international rally. There were fewer wins than before, but he certainly acquitted himself quite honourably in the hungry F2 pack, taking a win and two second places. Naturally I asked how hard it had been for him to give up racing and come to Renault? Larrousse summed up his feelings carefully before speaking, allowing plenty of time to gaze at rather quieter wallpaper than that displayed in the rest of the building. Obviously paper chosen to display the splendid bright yellow competition devices shown within the abundance of colour posters.

“It takes me only two days to decide. Always the previous boss (Jean Terramorsi) has joked with me that I should take over job. ob. It is painful about these things. I was not happy about the way in which the Formula Two programme was run, and this unfortunate manager was ill (he died in August 1976 of a heart attack) so I already had the idea of managing, if only for a bet.

“In fact the job was much bigger than you can imagine. There were two different departm ents at Alpine in Dieppe, a Gordini organisation in Paris and another racing department at Boulogne. My first job was to try and blend all these things together… you know we did not even have a commercial department to sell people things . . . it was chaos.”

Larrousse looks suitably appalled at the memory of an organisation that carried almost the same staff as today, but a staff who might be subjected to questioning by a public keen for the latest go-faster part, rather than digging further into their jobs.

“We had other problems too. The manage ment wanted the Le Mans project to go ahead, and we had nothing to replace the A110 Berlinctta rally car.” Since the A110 four-cylinder cars had secured the World Rally Championship for Renault-Alpine in 1973, this was also an important subject.

The number of employees when Larrousse took over, compared to that of today, is very similar. There may have been 10 less when Larrousse took over, but they were spread through so many areas that the effort of controlling them all was harder than today.

“Our answer, to try and make all the departments come together, was to make a new factory at Dieppe. It is just called Renault Sport, and here we do the sports cars for Le Mans and the rally ones.” A significant shrug of the shoulders before Larrousse adds, “of course, we still have the old Gordini works in Paris to make engines (for everything) and we also make the Formula One car, in the same buildings as the engines.

“Our re-organisation took six months, and another four months to sort out the positions [status—J.W.] of the people within the new organisation!” When we talked to Larrousse, Renault Sport had been operating this manner for a year and he felt, “now we have a good business. Next year we will do a lot more, but now the customer can buy most Renault equipment from the advertising jackets and shirts to a proper Formula Three engine.” Renault Sport are presently committed to the production of 20 engine kits for F3 next year, and there are the purely Renault formula engine parts to consider. As Larrousse grins, “OK, no way it can pay the costs of our competitions but it helps more and more in the future.”

Asked where the initiative for the thrust into F1 came from, Larrousse says, “on July 29th, 1976, the Renault board (of directors) approved the programme.” They were acting on a very carefully researched document provided by an outside consultancy, but the original F2 prototype with a 1 ½-litre Turbo engine was already constructed.

“The company really started track work for F1 on November 18th, 1975. On that date one of the World Championship Group 6 cars, from which much of the chassis data (especially the rear suspension) and the turbocharging lessons were taken for F1–one of these sports cars was testing at Paul Ricard.”

The engine was coded 33T, and it accidentally proved capable of 12,000 r.p.m. while covering its first 374 track miles. While the engineers found out how it would perform, the management studied their work, and the outside consultancy report.

That document indicated that Renault would achieve World-wide prestige through Grand Prix participation, and when the engineers struck the usual cautious engineering note of optimism, so approval for 171 was given. Much of the credit for maintaining the enthusiasm must go to the Government-owned fuel and lubricant company ELF: they had ordered the two 1.5-litre turbo units for tests in February 1975.

“That we had been testing with a F1 car was announced after the Jarama tests,” said Larrousse, adding, “now we have two cars with a third nearly finished. They look the same, but they differ in details.

“This I can say,” (a broad grin of one who has listened to many troubles), “this car had no basic faults in the chassis. At Zandvoort we found that, if the driver climbed the cliffs [kerb-hopping—J.W.] we have to make the suspension at the rear stronger: I don’t think kerbs were in the computer!”

Larrousse continues, “at present there is little we can find with the aerodynamics. This is work we are looking at in several years, it is not necessary in 1978.

“The engine? From the old prototype to the race car we move the unit (between the engine and the back of the driving compartment monocoque) and heat and vibration are different here. We suffer failures when it is first raced (the RS 01 made its public debut at Silverstone in July last year) and now we have had to make changes.

“Now the power is close to 500 horsepower, where we could say more than 500 before. Still we use 1.7 atmospheres boost, nearly the same as we started with. The most important thing was to try and cool the turbocharger, and we could only finally hold this problem back by reducing power . . .

“Regarding the engine itself, the reliability has not been all that we could have expected. The valves and pistons have given trouble (again overheating) but all these troubles are possible to overcome this winter, You know, people think we have many mechanics and a huge number of engineers to make this engine. This year we had one engineer, one draughtsman and four mechanics to develop a new type of formula engine.”

Another novel feature of Renault’s F1 car was the adoption of Michelin radial racing tyres. Larrousse ‘smiles as he says, “the development is really done with us over four years, though I know Michelin have worked with Ferrari a long time ago . . . much before us. They don’t learn the same things with Ferrari, so for our car they start again.

“On the tracks they know with us— especially Ricard and Dijon—they are good . . . good as anybody: they have no advantage from us of F2, work; here we have used Goodyear. So at other tracks they have to learn a lot. At Zandvoort they were very, very good: at Silverstone and Canada -(the latter was the event the Renault just could not even qualify for) the tyres were cold.

“This business of cold tyres is very important to us, with a turbo car. If the tyres do not work, you cannot make the engine work either: it is very important that the tyres give the best possible results: only then can we make the best possible performance from our turbo engine.”

Having discussed the chassis, engine and tyres of the F1 project, it seemed only sensible to enquire about the progress of JeanPierre Jabouille, their experienced but comparatively unproved (in F1 terms) driver.

Larrousse’s lashes hooded any sign of feeling in his then-hidden eyes when he replied, “our most important lesson was that we need two cars for practice. Jean-Pierre never got a full practice session in his Season. You know, the sessions are just for adjusting the tart, hut with our car, if we had problems it was just not possible to switch Jabouille into a second car. Now we will have a car available all the time . . if we had been able to do this in Canada, I think we could have qualified. You just don’t have problems in a Formula One practice session now, otherwise you are finished.”

I asked if, in dire emergency, the Renaultturbo would be switched over to Goodyears to qualify for GPs this Season? “Oh, it’s just not that simple,” opened Larrousse, Continuing, “the tyres are not the same balance (grip) as Goodyear and you have to change everything on the suspension if you change from Michelin to Goodyear”: which they experimented with in Canada, after the non-qualification.

Discussing 1711..:A Renault are naturally pretty relaxed, as they had few problems; positively zooming into membership. Gerard feels, “they are very professional. It was obvious that a racing Renault was good publicity, much more than a private team. We offered a lot for the sport of F1 racing: Mr. Ecclestone would have been stupid [one remark I can never recall being made about Bernie Ecclestone—J.W.1 not to take us in.” Again there is a long pause as Larrousse composes his thoughts, to the accompaniment of an almost sly grin: “you know we never ask .. . we are invited. It’s good I think.” Our final Formula One topic was, “do you plan to sell the F1 engine—if it’s a success—in the same way as the Cosworth V8?” Larrousse was quite intriguing on this point, “I don’t think we are interested while we are still racing,” he said. In fact this is what has happened in Formula Two, Renault have withdrawn but the engines have been offered (at prices approximately £1,000 per unit below the rival BMW) to leading contenders.

Asked what the priority was for Renault’s wide competition commitments Larrousse responded decisively, “Le Mans, without question. ‘This race is much more important for us than Formula One. . . .” Renault Sport Public Relations man Jacques Poisson inter. jects, “maybe it is harder for you to understand in England because of your F1 teams, but for Renault, making 7,500 cars a day that must be sold, Le Mans is the best publicity “This year, there will be, once more, the fight between Porsche and Renault. We have four cars and they will also have four or five cars. Last year with the TV and all other coverage, it was the equivalent of £1/ million, just for this race. “Although we don’t win in the two years of our factory cars, it is still good to take part against Porsche. They make 20,000 cars a year and believe in racing, we make more than one and a half million Renault cars for all sorts of people. For us it’s good to run against Porsche . . . to race against them and win: that, oh yes that would be parfait.'” Poisson grins happily at a dream, but one that Larrousse has already proved more than possible with a French sports-car team. Already the Renault-Alpine turbo sports cars have completed over 20 hours fiat-out running on one model at Ricard. Britain’s Derek Bell was part of a team (Jean-Pierre Jabouille, J-P Jassaud and Patrick Depailler were others) who managed 3,500 km. in 22 hours, without major problems until a puncture stopped their A442. Talking about sports-car racing in general, Larrousse is naturally sad to see this once prestigious arm of motor sport so neglected. He commented, “It truly is a pity. The CSI have killed the sports car and Group 5 has now replaced them. Really, I feel Group 5 is only for those who have the good car. “I think sports cars must specialise in long distances. The problem with these cars came when the short races were included. When you must do a race that is only 300 km. long, then this is a different car than you must have for Le Mans. You want the same type of races: I think a good Championship could be made with just five endur ance World Championship runs over many kilometres. For instance, there would, of course, be Le Mans. Then it could be others like Monza, Osterreichring, yes Silverstone, why not Silverstone? It is very fast at this track . . . and also you have the possibility to go to Daytona and Nurburgring.” At the mention of Nurburgririg I wondered aloud if Spa should not be part of the series too? Larrousse grinned amiably enough, but he felt very strongly that, “Spa is not a good place to go, definitely not.” He would not be drawn further on the subject (he has won major events there, so it is not the prejudice of failure speaking) but he was forthcoming on the subject of the Nurburgring for F1 drivers, “to save a life is most important of all. I like the ‘Ring and Spa myself, but I am a rally driver . . .” Pause as he drives his executive chair and gazes down an imaginary gorge, “and a rally driver he don’t look down!”

More seriously Larrousse offered, “I agree with what the F1 drivers say. The racing is so hard, so much different to all other types, that it is necessary for the drivers to decide. From a manufacturer’s point of view it makes no difference if we win in Hockenheim or Nurburgring, there is no change in honour. So you can say that, even though I have driven at these places (Spa and Nurburgring) many times, I understand why a Formula One driver does not.”

Leaving F1 firmly behind us I plunged into the opposite end of the spectrum ask’ “Why are you rallying the R5 now?”

Larrousse warmed to the subject, “This car can do many things for us. First, we need a car for customers to go rallying in: A310 is a beautiful (said with much feeling) car, but you know, it is expensive. So, we make the changes with the R5 on the Alpine (1.4-litre) base. The car is-made very strong so that we can enter the rough rallies all over the World. Also the R5 is one of our big selling cars, so it is good to show what it can do. We need a small car for racing and rallying to sell the parts.

“For the rallying one we start work on the Mille Pisces gaily (Summer 1977) but there is much more development to come yet. The cars also appeared on two World Championship rounds last year; one finished seventh overall on the tarmac Sanremo event, and a pair of them were proving very popular on the RAC and leading the 1300 class until they retired with transmission failures.

The A310 exists because, as Larrousse says, “We had nothing when I came. A110 had won the 1973 Championship of the World, but then we had nothing to take over; no work had been done at all. We have made the A310 fast in Group 5 French rallies . . . we just don’t have the time to do everything. So you can say there is no chance for us to go outside France with this car for the World Championship. Yet (he grimaces at the lost opportunity) I know the car is good and it has beaten Darnich in the Stratos twice, but still we cannot do everything.”

In Group 5 form the Alpine A310 has a carburated version of the 2.7-litre Renault-Volvo-Peugeot V6 and can give up to 290 b.h.p. The milder ‘Group 4 (for which has also been homologated, so it could contest a World Championship series) is said to 245 b.h.p. from 7,000 to 7,200 r.p.m. This comes from engines equipped with a pair of triple-choke Weber 46 IDA 3C carburetters and a 10.5-to-1 c.r. The A310 weighs 18 cw and has a tubular chassis clothed by glass-fibre. ‘The car is more striking in Group 5 carrying a large rear wing, but the production styling is very smooth on these rare, but quite refined, French GT cars.

Jean Ragnotti drove a rather lighter and starker A310 V6 to a convincing victory in the French rallycross championship this year and Guy Frequelin took the rally title with another Group 5 A310. Another title collected by the factory of rather more importance was the European Formula Two series, but Larousse indicates no feeling on that victory aside from pleasure that they did so well. One gets the feeling he is glad that there is one less item to concentrate upon.

I did try and tax Larrousse with the rather shabby driving and appearance of the R5s that bounce round the European circuits pursuit of national and inter-European honours, but he relievedly put that down another department.

In closing I asked Larrousse what he felt about the merits of rallying and racing from a company, and then a personal, point view. He replied slowly, “this is very difficult. It is best to say that they are completely different worlds. But, I do think that, for the man who wins the RAC Rally is just the same quality driver as the World Formula One Champion. It’s different, but needs just as much skill.

“For myself, I have very good memories of both. I am not keen on Le Mans to drive… I have driven much better races than Le Mans. For me I think the Matra was the best team, I just learned so much more driving with really fast people, especially with Francois (Cevert) and Beltoise.”

When you think about Renault’s enormous support for racing and their record it m you draw the obvious parallels with Leyland It is interesting to see that, despite the most public failures at Le Mans, they persist . and the same applies to Formula One. Of course they have been backed to the hilt by the Elf concern, as well as their own governmental resources. It may well be Motor Sport will return to the subject of Elf’s involvement to seek further clues the current French sporting renaissance.