Crown Jewel - 1978 Alpine A442
How Alpine's Le Mans trajectory reached its peak.
The Société des Automobiles Alpine SAS, or simply "Alpine" as we know it, was founded in 1955 by Frenchman Jean Rédélé. He had been successfully involved in motorsport ever after World War II had ended, fielding an in-house modified version of the Renault 4CV, and then sticking to utilizing cars from his compatriots for his motor racing efforts.
So was the tightly-knit relationship between Alpine and Renault, that the latter ended up taking full acquisition of the former as early as 1973. From now on, the brand was to be seen as Renault's motorsport branch, a few years before "RenaultSport" sprouted to life.
By using the 4CV, Alpine earned its fame throughout the victories achieved at the Mille Miglia and the Coupe Des Alpes (it was from this race where Alpine got its name from). After the long run of the 4CV had gotten to an end, the company presented another model based off of a Renault chassis, named the A110, which cemented itself as a rally legend. The A110 was followed then by the A310, and for their final days in rally racing, they fielded a series of factory-backed Renault 17 Gordinis.
Rédélé at the 1952 Mille Miglia
Eager to continue with the same luck they had enjoyed in rally stages, Alpine set their focus in road course racing, more specifically, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Now having economical suffice through Renault's funding and enjoying the new "Renault Sport" marque after the French giant bought tuning company Gordini, all they had to do was build a car to compete in the day-long race.
The new creation was dubbed "A440" but suffered from several reliability issues caused by the two-liter Renault-Gordini V6, that belted out a quite competitive 290hp. After dedicating an entire winter to solving those problems, the A441 was presented, and showed a pace that was good enough to win the title, but not good enough to win at Le Mans.
Now having the required money and the morale high from the past title, they figured the most sensible way of upgrading the A441 for Le Mans was by sticking a turbocharger. Alpine were no strangers to the obscure art of turbocharging cars in the late 1900's: Alpine was the first team to enter and win with a turbocharged car in rallying, when Jean-Luc Thérier raced a specially modified A110 at the Critérium des Cévennes.
The A441 was the perfect base to improve upon
To upgrade the A441, the modifications made to it were "simply" bolting a T05 turbo by Garrett and adding a - controversial - windshield that aided with reduced drag, at the expense of distorted driver visibility.
The new turbo bumped the power output to 500bhp, a considerable increase over the measly 290hp produced by the NA brother. To help control all of this power, disc brakes together with coil springs and telescopic shock absorbers made by Koni were put in all four corners of the car. Finally, those 500hp were sent to the rear wheels via a 5-speed manual transmission made by Hewland, which helped power the 720kg car up to a top speed of 217mph (350kph).
Now adornated with a black and yellow livery and with drivers Didier Pironi and Jean Pierre Jaussaud in charge of the car, all that was left was to enter Le Mans and win, but not before letting the car run some races before the main one.
The weird windshield was good to increase top speed by 5mph at Les Hunaudieres
The A442 made it's debut at the 1975 Mugello 1000km race, and, to even the own team's surprise, it came back home with the first place podium, leaving the locals Alfa Romeo with a bitter taste in their mouth. However, this was the only race they would win in the entire season. In classical French fashion, the engine simply gave up on most of the races, and although the car definitely had the pace, the engine couldn't cope with it. Those issues remained during the 1976 and 1977 seasons.
Things were looking better for 1978, where the only race it participated in was the 46th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the race, the Equipe Renault Elf Sport entered a three-car army, consisting of one older A442 (named A442A), one A442 with the windshield installed (dubbed A442B) and another A442 with slightly longer bodywork and a slightly larger engine (2,1l, up from 2l) which bumped power output by some 20hp. This 520hp version was named the A443
When the race started, the A443 worked as the hare, and sped away from the rival Porsches, leading the race for the first hours until, as expected, the engine blew up a piston on the 18th hour. This gave the whole team a big concern, as a blown piston was the same failure they had suffered the past year. Now left with one A442B and two A442As (A second one was entered by Ecurie Calberson), the gap made by the A443 was enough to allow the A442B to catch up to the 800hp 936s before they got in trouble. After losing half of the cars due to a transmission failure in the works A442A, the Pironi/Jaussaud duo had to defend first position for the remainder of the race.
Pironi/Jaussaud up front, with Jarier/Bell playing catch up, and at the back the privateer A442
After one of the German machines retired due to an accident, the fight was split between two Alpines and three Porsches. In the end, the French duo managed to win the race with a sizeable four-lap gap to the 936 in second place. The big gap didn't mean the last moments were easy, as the #2's clutch gave up and simply couldn't stop in the pits, the solution? The team asked Pironi if he could pull a double-stint to the end, to which he inevitably agreed, risking passing out from the heat accumulated in the bubble-like cabin. When Pironi got out of the car, he was too exhausted to climb to the podium, so he left Jaussaud alone on the top step.
Alpine's pride through the Champs Elysees after the victory at La Sarthe
After winning France's holy grail of motorsport, the Renaultsport team inmediately shifted their sights to the even more ambitious Formula One project. When they entered F1, Renault lifted the V6 off of the A442 and downsized it to comply with engine regulations of the time, and was pioneers in the usage of turbochargers, putting the experience gathered from Le Mans and rallying to good use.
Gérard Larrousse, who drove the car in its debut season, was the general director of Renaultsport by 1978, and it was him who focused on F1, leaving top-tier sport car racing behind, wanting a slice of the lucrative F1 cake.
Feel free to drop feedback on the comments below, and until then, peace out!
- Agus García