Even before Brazil, Renault Sport admitted that it was impressed by the Ford ZetecaR. With development of its own RS VIO now levelling off, the French are getting ready for a new wave of F1 engine technology . . .

Everywhere you look, there are souvenirs of Main Prost. In amongst the myriad posters and photographs of the four-times world champion you might see the occasional glimpse of Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill or Riccardo Patrese, but the dominant figure around the walls and corridors of Renault Sport’s Fl headquarters at Viry-Chatillon, to the south of Paris, is the recently retired M Prost. One shouldn’t, suggests lean-Jacques His, manager of engine development, attach any particular importance to the proliferation of Prost memorabilia, the most conspicuous form of which is a pit signalling board hanging above the doors in the engine shop. Its message is a mixture of pride and simplicity: ‘Alain Prost 4e titre mondial’. It symbolises that the business left unfinished after Kyalami 1983 has at long last been concluded.

“We have no favourites,” grins His. “We are Prost fans, but also Senna fans. We don’t care about stories between drivers, between Alain, Nigel, Ayrton and so on. We have been happy to work with them, with their qualities and also with their defects from time to time. We have appreciated them in different ways. We were happy to work with Alain; now we are happy to work with Ayrton as well.”

His views are typical of Renault Sport’s pragmatic approach to the job in hand. While the powers-that-be in Renault’s road car HO to the west, at Boulogne-Billancourt, might be concerned about Peugeot’s arrival in Formula One, those at Viry-Chatillon refuse to let potential marketing propaganda divert them from their principal objective. “You have,” says His, “to differentiate between this side of the company and Billancourt. Inside Renault Sport we don’t care a lot about Peugeot, because they are just another competitor. It’s different for the road car division, because Peugeot is the biggest rival. For us, we think the same about Peugeot as we would about Honda, Ferrari or Ford. We want to beat all of them.”

Although it has only been back in Fl since 1989, Renault has observed countless technical advances. Amidst the mixture of hi-tech lustre and fading 1970s charm that forms the backbone of the plant at ViryChatillon (first occupied back in 1968 by Amedee Gordini), there are pockets of evidence. You only have to look at the row of V 1 Os nestling by a staircase, from the now gauche-looking RS1 with its labyrinth of belts to the compact, gear-driven RS4 that forms the basis of the subsequent RS5 and current RS6 units. Their neater packaging is helped not only by Renault’s endeavours, but by those of key suppliers such as Magneti Marelli. Take a look at how engine management systems have shrunk from something that looked like a suitcase set to a neat little parcel of paperback dimensions. However, His and Renault Sport technical director Bernard Dudot agree that the biggest performance gains since the marque returned to Fl have come through superior mechanical engineering. (His grins, however, when he recounts that during his time

at Ferrari, before the advent of electronic gearboxes, it was easy to tell which driver had been using which components. The difference between a set of Berger’s dog rings and a set of Alboreto’s was silk and sandpaper.) Ever more sophisticated CAD equipment helps the process, though His and VI project manager Philippe Coblence stress that the value of holm sapiens shouldn’t be discounted. In an age when computers are fit only for scrap if they can’t

simulate rotating parts to minuscule tolerances, and we’re talking thousandths of a millimetre, there is still scope for cerebral flair. “You need a bit of both,” says His. “The first step is inspiration. You want a good knowledge of the products. You have to know the limits before testing them out on the computer to see whether they are good or not. The computer holds the final solution.” “Things are not like they were in the turbo

era,” says Dudot. “Then, our main concern was combustion. Now, that is still an important thing for us, because as engine speeds increase we have to burn fuel at a faster rate, but the main focus for us is mechanical. Performance comes from engine speed, and to find more speed we have to refine the key mechanical parts. More precise drawing techniques have allowed us to lighten, and improve, crankshaft, connecting rods, distribution, gears and so on.”

His continues: “With a race engine, you want to improve everything at the same time, at the same pace. An engine revs and gives power at the level of its worst component. You may be stopped by the valve, the conrod, the valve spring. Any component. You have to improve all of them. Mechanical and electronic. I think that the most impressive improvements we have made have been with the conrods and the pistons.”

Nobody at Renault, however, will be specific about the results of such spectacular engineering precision.

Maximum rpm? Peak power?

Don’t bother asking. The latest generation dynamometers at Viry-Chatillon are capable of absorbing 18,000 rpm and 1000 bhp, and they won’t tell you whether, or when, they think they might need replacing.

With the RS6, Renault has noticed that the graph which monitors year-on-year increases in performance is beginning to level out. The next big technological gain may not be far away.

Renault’s engineers are as coy about what they think this might be as they are about their performance figures. All they will say is that they are working in conjunction with Aerospatiale on several interesting new areas, and Coblence is confident that Renault will have the capacity to surprise as and when any new developments come on stream.

“Our work with Aerospatiale involves new ideas and new materials,” says Dudot. “I cannot give details, but we know that we are working in a good direction for the future. We are also collaborating on an electronics programme, to help improve reliability.”

Are ceramic materials likely to feature in future Renault racing engines?

“They already do, to a small degree,” affirms Dudot. “We are not ready to use it in large quantities in the engine, because it isn’t yet reliable enough. It isn’t our job to develop ceramics; it’s up to specialists in the field. We use small quantities of such materials on the engine, to provide surface protection, but that’s all.”

It all makes one wonder what is concealed on test-bed number seven, the only one to which the press is denied access. Rumours say it has eight cylinders, and that the ceramic content is substantial.

Talking of eight cylinders, there have also been rumours that Renault has one eye on a Formula 3000 project, but Dudot laughs it off. “We are returning to F3 this year, and we already have Formule Renault Campus, Formule Renault and F I , so I think it would complete the set, but F3000 is something to be discussed at another time.

“I think the F3 is very interesting for us from a technological point of view. The regulations are incredibly stable. Basically they are the same as they were when we were last in F3 a long time ago.

“We have chosen the British Championship for the programme with multiple champions West Surrey Racing), because if you want to test the competitiveness of your product you have to race against the very best, and that meant running either in Germany or Britain. The French championship isn’t as strong at the moment.” Dudot, whose son is set to contest a second season of French F3, with Fiat power (I). denies that the F3 programme will be an unnecessary diversion. All the work is

being done away from Viry-Chatillon, albeit under the complete control of Renault.

At Viry, they concentrate only on Williams’s engine supply. Ligier’s VI Os are tended by Mecachrome, but Dudot keeps a close eye on developments at MagnyCours. At the time of our discussion, he was as intrigued as anybody to know what exactly lay in store. “It’s a complete mystery to me,” he smiled, “and I’m interested to know because we want to take a decision on whether or not we can agree to supply the engine to the new owner.”

And if that owner happened to be Benetton, whom he accurately predicted this was before the Brazilian GP would be a stern rival this year? Wouldn’t it constitute a risk, allowing your chief adversary to have direct access to one of your strongest weapons?

Dudot smiles.

The flipside, of course, is that such a deal would create a Schumacher/Renault marriage in 1995, and the prospect of having the German as an ally inevitably appeals as much to a racer like Dudot as it will to the marketing men who appreciate Benetton’s dynamic image across Europe.

Schumacher and Benetton apart, there are other things which concern Dudot about the balance of the F) season. Ferrari, he thinks, will return to full competitiveness before long, and he shares many people’s reservations about refuelling. “Even if the equipment is sophisticated and, in normal circumstances, not too dangerous, that doesn’t take into account the human factor. During a Grand Prix, pit stops happen in a real hurry, and as you need two or three more people per car there will be more congestion. I don’t know what might happen.”

And it isn’t only the potential hazards which concern him.

“Because the machinery is designed to be safe, it is very robust about I 500 kg, very heavy. The cost of air freighting just one machine to places like Brazil and lapan is expensive, and we need two!”

Generally, though, the mood in ViryChatillon is as relaxed and confident as one would expect of a company that had powered the last two world champions and had high hopes of a hat-trick, Schumacher notwithstanding.

The VI may be nearing the end of its development, but Coblence is unconcerned. “Our target for this year is to make as much progress as possible with existing materials. Racing cars have changed very little in a long time. Until five years ago, the cars did not change very much. Then with electronics, suddenly there was a big step forward. 1 think it will be the same with new materials, though it’s difficult to predict exactly when that will be. An engine has so many facets, and not until all of those facets have been perfected will the new materials come on stream. Some things are close to being ready, but they can’t be introduced just yet.” He smiles knowingly, but impenetrably. The next great leap forward may not be far away . . . SA