The circle is neatly completed as
Renault — and its industry soulmate Michelin — carry the champion’s number one in Formula One this season. For it was exactly 100 years ago that they carved out the commandments for grand prix success: technical innovation, detailed preparation, a tyre advantage, carefully choreographed pit work and neat, fast, consistent driving to a pre-arranged strategy. That did the trick for Ferenc Szisz in 1906 —just as it did for Fernando Alonso in 2005.
And the parallels don’t end there: like Alonso, Szisz worked his way through racing’s ranks, knew when to push and when to conserve, drove to his car’s strengths and overcame potentially faster opposition. Born in Szeghalom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire on February 20, 1873, Szisz’s fascination with the newfangled horseless carriage drew him inexorably west with each career move — until he joined Société Renault Frères in May 1900. There he met a kindred spirit: Louis Renault, the engineering spark behind this fledgling company.
Guided by the business acumen of his elder brothers Fernand and Marcel, Louis’ technical grasp — and flair for publicity — paid instant dividends: 179 cars rolled out of the factory at 10, Avenue du Cours in Billancourt, a Paris suburb, during 1900. By which time he had already run his first race — Paris-Trouville — and won its Light Car class.
Renault, though, was determined not to become too big too quickly. Its machines were small in comparison to some of its more grandiose rivals. And that’s why, when Marcel — his 3.7-litre Type K ostensibly entered in the Light Car category — won the 1902 Paris-Vienna race outright, it caused a sensation. He did so at the staggering average of 38.84mph, over 800 miles of unmade roads and the daunting 1800-metre ascent of the Arlberg Pass.
Renault had arrived, thanks to motor sport — but a heavy price was soon to be exacted: Marcel was one of the victims of ‘The Race of Death’, the 1903 Paris-Madrid, and it took persuasion before Louis was re-convinced of the value of racing; he would never again take the wheel in anger. But his riding mechanic eagerly stepped into the breach.
Szisz had swiftly become an integral part of Renault, and it was as its head of testing that he tried to qualify for France’s 1905 Gordon Bennett Trophy squad. He finished fifth and missed the cut, though he also finished fifth in that year’s Vanderbilt Cup in America. It had been an impressive learning year with bigger cars and Renault did not look out of place among its peers — Richard-Brasier, Clément-Bayard, Darracq, Hotchkiss, Lorraine-Diétrich and Panhard-Levassor — as the serried ranks of the burgeoning French motor industry united to break the shackles of the Gordon Bennett’s three cars-per-country rule…
It wasn’t the first event to carry
grand prix nomenclature — there had been one at Pau in 1901 — but the French race of 1906 was the first Grand Prix proper. Thirty-two cars, from 12 manufacturers, entered this two-day 769.3-mile epic held on a fast 64.1-mile road course east of Le Mans.
The GP foundations were laid here — Alonso would have understood the thrill of the race, the thrall of its crowd — but the sport’s frontage has since changed beyond all recognition. The wooden wheels — and the wooden sections of track built to bypass villages deemed too pokey! — might have been beyond Alonso’s comprehension. And could of F1’s turbo era (ushered in by Renault in 1977) and today’s rev limits (brought about by Renault’s pneumatic valve-actuation breakthrough of 1986)? After all, his four-cylinder 13-litre AK racer boasted only 95bhp at just 1200rpm.
Yes, but that ‘only’ and ‘just’ were enough to make him considerably faster than his pioneer pilot cousins. Over 90mph on three-inch-wide tyres over rough two-lane roads — or 900bhp at 175mph on fat slicks through Eau Rouge at Spa? It’s horsepower for courses.
Renault was a relative minnow in 1906 — Panhard and Lorraine had built engines of over 18 litres — but it had an ace up its sleeve: Michelin’s jante amovible. Secured by eight bolts, this detachable rim enabled a puncture to be replaced in as little as four minutes; doing it the old way — breaking the bead with a knife, inserting an inner tube, levering the cover back on — took a quarter-hour. Renault was not the only team so equipped: Fiat used them front and rear, while Clément, like Renault, fitted them to the rear only. Other teams would have used them, were it not for the resultant weight penalty: 9kg per wheel.
Szisz knew that time was on his side and refused to panic when the Brasier of Paul Baras, who set the race’s fastest lap on the opening lap, flashed past him (cars had been started individually at 90-second intervals). Szisz had moved into the lead by lap three (some sources say lap four) and eased away to hold a 26-minute advantage at the end of the first day’s six laps.
The track was beginning to break up under the strain. Crews were pounded in and out of the car: Szisz and his riding mechanic Marteau, the ‘comfort’ benefits of Renault’s innovation of hydraulic dampers cancelled out from lap four on by a broken rear spring, changed 19 punctures throughout the race — yet continued to extend their advantage, thanks to an average of 62.88mph, and crossed the line more than half an hour to the good. Thus began a 73-year wait.
While younger, more specialised
manufacturers, especially Bugatti, fuelled France’s love affair with motor racing during the inter-war years, Renault diversified: conservative cars for the mainstream, buses, lorries, agricultural and military vehicles, including tanks. Motorsport was thought an extravagance. And there was very little reason to alter this stance as France strove to rebuild after the devastation of World War Two, especially as Renault was now state-controlled: Régie Nationale des Usines Renault. But, as is often the case, from austerity sprung a need for expression, a craving for competition. Renault had found its own sporting specialist: Alpine.
Jean Rédélé’s speed seed was planted when a nearby Peugeot dealer challenged him to a dice. The son of a Renault agent in Dieppe, Rédélé’s 4CV put his rival’s 203 to the sword, leaving Jean wanting more. Rédélé secured his class on the 1952 Mille Miglia (71st overall) and won outright the 1954 Coupe des Alpes, whence sprung his company’s name.
Enthused, he commissioned a shapely aluminium body from Michelotti, and from this Rédélé Special emerged the fibreglass-bodied A106, the A108 — based on the new Renault Dauphine — and the iconic A110. The latter scored its first major rally success in 1963 and took Gérard Larrousse and Jean Vinatier to the French rally titles of 1968-69. But it wasn’t until Renault picked up on this lightweight, nimble machine in the 1970s that it started to dominate. The arrival of the five-bearing R16 1500cc, later 1600, engine gave the A110 the power it needed, while Renault’s support allowed Rédélé to build enough units to play the homologation game.
Jean-Claude Andruet was crowned
European champion in 1970, while Jean-Luc Thérier won the San Remo and Acropolis. The following year Ove Andersson won the Monte Carlo, San Remo, Acropolis and Austrian Alpine to guide Alpine to the International Championship for Makes, precursor to the World Rally Championship. The latter was inaugurated in 1973, and the Alpine-Renaults (Renault had bought Rédélé’s company in 1972) won six of the counting rounds to take the title, despite the presence of BMW, Citroën, Ford, Fiat, Lancia, Opel and Saab.
A new wave of French drivers and designers, kickstarted by Renault’s ground-breaking one-make race series for its 8 Gordini (created in 1965) and its single-seater Formula Renault championship (first run in 1968), was about to break over the sport: Arnoux, Depailler, Jarier, Jabouille, Prost; Boudy, Castaing, de Cortanze, Dudot, Tetu. Single-seaters, in the main, were their first love — but the Le Mans 24 Hours was their most pressing engagement.
France’s biggest manufacturer had never won France’s biggest race. Sure, 4CVs had buzzed around at the back of the field in the early 1950s and hoovered up some class awards, and Renault-powered Alpines and René Bonnet Djets and Aerodjets had added to this collection during the 1960s, but winning the Index of Performance and/or Thermal Efficiency hardly set the public’s pulse racing. Renault’s eternal problem at racing’s highest level had been a lack of power. That was about to end. Over at Gordini in Viry-Chatillon, François Castaing and Jean-Pierre Boudy were designing an iron-block 2-litre 90-degree V6. Meanwhile, at Alpine in Dieppe, Bernard Dudot was bolting a turbocharger onto an R16. The latter won the 1972 Critérium des Cévennes rally-race in the back of an A110; the former secured the 1974 European two-litre sportscar title. When combined, these two approaches would drastically alter the course of F1 — but not before Le Mans had been won.
This long and bumpy journey started well when the 2.1-litre turbocharged A441 won on its world sportscar debut at Mugello in 1975. It wouldn’t win again until 1978. Larrousse had been drafted in to run the show, and it was under his aegis that Alpine and Gordini, which Renault had bought during 1975, were amalgamated into Renault Sport in 1976: a little less liberté, and a bit more egalité and fraternité. That year Jabouille’s singleton A442 set pole position and fastest lap at Le Mans, only to retire after 11 hours with piston trouble. He was on pole in 1977 too, and this time he was supported by three sister cars — but an encouraging spell of 1-2-3 melted away, along with three more pistons.
By 1978 Renault’s F1 programme was under way, but Le Mans was still a priority. The pressure was intense, and hearts sank when the lead A443 of Jabouille and Patrick Depailler blew up four hours from victory. This time, though, there was a fallback position: the A442B of Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud. A blend of exuberance and experience, they had gelled well and held their nerve to win. How close they had come to disaster, however, was illustrated when Pironi, who had unwisely been asked to double-stint to victory, collapsed with exhaustion on the way to the podium.
Jabouille had got used to dealing with disappointment by this time. One of the last great engineer/drivers — he’d won the 1976 European F2 title in a Renault V6-powered car of his own design — he was integral to the company’s F1 programme, completing hundreds of miles during the autumn/winter of 1976 in Alpine’s A500 test hack in an attempt to shape a navigable power plateau from the turbo’s lags and peaks. Progress was made, hopes were raised — but the heat of competition, in the heat of an F1 summer, proved too hot. His RS01 exited the 1977 British GP at Silverstone under a cloud of white smoke and its rivals soon labelled this quirky car `The Yellow Teapot’. The fog lifted briefly at the penultimate GP of 1978 to allow Jabouille to finish fourth at Watkins Glen, the first F1 points for a turbo.
The stresses of a forced-induction turbo
engine running on pump fuel had been underestimated: pistons, valves, bearings — bang! To compound matters Renault was building its own chassis, a technology in which the British teams were years ahead. And if that wasn’t enough, Michelin, who had plunged in with Renault, was wrestling with the complexities of making a radial tyre work in F1 on a car that regularly cut short its vital supply of testing miles.
The use of two smaller turbos improved matters in 1979, as did Michel Tetu’s RE10 ‘wing car’ design. And then it happened. On July 1, at Dijon. It wasn’t the first time Jabouille had sat on pole in F1. It was, however, the first time he felt confident nothing would go wrong. And nothing did. Renault’s long wait was over — although poor Jabouille’s victory was overshadowed by the battle for second between his team-mate René Arnoux and the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve.
Jabouille had one more year with Renault, and just two more finishes — one of which was a victory in the Austrian Grand Prix. His season would end prematurely when his legs were badly broken in a Montreal shunt — but by this time both he and Renault had decided that it was time to move on.
Alain Prost had been groomed for greatness by Renault: he’d dominated the 1976 French Formula Renault and 1977 Super Renault championships before using a Martini-Renault to score back-to-back French F3 titles in 1978 (when he shared it with Jean-Louis Schlesser) and 1979. He also secured the European F3 crown in 1979. Perhaps surprisingly McLaren moved first for him in 1980, but when Renault came calling for 1981, nothing could prevent this most obvious of F1 marriages. It was to prove, however, rather too Burton and Taylor for either half’s liking.
That, though, was in the future. Right now there was an air of unguarded optimisim permeating the Régie — not least because Jean Ragnotti had, against all the odds, won a snowy Monte Carlo Rally in its new mid-engined 5 Turbo. This former stunt driver’s versatile talent had already seen him finish runner-up to Arnoux in the 1975 French Super Renault championship, win the 1977 French rallycross title in an Alpine A310, finish fourth at Le Mans in 1978 at the wheel of a A442A and win the 1980 French rally championship aboard an R5 Alpine. Many more successes with Renault would follow — Tour of Corsica victories in 1982 and 1985, the latter in the mighty 5 Maxi Turbo, and the 1984 French rally title and the 1988 Supertourisme series.
Ragnotti would stick with Renault for the rest of his career, his ‘middle management’ contentment providing a stark contrast to the wrangling in the company’s F1 ‘boardroom’. Prost and the RE30 finished the 1981 season as the combo to beat — three victories, two second places — and when he unlapped himself to win the 1982 season-opener at Kyalami, and was then gifted the next race in Brazil on a technicality after finishing third on the road, he and the RE3OB looked certain for the title. Sure enough, Renaults would lead at Imola, Zolder, Monaco, Detroit, Montreal, Zandvoort, Paul Ricard, Hockenheim, Osterreichring, Dijon, Monza and Las Vegas. Prost, though, wouldn’t win again that year. Renault had worked wonders to make its turbo car quick on stop-start street circuits, but race reliability was still a problem — as was team morale. Prost and Arnoux were diagonally opposed: measured calm versus unpredictable moods. Arnoux was another Renault protégé, winning the 1975 Super Renault and 1977 European F2 titles in a Martini, but there was a gypsy twinkle in his eye when he disobeyed orders to win at Paul Ricard. The team’s first 1-2 in F1 , at its home GP, should have been a cause for celebration.
Arnoux left in 1983 and all was calm at Renault — for a while. The RE40, its first carbon-composite chassis, boasted Kügelfischer electronic injection, and Prost enjoyed a strong mid-season — four wins — to become everyone’s champion elect. But then he fell out irreparably with Larrousse over a very personal matter. And then Brabham-BMW began its charge, boosted by a fuel Renault and Elf believed to be beyond the regulations (they still do!). At the championship-decider at Kyalami, Piquet looked bright and breezy; Prost looked haunted, pinned down by his countrymen’s expectation. Piquet was blitzing his way to the title when Prost’s turbo let go on lap 35.
Recriminations flew. Prost rejoined McLaren. With him went Renault’s title hopes. New recruit Derek Warwick almost won first time out in Rio in 1984, but thereafter the team suffered a two-year slide into extinction. It had missed the window of opportunity provided by its turbo technology: 15 wins, 31 poles and 18 fastest laps were relatively poor rewards for its adventurous spirit. It now needed time to absorb some harsh truths, to learn some hard lessons.
The first of these was that it was much easier to supply engines only. From 1984 Lotus had made much better use of Renault’s V6 turbo — Ligier and Tyrrell had not — and had provided Ayrton Senna with his first competitive F1 car. His car-catching throttle-jabbing technique brought him 15 pole positions and four wins in 1985-86.
After two seasons away Renault returned to F1 (as an engine supplier only) in 1989. After the trials and tribulations of its turbo project, this programme went remarkably smoothly, even though, along with Honda, it was introducing the V10 configuration to GP racing. Bernard Dudot’s 3.5-litre RS1 qualified second, set fastest lap and led on its GP debut with Williams and would score four wins — Thierry Boutsen three, Riccardo Patrese one — in its first two seasons. But it was when Nigel Mansell and ace aerodynamicist Adrian Newey were thrown into the mix for 1991 that the victories started to roll in. Five in the second half of that season was the prelude to what was then the most dominant F1 campaign. In 1992 ‘Our Nige’ grabbed the active-suspension FW14B by the scruff of its neck to score nine wins, 14 poles, eight fastest laps and 108 points to claim the drivers’ title — while Renault got its first share of the constructors’ world championship.
During the next five years only one of the 10 F1 world titles available — Michael Schumacher’s first drivers’ crown in 1994 — escaped the powerful and overwhelmingly reliable 67-degree V10’s clutches as Alain Prost (1993), Schumacher (1995, with Benetton), Damon Hill (1996) and Jacques Villeneuve (1997) secured the drivers’ championship. Its 75 wins, 85 poles, 80 fastest laps and more than 1400 points in just nine season made it clear that Renault had cracked F1’s code.
The R´gie had been super-successful elsewhere too: Alain Oreille’s 5GT Turbo had won back-to-back Group N world rally championships in 1989-90, his earlier campaign including a remarkable outright win in the Ivory Coast; and its one-make series for GTA Turbos, 21 Turbos and Clios — 1999 Indy 500 winner Kenny Brack drove the latter in 1993 — had regularly supported grands prix. But following its privatisation in 1996, Renault’s motorsport activities became even more wide-ranging.
It had entered the British Touring Car Championship in 1993 with the Renault 19, winning two races. It won three times in 1994 with its new Laguna. At which point it asked no less than Williams to run this the programme. The effect was immediate, 10 wins in 1995 being enough to secure the manufacturers’ title. The drivers’ title, however, was not secured until 1997, when Swiss star Alain Menu, a winner of 29 BTCC races for Renault (and two non-championship TTs), finally ended a three-year spell as the series’ runner-up thanks to a superb 12-win campaign.
Renault was everywhere. It returned to rallying, winning the British Rally Championship in 1998 and 1999 with the Maxi Mégane and drivers Martin Rowe and Tapio Laukkanen. And in its F3 team, Jenson Button finished third in the 1999 British championship. It ran one-make race and rally series, at European and national levels, for Clios, Clio V6s, Méganes and Spiders (current world touring car champion Andy Priaulx dominated the UK’s Elf Spider Cup of 1998); its Maxi Mégane won the F2 World Rally Championship of 1999; it powered Jean-Louis Schlesser’s dramatic dune buggy to consecutive Paris-Dakar victories in 2000-01; and it guided Clio driver Brice Tirabassi to 2003 Junior World Rally Championship honours.
The various Formula Renault championships continued to unearth future F1 stars — champions include Antonio Pizzonia (1999 British), Kimi Räikkonen (2000 British), Felipe Massa (2000 Italian and Eurocup), Christian Klien (2002 German) and Scott Speed (2004 German and Eurocup) — and big names in other categories such as Le Mans winner Guy Smith (1995 British) and touring car ace Jason Plato (who raced in the 1990/91/95 British). Meanwhile, Renault expanded its driver nursery via sponsorship of British championship karting, the introduction of its 3.5-litre, 420hp V6 single-seater Eurocup championship in 2003 and its design and supply in 2005 of a 4-litre 650hp V8 for Dallara’s one-make GP2 chassis. There remained only one obvious omission from its portfolio.
After a two-year sabbatical — although Williams and Benetton continued to use Renault power via supply from Mecachrome — Renault announced in 2000 that it would return to F1 in 2002 as a builder of chassis and engines: it had bought Benetton. This was a very different Renault from that of 1977-85: nimbler and wiser. Its stated intention was to win the championships in five years’ time. It was neither a bold boast nor a pessimistic prognosis — it was an achievable aim.
The next three seasons — the Benetton
name survived until the end of 2001 — were spent ironing out the bugs from Jean-Jacques His’ radical wide-angle (111 degrees) V10. Vibration and reliability were problematic, but matters improved enough in 2003 to allow Alonso to become the youngest polesitter in F1 history (Malaysia), the youngest setter of an F1 fastest lap (Canada) and the youngest GP winner (Hungary) at 22 years 26 days. A radical rewriting of the regulations, however, signalled a sea change at Renault: a rule stipulating one engine per grand prix (make that two grands prix as from 2005) saw it revert to the trusted architecture of its 1990s domination: the RS24 of 2004 was fitted with a 72-degree V10.
Jamo Trulli’s from-pole victory at Monaco was the highlight of the year, although Alonso overshadowed him during the second half of the season. The young Spaniard was being widely tipped as a future world champion. He showed why in 2005.
He dominated the early season, winning in Malaysia, Bahrain, San Marino — where he coolly fended off a late charge from Schumacher’s Ferrari — at the Nürburgring and in France. Bob Bell’s technical crew had leapt ahead of its opposition with a car that had fantastic traction — and a fantastic driver. McLaren and Kimi Räikkonen (the 2000 British Formula Renault champion) — really came on song thereafter. Alonso, meanwhile, belied his age with a sequence of mature drives to clinch the title with two rounds to go. Renault thus had its first very own F1 world champion.
There was, however, still work to be done. It pulled out all the stops at the final round in China — more ‘aggressive’ engine and aero packages — and Alonso rounded out his year with a brilliant victory. Renault thus had its first all-to-itself constructors’ championship.
Szisz would have understood the thrill of that race, the thrall of its crowd.
On the road
Renault 4CV Renault’s car for the everyman, introduced in 1948. Cute, tough and dependable, this 747/760cc four-cylinder tiddler formed the foundations of the marque’s post-war sporting renaissance with several Le Mans and rally appearances. Jean Rédélé used the 4CV platform and running gear as the basis for the first Alpine sports car, creating a legend in the process.
Renault Dauphine Gordini Introduced in 1956 as a replacement for the 4CV, the Dauphine (originally to have been called Corvette) when breathed upon by ace tuner Amédeée Gordini ensured a useful competition tool. This 845cc four-door saloon was a regular for class honours in international rallies in period.
Alpine A110 Introduced in 1963, and remaining in production for 14 years, this Jean Rédélé-designed glass-fibre-bodied coupé made the most of its R8 and R16 running gear, twice winning the World Manufacturers’ title in rallying while taking several overall victories on the Monte Carlo, San Remo, Corsican, Acropolis and Coupes des Alpes classics.
Renault R8 Gordini The first renault super saloon. Announced in 1964, and in production until 1970, this Amédée Gordini-tuned, 1108cc (also 1255cc) four-cylinder motor proved a huge success, with a one-make race series introducing future star drivers such as Jean Ragnotti and Jean-Pierre Jabouille.
Alpine A310 The dramatic Robert Opron-styled A310 was introduced in 1971 and initially featured 1.6-litre four-cylinder power, with a 2.7-litre V6 being substituted five years later. Weighing just 980kg, it could reach 130mph and ultimately spawned a raft of Renault supercars
Renault 5 Gordini Launched in its homeland in 1976 as the R5 Alpine, this 1397cc, 93bhp ‘supermini’ proved an immediate hit, being launched in the UK in 1979. That same year, one example won the Group 5 class of the Monte Carlo Rally.
Renault 5 Turbo/Maxi Monstrous 1.4-litre, mid-engined 5 starred in James Bond flick, Never Say Never Again, after winning the ’81 Monte Carlo Rally. Four years in the making, ‘Project 822’ remained a front-line rally weapon until the mid ’80s while also making for a stimulating road car.
Renault Clio Williams Announced in late ’93 to tie-in with Renault’s F1 World Championship success with the Williams GP squad, 400 of these 1998cc hot-hatches were made, instantly becoming a cult classic capable of 135mph and 0-60mph in 7.8-seconds. A second Williams limited edition was introduced a year on, with the Williams 3 arriving in ’95.
Clio Renaultsport V6 Renault returned to loony-tunes mid-engined madness with TWR-refined Clio. Featuring a 3-litre Laguna V6, mounted behind the front seats, more of these 152mph, 230bhp supercars were sold in the UK than anywhere else.
Clio Renaultsport 182 Trophy A final flourish for the outgoing Clio. Arriving in 2005, this was the über hot-hatch: the most focused of the breed, being capable of 0-60mph in 6.9 seconds. Two grands’ worth of Sachs racing dampers ensured remarkable handling, this 140mph device becoming an instant cult classic.
Mégane Renaultsport 225 2006’s most outrageous hot hatch, the 225 features a trackproven chassis with a 1998cc, 225bhp four-cylinder engine. Riding on custom 18-in anthracite alloy wheels, this 1345kg device is capable of reaching 147mph and 0-60mph in 6.3 seconds.
Clio Renaultsport 197 Grand prix technology, in the form of an air diffuser in the rear bumper derived from F1 aerodynamics, will suck the car to the road at high speed. And with its 2-litre engine carrying you from 0-62mph in 6.9 seconds, it won’t take you long to get there…
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