All for one

Renault had never looked like winning Le Mans — its motorsport programme was too fragmented. That all changed in 1977, but it took another year for this revolution to take effect. Paul Fearnley explains why

Judging by how far the man holding the microphone-on-a-stick jumps back as the car fires up, our fervent hope that this Le Mans-winner's turbo V6 might not bust today's noise limit has just foundered.

Jean-Pierre Jaussaud is not overly bothered. He reveals that his first race was here at Goodwood in 1964 (the occasion of Jackie Stewart's F3 debut), but a recce lap leaves him barely the wiser: "I don't remember it being this fast." Tooling around for photos on a lovely spring day is fine by him. Besides, he says, Michelin can no longer supply the correct tyres for the car: "It still looks beautiful, but it is not so good to drive fast now."

Better to remember her how she was.

Beneath that long, flowing dress lay a chic French supermodel, all geared up for her biggest day. Truly, this was a match made in heaven: France's biggest car manufacturer to take France's biggest motor race — for the first time. A consummation. Before the national celebration, though, lay the 24-hour ceremony, the key to which was the 'aisle', aka 'The Muldoon', Les Hunaudières: 50 seconds at 220mph.

All seemed set fair. Le Mans had seen nothing like it since Ford's scorched-earth policy of the late Sixties. Renault's yellow, matt black and white was overpowering in 1977; its 60-strong team swarmed the paddock. And it wasn't just the quantity: Gérard Larrousse, François Castaing, Jean Sage, François-Xavier Delfosse, Michel Têtu, Bernard Dudot, Jean-Pierre Boudy — this was a team brimming with talent. And that's before we get to its driver lineup: Depailler/Laffite, Jabouille/Bell, Tambay/Jaussaud and Pironi/Arnoux.

Le Mans was the only goal that year for the tested-tested-tested Renault-Alpine A442. The car had made its debut at La Sarthe the year before, setting pole and fastest lap and leading for eight laps before retiring from third with piston failure after 11 hours. But that chassis was sprint spec. No, this was Renault's first serious attempt.

Two seasons of underachievement had, it was hoped, been put behind the A442 via an intensive regime: four endurance runs at Paul Ricard, and lots of max-speed running on aerodromes and along the Chambéry-Grenoble autoroute!

The team, too, was better prepared than ever before. The amalgamation of Alpine, Gordini and Renault into Renault Sport during 1976 was slowly eroding the rivalries within this Unholy Trinity: less liberté, but more egalité and fratemité. The man behind this unification was Larrousse. He had driven for Alpine at Le Mans in 1967-68 — and been unimpressed. His later, successful spells with Porsche and Matra had been much more to his liking, and he wanted to instil this same cohesion at Renault. He was indubitably thorough, but this process was not the work of a moment — as 1976 had proved.

Larrousse's first race in charge, for instance, should have been a walkover at the Nürburgring. Instead Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Patrick Depailler, under strict instructions not to race each other, slid off on the first lap. France had a wealth of speedy talent, but appeared to be short on team players.

Forty-year-old Jean-Pierre Jaussaud knew that this was his calling card. A late starter in the sport, he'd been French F3 champion in 1970 with Tecno and the runner-up in the '72 European F2 series at the wheel of a Brabham. The following year he finished third at Le Mans for Matra, a result he repeated in '75 with Mirage. As the 'Elf' generation flourished, this moustachioed man from Caen knew he was not the apple of single-seater team managers' eyes, and that the long-distance stuff would be his future métier. Renault Sport's young guns had other strings to their bows, F1 and F2, and so he knew that Larrousse would need a workhorse to bear the brunt of the A442 programme...

"For a long time I was on the telephone to Larrousse persuading him to let me test the car. I knew that he had no real need of me for the race, and that this was the only possibility of me getting a drive," says Jaussaud cheerfully. Larrousse eventually gave way. "I enjoyed all of the testing, working with the designers and engineers. It was an important job and I was happy to do it." He was even happier when he was rewarded with a place next to Patrick Tambay for the race. Sadly, their A442 would register the first of the three stunning retirements.

After four hours the squad held a comfortable 1-2-3; the nearest works Porsche was in 15th place. However, one by one, they were sidelined by the same problem: a melted piston. 'The Muldoon' had got 'em. Nothing, it seemed, could prepare you for it.

One month later at Silverstone, Renault made F1 history with the first appearance of its turbocharged RS01. It should have done so on a wave of euphoria: Le Mans a feel-good memory, F1 its exciting future. Instead it knew that it would have to return to La Sarthe, for Le Mans had to be won before F1 could become its priority.

All of this would've been dismissed as ridiculous just five years before: Renault was a motorsport minnow, as François Guiter, the go-ahead competitions boss of Elf, was about to find out. He had a problem: Matra's Simca deal meant that Elf would have no front-line representation at Le Mans in 1972, for Simca was tied to Shell. In response he approached Renault.

Cowed by the 'dreams of victory' and subsequent failure of the Alpine V8s at Le Mans in 1968, Renault had washed its hands of motorsport. Thereafter it appeared content to bask in the reflected glow of Alpine's numerous rally wins – and pretend that Matra's racing successes weren't happening. When Guiter proposed that it should build a racing engine for the European series for 2-litre sportscars, as a stepping-stone towards a fully-fledged Le Mans assault, he was met by careworn inertia. Undaunted, he simply handed the budget to a new generation of engineers at Gordini's Viry-Châtillon factory and told them to get on with it. They did.

Designed by Castaing and Boudy, the 90-degree V6 CH1 produced an encouraging 270bhp and was soon dropped into the tail of Alpine's new 1973 sportscar. Conceived by André de Cortanze, the A440 was a neat, simple, multi-tubular machine that suffered from understeer and a lack of torque and reliability. The longer, narrower A441 of 1974 was much better. With 285bhp driving through a stronger Hewland (FG400) 'box, this 575kg machine dominated the 2-litre series, scoring a championship 1-2-3 with Alain Serpaggi, Jabouille and Larrousse. It was time to step up.

That Alpine-Renault was able to do so was thanks to the foresight of colourful team boss Jean Terramorsi, and the youthful vigour of Dudot The latter's colleagues had thought him mad when he bolted a Garrett turbo onto one of Renault's R16 four-pots. Even when they saw the figures this generated they still expressed doubts. In truth, these staggering numbers came hand in hand with a precipitous power curve and hideous lag – yet Jean-Luc Thérier somehow conjured a victory in the 1972 Critérium des Cévennes out of his all-or-nothing A110 Turbo. Terramorsi was convinced and sent Dudot to the US to learn more about turbos. Renault's recurring bhp problem was about to come to a dramatic end.

Turbo testing began in the winter of 1974. Group 6 sportscar racing had a more generous atmospheric/forced induction equivalency than Formula One – 1.4 compared to 2.1 – so Dudot had 2142cc to play with. Actually, he stuck with the baseline 1996cc for the first CHS engine. Even so, power shot up from 285 to 490bhp at 9900rpm and torque was almost doubled. That was on the dyno, of course; its behaviour on the track was an unknown. It was with trepidation – and without the unready A442 – that the team went to Mugello in March 1975 for round one of the World Manufacturers Championship. It won!

This victory proved a double-edged sword, however. It raised expectations too high, too soon, which made the subsequent disappointments all the more crushing; it would remain as Renault's only sportscar win of the next two seasons. The 500bhp A442 was the fastest thing out there — but success always eluded it.

Despite this, the young thrusters at Renault were encouraged — and still ambitious. Among them was Bernard Hanon, the Assistant MD. He saw no reason why Renault should not succeed in motorsport — at all levels — with the implementation of a more co-ordinated policy. And the chance for change came at the end of 1975 when Terramorsi had to step down because of ill health. The choice of successor was stark: Jacques Cheinisse, Alpine and rallying to the core — or Larrousse. The latter proposed rigorous change, new work practices, a general streamlining. He got the job.

Renault was increasing its grip on Alpine; its yellow had replaced their blue. The problems, however, went much deeper than a coat of paint. The chain of command between Renault, Alpine and Gordini was confusing, rivalries abounded, and Larrousse met with a mixed reaction: de Cortanze couldn't work with him, but he found an ally in technical director Castaing. Two days in every week they travelled to Dieppe to oversee the A442's build.

"It wasn't easy for me to boss my former team-mates about," explains Larrousse. "But there were advantages to my situation: I knew everyone's strengths and weaknesses." And they knew he knew. "We got a very good team out of it." But not yet the result he so dearly wanted — and needed. Larrousse had spent a fortune in 1977 and drawn a big Le Mans blank.

Testing for the 1978 Le Mans began in the autumn of '77 — in the USA! Mirage's Harley Cluxton had told Larrousse of the 12km banked track at the Transport Research Centre in Ohio. This capacious facility would allow the A442 to run at top speed for all eternity — at least until it snowed! But not even acts of God could be allowed to hamper progress. Viry-Châtillon broke new ground with a test-bed that allowed engine and gearbox to be assessed simultaneously.

"That was our biggest step," says Larrousse. "It was this that allowed us, just a few weeks before the race, to solve the problem with fifth gear..."

There were other late additions. In April, at Istres airport, Jaussaud ran a car fitted with a Perspex cockpit 'bubble' designed by aerodynamicist Marcel Hubert. Jaussaud was convinced the flimsy, hinged item would blow off. Instead it added 10kph to the top speed, albeit at the expense of a claustrophobic and hot cockpit.

The biggest surprise, however, was the unveiling of the A443 just two weeks before scrutineering. An extra 3mm of bore (2138cc) and increase in boost (0.85 to 0.95 bar) gave it an extra 20bhp. This, allied to longer bodywork courtesy of an extra 16cm of wheelbase, allowed Jean-Pierre Jabouille to clock 225mph on the straight — and dispense with the disliked 'bubble' and underside brushes meant to create ground effect.

These developments were indicative of the fact that Renault wanted all its cars to be different; it did not want a repetition of the retirements of 1977. Which is why the second car (chassis 03) was designated A442B. This was fitted with the smaller engine, but also boasted the longer tail section; its crew decided to stick with the 'bubble' and brushes.

The third car, that of Jean-Pierre Jarier and Derek Bell, was in A442 spec, i.e. no big engine, no long tail, no bubble, no brushes. Jaussaud had been originally designated to drive it, but when Tambay was sidelined because of injuries sustained at Pau, the team's oldest driver was paired with its youngest, 26-year-old Didier Pironi, in the A442B.

Jaussaud knew just how to play it: "I was there to fight against Porsche, not against my team-mates or my co-driver. Naturally, Didier wanted to be quicker than me. If I went quicker he would respond, so I held back so that he would do the same. He was glad to be quicker, and I was happy for him to feel that way. I had a good feeling, too: the car was bloody quick, and it was very stable."

Jacky Ickx's Porsche was on pole, but Stuttgart's men hit trouble early, Ickx and Hurley Haywood pitting at the end of lap two with fuel feed problems. Worse was to follow. Ickx lost 45min while fifth(!) gear was replaced after just six hours, and so Porsche put him in its only well-placed 936. As in '77, he charged through the night — but this time there would be no miraculous victory, more gearbox woes putting the win beyond reach.

At daybreak the A443 was holding a two-lap lead. It had been in front for 12 hours and not missed a beat. Indeed, it was running so well that Jabouille set a new lap record on lap 226... That rang Larrousse's alarm bells. He told Dudot to reduce the boost. Thirty minutes after he had done so, the A443's engine seized.

"Jabouille blames me for this failure," says Larrousse. "Maybe reducing the boost did cause the problem, but we couldn't tell for sure. I spoke with Castaing before making this change and he was in agreement with me."

All eyes, barring those of a tearful Jabouille, were on Pironi and Jaussaud, who were four hours from victory.

"That was a nervous time," says Jaussaud. "I heard a cracking noise every time I pressed the clutch and changed gear. l am shorter than Didier and was worried that I wasn't pressing the clutch far enough. I told Larrousse my fears, and when Pironi came in for the last scheduled pitstop, he asked him about it Didier said that he was having no such problems, so they kept him in for the final stint"

Pironi was fibbing, though: he was struggling with an increasingly stiff gearchange. He was dehydrated, too, his cramps so bad that he was using his left foot to accelerate. But such is the confidence of youth. Jaussaud and Larrousse admit that this decision was a mistake. How close they came to disaster was proved when Pironi collapsed while making his way up the stars to the podium.

Larrousse: "The Jaussaud/Pironi car was not my favoured one, but Pironi did some really good laps, especially at night. Jaussaud was a bit less fast, but he was quick and consistent. They worked very well together."

France rejoiced. And Renault Sport breathed a sigh of relief.