THINK RENAULT RALLY CARS AND YOU THINKJEAN RAGNOTTL BUT THERE’S MUCH MORE TO HIS CAREER THAN THAT HE’S SHONE IN RACING AND RALLYCROSS FOR THE REGIE, BEATEN DID/ER PIRONI AND RENE
ean Ragriotti’s versatility and skill have been demonstrated over a period of 30 years in a wide range of cars and disciplines. He has raced single-seaters for three or four seasons, competed at Le Mans seven times (setting pole once and twice finishing in the top five), and has done several seasons of touring cars, winning a bunch of French national titles. He has won the Monte Carlo Rally and the Tour of Corsica (twice), and featured on the podium in a variety of WRC events. He has contested the Paris-Dakar, the Spa 24 Hours, been six times French rally champion and won the French rallycross championship. Oh yes, and he has a sideline in stunt driving for films. He started very young. Born in 1945 to a farming family in
Carpentras, his first driving experiences were at the age of seven in a Renault (of course!) 4CV van. He progressed to the family tractor and, when he was 14, drove one to win a local driving test. Upon leaving home, he started driving a delivery truck for his brother-in-law, and to this day he ascribes his ability in faster vehicles on Alpine roads to these experiences.
His first taste of true motorsport was a local treasure hunt in 1967. He then acquired a Renault R8 Gordini and did the Rallye Vaucluse, the national championship event of his area. He finished sixth, best novice.
In 1969 he won his class on Mont Ventoux in his brother-in-law’s Lancia Fulvia. Frank Alesi, father of you-know-who, then lent him his NSU after an eleventh-hour indisposition before the Rallye Vaucktse; Jean finished fifth and won Group 1.
Once again his brother-in-law comes into the story: “All his trucks were Bedfords, which is GM, and he bought them from the concessionaire in Orange. So we did a deal with this chap for a cheap Opel Kadett GT/E, the loan of a small van and a sale-or-return deal on spare parts.” Bigger events were soon in his sights. He did the Coupe des Alpes, winning Group 1 and finishing 19th overall in an entry stuffed with prototypes. He also did his first Corsica: 20th overall, first in Group 1. It was encouraging stuff, if far from glamorous: “To save money we often slept in the car while recceing and just ate sandwiches. The social side of our rallying was a little empty and, of course, no women!” Despite a lack of money, he and co-driver Pierre Thimonier managed to spread their wings in 1970, and started making an impression on the people who mattered. They won Group 1 in Monte Carlo (11th overall), and finished second overall on the Tulip Rally. Jean also made his race-car debut when GM put him in a Commodore GS E at a promotional race prior to the German GP. He drove this car on the Tour de France, too, the big Opel eating tyres and dining out on head-gaskets. But his efforts with the Kadett were rewarded with
second place in the French Rally championship behind Jean-Claude Andruet’s all-conquering Alpine.
In September 1970 Henri Greder invited Jean to become a works driver for GM France. The season started well with a win in Group 2 with a Kadett on the Monte Carlo, but 1971 was not to be a year full ofjoy. It started to go wrong when he was passing Claudine Trautmann’s works Lancia on a stage: “The road was wide enough as long as I touched a snowbank. I didn’t know that was hiding a ditch. The rear wheel went in and we went over onto the roof. We still had the speed and went past Claudine but, when you are on the roof, you can do nothing!”
During the summer Jean accepted an offer from Cesare Fiorio to drive a Fulvia on the Targa Florio. His co-driver was Claudio Maglioli and their teammates were Sandro Munari and Raffaele Pinto: “I was quick in practice, but I never got to drive in the race. Munari and Maglioli started and both engines had the same oil problem and retired.”
An Ascona now replaced the Kadett. Monte Carlo saw Jean ninth overall, first in Group 1, and third overall on the Olympia Rally. He then drove an Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV in the Spa 24 Hours alongside works driver, Andruet Jean qualified ahead of all the other BMWs and Alfas, and ahead of a lot of the Group 2 cars into the bargain, and finished 10th overall.
With no offers of a substantial contract in rallying, Jean now decided to try a full programme of racing: French Formula Three, with sponsorship from a fuel company, Antar. He invariably finished in the top 10 and had one race win, but since this activity was mainly in the summer, he couldn’t resist topping and tailing the season with a few rallies. He had a drive for Renault in an R12 Gordini on the Monte Carlo, and had the satisfaction of beating the best Group 2 Opel, driven by Anders Kullang.
For 1974, he switched to sportscars and raced a March 74S in the 2-litre Championship. Four second places and two thirds saw him classified fourth at the end of the year. He promptly went to New Caledonia and drove a BMW 2002 Tn in their infamous ‘Safari Rally’. He was leading by 30min when a steering arm broke. Undaunted, he borrowed a replacement from a spectator’s car and went on to finish third. The Renault connection was starting to strengthen, and he drove a works Alpine A110 on the Monte Carlo. But racing was still to the fore, and Jean did a complete season of Formula Renault, finishing second in the championship behind Rene Amoux, but ahead of Didier Pironi. He also drove at Le Mans for the first time, gallantly taking the wheel of a friend’s home-built special, a Tecma, which had a DFV supplying the urge. At one point, Jean had to drive back to the pits holding the engine cover on with one hand. The engine p+ later expired to everyone’s relief. At the end of the season, he returned to New Caledonia, this time with a Datsun, and won outright
This was also the year that his film work began: “It is very interesting. The tasks you have to do are never the same. One time you may have to do a stunt at 50Icrn/h and the most essential thing about it is to stop just one metre from the camera. It is not all a matter of doing multiple rolls at high speed. You have to be precise. Film directors are like racing managers, they don’t like it if you crash unnecessarily.”
Jean got a Renault contract to go rallying in 1976, initially with an A110 and then an A310. The bright spots were chasing Munari’s Stratos in Portugal (he was six seconds behind when he retired), and leading the Acropolis before breaking a driveshaft The remainder of the year saw him retire on the Tour de France, in Corsica, and on the RAC and Ivory Coast But he did win again in New Caledonia. And his performances convinced Renault that he was the man for their 1977 rallycross programme with the A310. They were right. He won everything and was French champion. He drove at Le Mans again, too, sharing an Inaltera with Jean Rondeau, finishing fourth to win the GTP category.
At the end of the year, Renault homologated the R5 Alpine and Jean drove one on the RAC Rally, where he was lying second in Group 2 before breaking a driveshaft Then came the 1978 Monte Carlo Rally. Jean-Pierre Nicolas won in a Porsche, but not before he had had to brush aside the two leading cars, Jean Ragnotti and Guy Frequelin in factory R5 Alpines. Jean finished second, a dream result for the little front-wheel-drive machine: “We had some tyre problems, and one time I took an R16 wheel off a service car and ran with that on the rear. We had such fantastic support from the French spectators. I went off in a hairpin and a guy had his leg broken. But he was so pleased that he came all the way to the finish so that I could sign the plaster cast.”
Rallying was again in the ascendant and the R5 was Jean’s machine.
Circumstances were not so favourable in other rallies as they had been on the Monte, but on the Ivory Coast Rally he showed what he and the little car could do on the rough by finishing third.
There was more of the same in 1979: fourth on the Acropolis showed that his gravel talents were not lacking, while an amazing considering the power of the R5 second in Corsica showed that he was equally at home on Tarmac. At the same time, he added two more Le Mans episodes to his CV: fourth with Frequelin in an A442 Turbo in 1978, fifth in 1980 sharing a Rondeau with Bernard Darniche.
For yet more variety, Jean accepted a offer from Audi to drive the `quattro prototype’, the VW Iltis, on the Paris-Dakar of 1980. He finished ninth and then went back to the R5 for the French Rally Championship, which he won outright. He did Le Mans, too, with Henri Pescarolo in a Rondeau, and put the car on pole, but sadly retired after six hours with valve trouble. Now came the hour of the R5 Turbo, Renault’s first attempt at a mid-engined specialist rally car. Jean took one on the Tour de France and set six fastest times before retiring with ignition problems. It was much the same in Corsica, setting four fastest times before puncturing and running out of spares. But there was none of that trouble on the Monte of 1981 and he romped to victory: “In those early days the car was not so easy to drive. The turbo lag was impressive and the electronics were not sophisticated. Our biggest problem on that Monte was at St Bonnet in the snow, when the van failed to arrive with our tyres. D+
We did that stage on racers. One place, I spun and could not get started uphill, so we reversed back to find a dry patch to start on.”
Renault did not have a full rally programme, but Jean did the RAC again and finished fifth. He also contested the majority of the R5 Euro Cup races, of which he won a couple and was second in the championship. At Le Mans, he was with Jean-Louis Lafosse in a Rondeau M379C. Jean started and was lying third before his first pitstop. Then Lafosse had a blow-out at high speed and was killed in the ensuing crash.
Jean’s final Le Mans outing was in 1982. He shared a Rondeau with Henri Pescarolo again, and though the engine failed at mid-distance, Jean had the fastest lap to his credit: “I didn’t have a proper seat. Pescarolo had swapped cars just one hour before the start and there was no time to change the seat. I had to sit on a sheet of foam and my back was soon hurting. Perhaps that’s why I did that fastest lap, so I would be sooner back in the pits.” A story told with the trademark Ragnotti smile and twinlding eyes.
Back in rallying that same year, Jean took his most satisfying victory, outrunning Andruet’s Ferrari 308GTB in a furious battle in Corsica. There were 27 stages, of which Ragnotti won 12 and Andruet 10, leaving the quattros, Lancia Rallye 037s and Porsche 911SCs gasping in their wake. The R5 Turbo went GpB for 1983-1984, but as Audi got a grip — literally — and with new 4WD cars like the Peugeot 205T16 on the horizon, Renault found it a struggle. Jean clinched the 1984 French Championship and claimed
third in Corsica, but a road accident at the end of the season meant he was out of commission until the R5 Maxi Turbo made its debut on the 1985 Touraine Rally, where he finished second. Better was to come. He won Corsica, having led all the way, and then added Ypres and the Tour de France to his laurels.
With no 4WD rally car in Renault’s planning, their programme started to wind down, and Jean was approached by Peugeot. But he preferred to stay with Renault, and started doing touring car racing in the production class with an R5 Alpine Turbo and then an R11 Turbo.
When GpB was swept aside for 1987, there was a flicker of renewed interest from Renault. They did not immediately realise that Lancia, Toyota, Mazda and Ford would join Subaru in building 4WD cars in sufficient quantities to make that characteristic essential. For a season, they tried hard with a brace of R 11 Turbos for Ragnotti and Francois Chatriot The best result came in Portugal, Jean setting seven best times to finish second behind Markku Alen’s Lancia. It was good going, but Renault could see that they were going nowhere with 2WD. They produced their own prototype, the R21 Turbo 4×4, and entered Jean in the French Supertourisme racing series which, naturally, he won.
Over the subsequent years, his preoccupation was mainly with rallying, in a series of Renaults, starting with 1111 Turbo, Clio 16S , Clio Maxi kit car and Maxi Megane. In these latter vehicles, driven by Jean in 1995-96, the ultimate in front-wheel-drive technology was aired. But even they were squeezed into a minor role by the arrival of the WRCars. Typically, Jean found a new outlet — ice racing a Megane — and started accepting more film offers. This month he will be 57, an appropriate age fora man dedicated to variety: “I always preferred rallies, though. There was a good atmosphere. They were good times. And my friends who are Formula One drivers say that rally drivers are the best. Who else can drive in all those conditions? And when a rally driver comes to the track, he doesn’t seem to be too slow.” Smile. Twinlde. III