Alpine-Renault win at home
At the Circuit Paul Ricard, on Sunday, April 7th, the opening round of the 1974 European 2-litre Sports-Car Championship saw the young Frenchman, Alain Cudini, score three significant “firsts”, when he won the 68-lap event in his Equipe Switzerland Archambeaud Alpine-Renault. It was his first 2-litre sports-car drive, the first occasion the new A441 model had raced, and the first Championship points the manufacturer had scored since first contesting the Championship at the beginning of 1973.
It was for Cudini, his equipe, and of course Alpine-Renault, a momentous occasion, for he had helped to ease the pain suffered during their disastrous 1973 season when Alpine-Renault entered like a lion, and disappeared like the proverbial lamb mid-way through the contest, failing to score a single point. For Elf and Renault, the win could not have happened at a better time or place, for not only was it on French ground, hut it fully justified the large amount of francs both companies are alleged to have put into the effort. In a minor way it can be compared to Matra winning at Le Mans, and, of course, it adds a new dimension to the four-year-old Championship, which has in the past been dominated by the British makes Chevron and Lola, and the Italian Fiat Abarths.
Since the inauguration of the Championship, the Southern French circuit has hosted the opening event in the series, where the European manufacturers usually show for the first time their latest marques, and this year was no exception. The three “perennials”, Chevron, Lola and Abarth, together with Alpine-Renault, all had examples of their new models, though no doubt a betting man would have put his money on a win from either Abarth or the French company, for Abarth had entered three works cars, with Alpine entering one full works machine, and two “works assisted” cars. March Engineering also had their new 74S present, whilst a host of older cars made up the fine 25-car entry.
Current Champions, Lola Cars, had changed their successful T292 model very little, apart from minor suspension modifications and, as in previous years, had adhered to their policy of not entering a works car, but giving assistance to one of the leading private teams. For 1974, Martin Raymond, the ever-improving driver who has campaigned Chevrons for the past couple of seasons, is receiving assistance with his T294, which at present is powered by an Alan Smith Ford FVD engine. Surprisingly, only two examples of Lola’s latest offering were on show in France, but, like other British industries, racing car manufacturers generally suffered a lean time due to the vagaries of the three-day working week.
The Bolton-based Chevron company had, in fact, already raced their new 1326 model in the abortive Springbok Series, so were theoretically one jump ahead of all their rivals. Like Lola, Chevron prefer to give assistance rather than run a works team, and following the demise of the Red Rose Racing team, ex-Red Rose driver John Lepp will fly the Bolton flag during this season in the prototype B26 entered by Roger Hire’s Forge Mill Racing team. The original Springbok car is powered by a Brian Hart alloy block engine, and the monocoque is completely new, as is the bodywork which features a longer, more square, nose section, with the rear wing an integral part of the rear body moulding. Derek Bennett has adapted the suspension from his F2 model and hung it onto the fully deformable tub, thus producing his first “all-new” sports car for the first time in a little over three years.
Major changes have also occurred in Italy, where, rumour has it, Sig. Enzo Osella was so dispirited with the performance of the Fiat-based Abarth engines, he threatened to utilise BMW power units instead. This, of course, was like showing a red flag to a bull, and Fiats would have none of it, so they gave Osella more lira, he re-worked the cylinder head of the engine to extract a further 10-12 more b.h.p. from it, discarded the Lucas fuel-injection system in favour of Kugelfischer, and slotted the revised engine into his new PAZ model. Weighing 1 kg. over the minimum weight limit of 575 kg,, the new Abarth has a semi-monocoque tub, with new suspension and, of course, the revised body sections, which, like the Lola and Chevron, features a “built-in” rear wing.
A new line-up of drivers is also featured, the multi-national trio of F1 March driver Vittorio Brambilla, Frenchman Jean-Louis Lafosse, who has brought some Gitanes money with him, and the 1973 Champion driver Chris Craft. Although being signed-on as number one, it is difficult to see the Italian team giving Craft the priority his position deserves for, even though he does speak in the native tongue, Abarth are bound to give their fellow countryman the best attention.
Were Alpine-Renault doing a Ferrari or Matra during the 1973 season in preparation for the following year? This was the question in most people’s minds when they arrived at Le Castellet, for it was common knowledge that the French car had been testing at the circuit for many months, and rumours of exceedingly fast lap times had been filtering through Europe. The French concern has reduced its involvement in rallying, and is ploughing a great deal of time and money into the 2-litre sports-car programme, and for this season, three of the new A441 models will contest the Championship. The tubular chassis is a revision of last year’s design, but has been strengthened throughout, whilst the new car is shorter, narrower, and lower than the previous model, which has reduced the drag co-efficient of the car quite considerably. The V6, four-valves-per-cylinder, iron block engine features revisions to the belt-drive system which proved so costly in 1973, and the engine, which acts as a stressed member of the chassis, now drives through a Hewland FG400 gearbox instead of the FT200. Although still producing its maximum 285 b.h.p. at 9,800 r.p.m., the flexibility of the engine has been improved by flattening out the torque band derived from the 1997 c.c. unit, designed jointly by Renault and Gordini .
Jean-Pierre Jabouille has been retained for a further season to drive the works car, whilst fellow Frenchman Gerard Larrousse leads the second team sponsored by Elf (who also sponsor the works effort), M. Archambeaud—a Paris-based Mercedes-Benz dealer, and the Swiss Cheese Federation. The other French drivers will share the second Equipe Switzerland Archambeaud car, these being Cudini, Bernard Darniche, and the fast French lady Marie-Claude Beaumont.
Last of the new cars on parade in France was the March 74S, and this too was little changed from last year, the Bicester-based company openly admitting they had preciously few hours to spend on development of the car, due to their heavy single-seater commitments. However, they have given their blessing to an Antar petrol backed car driven by the Frenchman Jean Ragiotti.
With new cars from each of the leading five manufacturers, the scene was set for an intriguing battle, but it was the Alpine-Renaults which dominated practice, with Jabouille on pole position, Cudini alongside him, and Larrousse fourth quickest. Brambilla’s Abarth was third fastest, but the Italian team had a terrible weekend with all three cars being crashed in practice due to tyres detaching themselves from the rims which had no retaining studs fitted. The race was somewhat of an anti-climax, for Jabouille failed to start when the flag dropped as his starter motor had jammed, and Cudini and Larrousse simply tore away from the opposition and looked set for a fine 1-2 result. However, Larrousse was forced to retire with a defunct petrol pump, leaving Cudini almost 1 mile in the lead, a lead he kept to the end of 221 kilometres. Ragnotti brought his, March home in second place, whilst Lepp finished third, two laps down. The Abarth challenge fizzled out early in the race, when Brambilla retired with no clutch, Craft’s engine over-heated, and Lafosse also retired with a broken gearbox.
With each year that passes, this Championship becomes more and more competitive, and now that a fourth challenger is on the scene, 1974 has all the ingredients of being the best season yet.—H.G.W.