“I’m primarily an enthusiast — If Renault were not in F1 I’d be quite happy to be involved in rallying. . .”
Although the political side of motor racing has received a great deal of attention over the past few years, Formula One has never really been a business which attracts casual involvement. If you scratch slightly below the surface of any racing team or organisation, you will generally turn up a whole host of continuing interest and commitment to the Grand Prix game. People don’t often become casually involved in Formula One. Whether driver, team manager, journalist or mechanic, most people in the F1 game have served a long, hard apprenticeship in other forms of racing. Ultimately, it’s their sheer enthusiasm for the game that carries them through. In the present day Renault Elf Grand Prix team we can see that emphasised in a way that a normal family grows together; drivers, administrators and mechanics all working through the junior formulae, enjoying their progression as friends and colleagues, before graduating into the world of Grand Prix racing. Working with people you can get on with is one important key to laying the groundwork for Grand Prix success, and few people know this fact better than 40 year old Frenchman Jean Sage who has been team manager of the Renault team since they brought their turbocharged cars onto the F1 scene in 1977.
Chatting to him after practice for the recent San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, he didn’t come over as Jean Sage, team manager of the French Government assisted Renault Grand Prix team, but as Jean Sage, motoring enthusiast. His eyes lit up with nostalgic pleasure as he recalled his first visit to a motor race, at the early age of ten years. “We were living in Chambery at the time,” he smiled, “and my mother took me the 15 kilometres from home to Aix-les-Bains to see the Formula 2 race, sitting in a little seat over the back wheel of her bicycle. I can remember it well. It was won by Raymond Sommer’s 2-litre Ferrari ahead of Harry Schell’s Cooper-JAP!” From that point onwards his enthusiasm was fired for cars and motoring sport, although he reflects with a tinge of regret that his father, who had never been interested in cars at all, was firmly against him pursuing these sort of ambitions. “I left home in 1960”, Sage explained. “and I didn’t have any contact at all with my father for 18 years”. On a brighter note, he added, “but now he’s really interested and knows everything that goes on in Formula One. . . although vve still argue about which one of us caused the original rift between us!”
As early as his mid-teens Sage had become interested in rallying, helping his friends who competed, but it wasn’t until he left the family home (by then in Annecy) and went to work as workshop manager for the Avis car rental company in Geneva that he became really immersed in the world of competitive motoring. He well recalls how he acquired his first outing as a rally co-driver.
“I knew Citroen driver Rene Trautmann quite well and I was at the first control at one of the national rallies when he pulled in. Another Citroen stopped behind him and its novice co-driver, terrified by his experience on that first stage, literally jumped out of this other car and ran off. Trautmann said to this other guy ‘take him, he’ll do OK’, so I jumped in and was away . . .” This experience led to Sage being invited to co-drive for Andre Simon the following year in a LWB Ferrari 250. They did the Tour de France and were leading the Mont Blanc rally when Sage directed them about 200 yards down an incorrect track which ended up in a farmyard. As Simon was reversing round, he hit a small stone wall and the impact on the Snap exhaust extractor on the Ferrari’s tail pipe broke the car’s exhaust manifold. Jean still whines slightly as he recalls the language which Simon used to “tear him off a strip”.
Throughout the early 1960s Sage became progressively more involved and committed to a motorsporting career, his employers at Avis clearly being most accommodating and tolerant of the time all this obviously took. In fact, Jean survived to be Avis’s Lausanne branch manager as late as 1967 before he finally decided that motorsport was to be his full-time employment!
By that time he’d established himself as an occasional member of the works Alpine Renault rally team, thereby forging links which were eventually to take him to his current exalted position. “In 1966 I was co-driving for Jean-Pierre Hanrioud and we would have won the Alpine Rally if we hadn’t struck trouble”, he grins, “We did most of the French international events and won the Rallye de Cotes-Basque ahead of a Porsche in the pouring rain.”
Around this time Sage became well acquainted with fellow Frenchman Gerard Larrousse, for whom he was not only later going to work at Renault with but with whom he had the worst accident of his competition career. “We were preparing notes for the Tour of Corsica,” Sage shudders at the memory,”and we literally fell off a bridge right in the centre of the island. We fell a full six metres on our roof onto to some rocks and I broke my neck in the accident. Ever since that time I’m afraid I’ve had trouble with my neck, it pains me a great deal sometimes”.
Sage also sustained a nasty head wound, the scars of which are visible to this day close to his gently receding hair line, but he makes light of the whole affair, amusingly pulling Larrousse’s leg over the incident to this very day. Mid-way through our conversation his former co-driver appeared on the scene and there was some good-natured banter as they each attempted to aportion blame for that damaging excursion which took place fifteen years before. As Sage added, it didn’t exactly damage their close friendship because they’ve been working, on-and-off, together for more than a decade! Keen to be back in competition, Sage admits that he forced the pace of his recovery from those unpleasant injuries, determined to get back into racing or rallying as soon as possible. “The accident happened in October 1966,” he smiled, “and I was back racing a Group 4 Porsche 911, prepared by Gerhard Mitter, in the Monza 1000 km. sports car race the following April”. During that season he finally severed his links with Avis when Swiss garage owner Andre Wicky, who had briefly tried his hand in F1 during the early 1960s, asked Jean Sage to become his garage manager. Wicky had several racing cars of his own and Sage jumped at the chance. “He loaned me a lot of cars,” Sage admits, diplomatically refraining from suggesting that they were hardly potential winners, but admitting that it was all good fun at the time. “Incidentally,” he interjects with a surge of amused pride, “I also had a go at F3. I knew Patrick Dal Bo who also came from Annecy and had some drives in his Pygmee which I handled in several races when it wasn’t being driven by Wilson Fittipaldi.” After a pause, Sage added, “I was a very bad Formula Three driver!”
The year 1966 was interesting for other reasons. Not only did he try his hand working at a journalist for French writer Bernard Cahier, now President of the International Racing Press Association — “I’m afraid that Bernard and I didn’t see eye to eye and I didn’t exactly take to writing!” but Jean Sage was taken on as an assistant to the production team which was filming the John Frankenheimer production Grand Prix. This gave Sage his first and only chance to handle a proper Formula One car. “It was an ex-works 1 1/2-litre Climax V8 engined Lotus 33,” he laughed, “and I’m the man in the film who’s imitating Jim Clark at Spa. I have to confess that I had alot of trouble keeping up with Jochen Rindt who was driving a Formula Three car!” He also had a more successful outing at Spa where he shared the class winning Group One Ford Mustang saloon and he recalls his most important international success victory, in the 2-litre class at Sebring three years later, sharing the Wicky Porsche 911S with its owner.
Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jean Sage continued to race from time to time, moving from Wicky’s employment at the start of the fresh decade to look after the collection of racing cars which Jo Siffert had hired to the film company making the latest motor racing epic, Le Mans. Then, in 1972, he took the first significant step which was to lead him down the team management road to his current important position at Renault.
Gerard Larrousse signed up to drive for the newly formed Ecurie Archambaud team in 1972, driving a Lola T70 GT sports car as well as a 2-litre Lola T212 in the then-popular European 2-litre sports car series. He asked Sage whether he would join as the team manager. “I agreed, so my partnership with Gerard continued,” Sage admitted, “everything looked good and we embarked on an ambitious programme the following year fitting a two-litre Lola with Schnitzer BMW engines.” Sage frowns slightly as he recalls this step, admitting that the team did win two rounds of the European Championship, but discreetly implying that it might have been rather more if the engine had been a little more on the reliable side!
By 1974 M. Archambaud wanted to sell up his team, so Sage and Larrousse went into partnership and bought it themselves, continuing into 1975 when they took the ambitious step of building their own cars for the European Formula 2 series. “We built these spaceframe chassis with only site mechanics in a little workshop at Chatenay-Malabry, some way from Paris,” smiled Sage proudly, “we’d got Jabouille with us by this stage to drive alongside Larrousse. But there wasn’t much in the way of reliability. Although Larrousse won at Hockenheim and Jabouille scored two other wins, we had a total of 20 engine blow-ups with those BMWs. . . .”
Yet another step in this fascinating tapestry of inter-related careers took place at the close of the 1975 season in which, incidentally, they’d run a 2-litre Alpine-Renault sports car in some events driven by Marie-Claude Beaumont (who also had an outing in the F2 car!) — now press relations representative attached to the Renault Formula One team! Larrousse was recruited by Renault to oversee their expanding sports car racing programme, a programme which would lead to the Pironi/Jaussaud 1978 Le Mans triumph. While Sage bought out his friend’s interest in their little company, Larrousse gently used his influence to steer the new 2-litre Renault V6 engines in Sage’s direction for the tearn’s use in 1976. The result was that Elf Switzerland sponsored the team, for drivers Jabouille and Michel Leclerc and their reward for a season of single-minded endeavour was the European F2 Championship title. Again the basic ingredients of the Renault F1 effort were moving closer together. That Formula Two season provided an endorsement not only of Sage’s ability as a team manager, but also of Jabouille’s ability as a development driver. He was a competitive runner in the cut-and-thrust of Formula -Two, and also carried out the testing and most of the design and development work as well. What’s more, their “Elf 2”, as the car was officially known, waged a season-long battle with the works Martini team for Championship laurels — and the man “pipped the post” by Jabouille was none other than Rene Arnoux, later to become Jean-Pierre’s team mate in Renault’s Grand Prix outfit! It was almost if somebody was carefully channelling every little bit of French racing talent towards Grand Prix racing for Renault’s further use and it must be seen as a good reflection on the sympathetic and sensitive way in which the Elf petrol company handled its motorsporting influence. Everything was following a careful path of evolution, without any unnecessary pressure or hurry, building for the future while at the same time getting plenty of value out of the present!
It was in the middle of 1977 that Renault finally pushed their turbocharged 1 1/2-litre V6 engined Formula One car onto the Grand Prix circuits of the world, Jean-Pierre Jabouille driving it for the first time at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix. With Sage, Larrousse and Marie-Claude Beaumont watching from the sidelines, Jabouille circulated near the tail of the field before retiring. The more recent history of the Renault F1 is well known to Motor Sport readers, for the French firm quickly mastered the technology of turbo development and, to date, the French marque has won four Grands Prix — France in 79 and Austria in 1980 with Jabouille and South Africa and Brazil in 1980 with Arnoux.
Jean Sage enjoys his motor racing, although in a quiet moment you may well persuade him to admit that “l am a motorsporting enthusiast more than anything else. When everything goes right I feel really happy, you might almost say rejuvenated from the rather irritated state I get to when there are lots of political wrangles.” He only confesses that, if Renault was not involved in Formula One “I’d be quite happy to be involved in rallying” so even if the business considerations eventually oblige the competitions department at Viry-Chatillon to withdraw from racing, there is little chance that Jean Sage will move away outside the world of motorsport. Renault have been involved in rallying for many years and seem set to continue.
Trying to avoid the French/British “political” situation which many people tried to read into the recent FOCA/FISA problems, Jean Sage insists that this sort of intrigue does not interest him and he is reluctant to answer criticisms levelled against him by certain British teams who suggest he and his teams are FISA aligned, blind to any other view. In fact he has stood out firmly for a conciliatory approach to these difficulties, even though some in France would say that Renault’s loyalties should be towards winning at any price. Sage insists that Renault want to win dearly, but there is little point winning against negligible opposition.
He has enjoyed a good relationship with his drivers and he talks in an obviously disappointed vein when he refers to Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s decision to leave the team at the end of the 1980 season. “I had known Jean-Pierre for a very long time and I was sad that he was not more open with us. Larrousse and I had spent three months or so persuading members of the Renault board that Jabouille should stay on the team — some of them wished to get rid of him. He came to us and said that he was not happy, but I believe the real reason was the huge amount of money Talbot was prepared to pay. The first I knew about his proposed move was when I heard Pironi had signed for Ferrari. I told Gerard Ducarouge of Ligier that he was about to lose his driver, and he just couldn’t believe it. But I realised that with Jabouille in the frame of mind he was in then, the attraction of driving alongside his brother-in-law Jacques Laffite might be considerable. And Laffite was obviously keen as well. Eventually we came to an amicable agreement.”
As far as Renault’s signing Alain Prost is concerned, Jean Sage did not wish to be contentious although he did admit that he “felt a little uncomfortable” about the way in which that relationship developed. All in all Jean Sage attempts to tread a careful path through the politics which F1 involves, attempting to enjoy the best parts of his business without allowing the less appealing aspects of the Formula One scene to colour his overall enthusiasm for the game. Away from the circuit he admits to being “very nostalgic, perhaps too much so. I think we tend to get more nostalgic as we grow older, even in this game. I have a collection of interesting cars, but the older I get the further back I want to dip into history!”
Amongst Sage’s collection of “nice cars” are a mouth-watering trio of Ferraris; a Daytoma, a GTB/2 and an ex-Andre Simon SWB Ferrari Berlinetta — “not the one we rallied in together” while there is also a Citroen Maserati SM — “don’t tell Renault!” — a 1966 Lotus Elan and the four-cylinder 1,100 c.c. Alpine-Renault driven to victory in 1964 Le Mans Index of Performance by Roger de Lageneste and Henry Morrogh. Sage admits that he never gets sufficient time to indulge himself with them as much as he would like, but confesses to occasionally stopping one of his Ferraris, getting out and walking across the road “just to look back and admire it!”
As long as Renault are in Formula One, Jean Sage will be there looking after their interests. When they are gone, he may no longer walk the Grand Prix paddocks of the world, but can never imagine himself “not being involved in cars”. Those who saw him, a few hours after French Grand Prix practice at Paul Ricard last year, mixing happily with the historic racers during an informal get-together in the paddock will appreciate the definition of the word “racing enthusiast” and how it applies to the genial Renault team manager. — A.H.