Renault: Lost Pioneers
1985 saw French manufacturer Renault withdraw their factory team from Grand Prix racing after a desultory season that saw them finish behind both of their own customer teams in the constructors' cup. It had been two years since they had won a race, and yet four years before the French cars had looked set to dominate the series.
A Renault had won what is recognised as the first Grand Prix in 1906, Ferenc Szisz taking victory on a road circuit at Le Mans. However, the company had little to do with top-level motor sport then until the 1970s, when their turbocharged sportscars began to compete, culminating in Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jassaud winning the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours. By 1977, they had decided to take the technology to Formula 1. Their entry caused considerable attention - while many marques considered production car manufacturers had competed in Grand Prix racing since the war, such as Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, Aston Martin, Porsche and Matra, it had been a long time since any had competed that produced cars on quite a scale. Even Honda had been a relatively obscure, exotic brand as far as road cars were concerned when they competed in the late 1960s.. While for most fans owning a Ferrari or a Porsche or even a Mercedes was something to dream about, buying a Renault was somewhat more obtainable, especially to the large television audience the series was beginning to build. What better way to sell a road car was there than to have the brand winning Grand Prix?
The Grand Prix community was unsure what to make of it. The British-based specialist builders that made up the bulk of the entrants scoffed, believing that their small operations full of highly experienced engineers working around the Cosworth DFV engine would always have the innovation to beat larger manufacturers, while the likes of Ferrari (by now owned by Fiat, but fiercely protective of its' own identity) felt Renault didn't have the heritage either. Renault's effort dovetailed nicely with the French government's ELF-sponsored Grand Prix programme, which had helped the rise of the likes of Francois Cevert, Patrick Depailler, Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi and Henri Pescarolo through the ranks of motor sport. The problem was these drivers largely ended up driving for British teams - Renault gave the tantalising prospect of a French driver sponsored by the French fuel industry winning in a French car build by a major French manufacturer. Ironically, something very close would happen at the 1977 Swedish Grand Prix, when Jacques Laffite would drive a Ligier-Matra to victory around a month before Renault were ready, but - despite his government connections - Guy Ligier was seen as something of an antiestablishment figure, as was Laffite, having progressed largely outside of the ELF scheme.
The other curious choice was the use of the Renault-Gordini EF1 V6 engine. This was a 1.5l turbocharged engine, unlike every other car on the grid. The engine regulations at the time had been introduced in 1966, allowing for a 3.0l normally aspirated engine or a 1.5l supercharged version, but no-one had seriously looked at the later option, especially when the Cosworth DFV arrived in 1967. Aside from the arrival of Ferrari and Alfa Romeo flat-12 engines in the mid-1970s, the DFV had been dominant as it was powerful, well-proportioned and reliable, allowing concerns like Lotus, McLaren and Tyrrell to concentrate on chassis design and development. Once more the Renault engine was treated with scepticism, as it was believed a turbocharged engine would never match the reliability and power output of a DFV.
Renault Sport had the RS01 chassis ready for mid-1977, outwardly very conventional in the yellow, black and white factory colours. Driving the sole car would be Jean-Pierre Jabouille, who had driven for the factory sportscar team. A graduate of the ELF scheme, he had made less of an impact than his contemporaries in Grand Prix racing, with odd drives for Surtees, Williams and Tyrrell. His attraction to the company, however, came from his engineering capability - Jabouille was the last in a line of drivers that could combine their in-cockpit skills with the ability to design and fix cars. Indeed, in 1976 (at the age of 34) he had made his own Formula 2 chassis with ELF's backing and taken the title. His developmental skills were just what Renault needed, and also served to lower expectations of the car. The RS01 was scheduled to enter the 1977 French Grand Prix, but wasn't ready and didn't appear.
Instead, the car appeared at Silverstone for the next round. As predicted by many it was neither quick nor reliable, starting 21st and completing just sixteen laps before a turbocharger broke. It was not an auspicious debut - in fact, even with the lowered expectations it was embarrassing. Rivals christened the RS01 the yellow teapot. However, Renault and Jabouille worked hard at the car, trying to make it more reliable and overcome the severe throttle lag that rendered it undriveable at slower circuits. At the 1978 United States Grand Prix, he brought the car home in 4th place for the marque's first points. By 1979, the team was running two cars with another ELF graduate, Rene Arnoux, filling the second. At Kyalami, where the thin air grossly penalised the atmospheric cars, Jabouille took pole position. The new RS10 arrived mid-season, and in its' third race Jabouille took victory at the French Grand Prix, with Arnoux 3rd after an epic battle with Gilles Villeneuve. It was the first-ever Grand Prix win for a turbocharged car.
For 1980, the RS10 was developed into the RE20 and three more wins followed, with Arnoux briefly leading the title race early in the season before reliability faded. The car was still difficult on slower circuits, but was now regularly taking pole positions and leading races on faster tracks. 1980 also saw the emergence of Alain Prost, who made a solid impression in his debut season driving a poor McLaren. Renault saw him as a better prospect for the title than the 38-year old Jabouille, and signed him for 1981. Jabouille instead signed for Ligier, but his association with Renault ended on a sour note when he broke both his legs practising at Watkins Glen, injuries that would eventually end his Grand Prix career.
1981 initially saw more of the same, with few finishes before the RE30 arrived mid-season. Then Prost took three victories in the second half of the season and had an outside chance of the title until crashing out in the penultimate round in Canada. Nevertheless, the team began 1982 as favourites. By now, other teams had seen the potential of turbocharged engines, but their expense made them prohibitive. Ferrari had debuted their 126CK engine in 1981, but were four years of development behind Renault - though the car won twice in its' first season, this was largely due to the brilliance of Gilles Villeneuve. Brabham had struck a deal with BMW to run the Munich company's production-based four-block engine, but were expecting a year of development. The only other turbocharged engine was that produced by Brian Hart for the Toleman team, and without the backing of a manufacturer they were struggling to even qualify for races. Renault were set to sweep all before them.
The season started well in South Africa, where Prost lost a lap due to a puncture but still won, while Arnoux came home 3rd despite a down-on-power engine. This sparked a return to the political troubles that had blighted the 1980 and 1981 seasons. The largely British specialist builders and DFV users had banded together to form FOCA, and were struggling to find various loopholes in the regulations to combat the powerful Renault engine; they felt FISA, and their French president Jean-Marie Balestre, were biased towards the manufacturer teams in general, and Renault in particular. For the second round in Brazil Williams and Brabham equipped their cars with water-cooled brakes - large plastic bottles of water which sprayed out onto the brake discs during the race (with negligent cooling effect) and effectively allowed their cars to run underweight. Regulations allowed these tanks to be topped up after the race. Renault protested after Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg led Prost home, and FISA disqualified the Cosworth pair, handing victory to Prost. FOCA were up in arms, and after a further round of silly buggers instigated by Ferrari, boycotted the San Marino Grand Prix.
Ultimately, they needn't have bothered. The Renault was still far too unreliable, and while the cars regularly ran at the front and were more versatile on slower tracks (Prost led convincingly at Monaco before a suspension failure sent him cannoning into a barrier a few laps from the end), they just couldn't finish. After the opening brace of wins, the team wouldn't score a finish until Prost came home 6th at the British Grand Prix in a heavily detuned car. Reliability wasn't the only problem, however. An internal conflict had developed between the drivers, with Arnoux resenting the team's favouritism towards Prost. He felt that Prost's development work was pushing the cars in a direction that suited his compatriot's smooth style over his own more aggressive driving, and was becoming frustrated with his car breaking more often.
At the French Grand Prix, with Renault under huge pressure to perform (their home race would become a lightning rod for media attention and rumours of withdrawal over the coming years), for once the cars lasted. However, Arnoux ignored pit instructions to move over and allow Prost to win, instead taking victory for himself. Renault had won their crucial home race, but there was little doubt that as far as they were concerned the wrong driver had won. The season went on like that - the title race was low-scoring, with Ferrari losing both their drivers to accidents and out of the fight and the Brabham-BMWs were also struggling to finish. Instead, the DFV-powered cars of Rosberg and McLaren's John Watson continued to steadily score points. Prost spent the remainder of the season needing just one win to restart his challenge, but it never came and retirement at Monza (where Arnoux won) saw him run out of time. To rub salt into the wound, Ferrari took the constructors' cup, the first for a turbocharged car.
With Arnoux on the way to Ferrari for 1983, Renault refocused. In Arnoux's place came Eddie Cheever, who had shown strongly in year-long stints with Tyrrell and Ligier, but would pose no threat to Prost and was signed as a contractual number 2 driver. That he was American was also a canny move; the French press would unite behind the sole French driver, rather than be divided if a popular compatriot was put in the second car. The new RE40 showed impressively in testing, but Renault inexplicably opted to take the ageing RE30 - now updated to feature a flat bottom it was never meant to have - to the first race. Prost was roundly humiliated, being passed by Marc Surer's Arrows-Cosworth for 6th place a few laps from the end. He insisted the RE40 was used in Long Beach, and gave a promising display in the new machine.
Once again it all came down to the French Grand Prix. Now both equipped with RE40s, Prost won and Cheever came 3rd. The race marked the start of a run of nine finishes for Prost, including three wins and five other points finishes. Going into the Dutch Grand Prix he led Piquet by 14 points in the championship, with the challenge of Ferrari drivers Tambay and Arnoux already fading. It all seemed set, but Prost was greatly worried by the speed of Piquet's Brabham, especially as the chassis was being constantly improved by Gordon Murray and BMW were squeezing every horse from their engine. Prost was so rattled he collided with Piquet at Zandvoort contesting the lead.
Once again Monza would see the season shift against Prost, as Piquet won comfortably while the Frenchman struggled to stay the pace before a turbo broke. The Brabham added another victory at the European Grand Prix, with Prost a comfortably beaten 2nd, his lead reduced to two points. Momentum had shifted. In a display of hubris, Renault paid to ship scores of journalists over to South Africa to report on their victory in the season finale. Prost looked like a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown; Piquet was so relaxed he was almost horizontal. In the race itself, Piquet jetted into the lead while Prost battled with Lauda and de Cesaris, with Piquet's team-mate Patrese also in front of him. Then on lap 36 Prost pulled in to retire with a broken turbocharger. His only chance now was if Piquet retired, but with customary coolness Piquet waved Patrese and de Cesaris past, finishing 3rd to win the title. He was the first turbo world champion.
Recriminations abounded. Prost voiced his dissatisfaction about the team's slow response to the threat of Piquet's Brabham, and was promptly fired by Renault top brass, who also sacked Cheever for good measure. The very teams Renault had intended to beat had defeated them, and Piquet's victory was one for small, flexible focused operations over the huge resources and red tape of Renault. Prost, one of the best three drivers in the world at the time, was gratefully snapped up in a bargain deal by McLaren. In his place came Patrick Tambay, who had challenged for the title with Ferrari the previous year, and Derek Warwick, an up-and-coming talent.
However, 1984 was an embarrassment. It started off well enough with Warwick leading the season opener in the new RE40 until suspension failure, but Renault had trouble complying to the new fuel regulations, with Tambay losing 2nd when his tank ran dry. The biggest problem, though, was that Renault had stood still while their rivals had moved forwards. McLaren, with an innovative John Barnard chassis, a Porsche-built turbo engine and the services of Lauda and Prost, swept all before them. Renault were left fighting with Williams (now with Honda turbo engines), Ferrari, Lotus (using customer Renault engines since 1983) and Brabham for scraps. For their part, Tambay and Warwick demonstrated the difference between excellent drivers and true greats. There were no wins and only one pole position; the latter came at the French Grand Prix, amid threats from Renault that they would temporarily withdraw to solve the engine's fuel consumption.
After such a disappointing season, long-standing team manager Gerard Larrousse and designer Michel Tetu were both fired, with the inexperienced Gerard Toth moved across from another part of the company. There was a new car, the RE60, and a switch to Goodyear tyres after long-term partner Michelin withdrew. There was also a vague sense of everyone going through the motions, for want of anything else to do; it felt like a case of when the company would finally withdraw, rather than if. The RE60 quickly proved to be an ill-handling dog and no better than a midfielder, despite a brace of early podiums for Tambay in high-attrition races inflating the team's score. A mid-season upgrade package was no help, and after an improved showing at Zandvoort had been obviously due to both drivers running low fuel loads and high boost, Renault announced the factory team would be pulling out at the end of 1985. By then the grid was entirely made up of turbocharged cars - their idea had revolutionised Grand Prix racing, which had then rapidly left them behind in return.
After the announcement, the team's form got even worse, with a 6th place for Warwick at Spa the team's only points finish after. It had been more than two years since Prost had scored the outfit's final win in such dominant fashion at the Osterreichring, and more than a year since Tambay had fought for the lead of the Italian Grand Prix. The original turbo team had been overtaken by more specialised opponents, something which had been horribly exposed in their final couple of years when Lotus-Renaults had regularly blown off the factory machines. Renault would continue to supply engines to the Hethel outfit, Ligier and Tyrrell until the end of 1986, before withdrawing entirely after a deal with McLaren for 1987 broke down. Two years later they were back for the new 3.5l normally-aspirated Formula 1, and would go on to much more success as an engine supplier before eventually returning as a successful constructor.