First Warning - Renault and the Turbo Era
The hunch that started a revolution
In the 1970s, the world of Formula 1 had seen many new ideas and innovations come and go as teams attempted all sorts of things to try and give their cars the edge over the competition. Aerodynamics was becoming more and more relevant in the design of the cars. As a result of this, F1 designs in the 70s differed enormously from the 1960s "cigar-shaped" machines. The cars were lower, had thicker tires, and now equipped wide front and rear wings as standard. Some teams even daring to try some bolder approaches, resulting in cars like the Tyrrell P34 and the Brabham BT46B. The exterior of the cars had changed, but the same couldn't be said about the inner components, specifically, the engines. Ferrari used it's iconic, yet by this time aging, Flat-12 engine, while pretty much everyone else on the grid had adopted the Cosworth V8 due to its reliability and power.
The 1970s saw some of the most aesthetically varied grids of all time. Radical designs and ideas were characteristic of the era
Ever since its invention in 1885, probably no nation on the planet had embraced the motor car with the same enthusiasm as the French. It was this same enthusiasm that led the Renault brothers to become involved in what were the earliest stages of motor racing. Marcel Renault became a talented racer, while his brother Louis, a skilled mechanic and designer of some of France's first automobiles. It was a Renault that won the very first Grand Prix in history back in 1906, and the brand had remained involved in motorsport ever since.
Gordini-tuned Renault cars had been very successful racing in the 1950s. Renault's subsidiary, Alpine, won the very first World Rally Championship in the 1960s, and had remained competitive in the series. In the 1970s, Renault had seen considerable success with its engines powering cars in Formula 2 as well as with their very own team in the Sportscars Series (Precursor to the World Endurance Championship). Upon its success on other divisions, the brand chose to try their luck in Formula 1 and started development on a car to race in the 1977 season.
The Renault name has been present in motorsport ever since the very beginning, however, Formula 1 was still unexplored territory for the brand.
Renault had no experience in F1 racing by the time it considered joining, however, at the time, regulations in F1 were very simple compared to today. Regarding the engine, the main point was that it couldn't be larger than 3 liters, turbo engines were also allowed with half the displacement.
Those norms had been in place since 1966, and yet no team had ventured into racing with a turbo engine, as at the time, they were seen as very unreliable (which, to be honest, was true). Renault had experience racing with turbos in other categories, and knowing what the turbo engines were capable of, they opted to use one.
The 1.5-liter turbocharged Renault-Gordini engine was selected by Renault to power its Formula 1 car on debut.
Renault presented its RS01 car at the 1977 British GP at Silverstone, 10 rounds into the championship. Renault was a well-established brand, and expectations were high for the little yellow car. The engine had been prepared by Gordini, Renault's in house tuner. It wasn't a new design but rather a modified version of the turbo V6 already used by Alpine since a couple of years prior. The little engine was allowed to rev all the way to 11,000rpm, and thanks to its turbocharger, it was capable of delivering approximately 510bhp, almost 30bhp more than the Cosworth V8s. On paper, the car seemed to have potential, and driven by Jean Pierre Jaboille, it managed to make it through pre-qualifying without problem.
However, its promising results in qualifying were soon to be overshadowed by the RS01's infamous reliability problems. After just 16 laps, the turbo on the car blew in a cloud of smoke. Out of the total of 5 races the team took part in that year, they would finish none. After the season ended, the team conducted further tests at Paul Ricard. Renault being Renault, and thus a tad crazy, saw no problem in allowing driver-turned journalist Jackie Stewart to drive their F1 car and post a review for a series of articles he was writing.
Despite considerable effort, Renault's first F1 car was a flop. The car faced numerous reliability problems as well as several design flaws.
Some improvements were made to the car over the winter and early months of 1978. Renault skipped the first two rounds and showed up for the race in South Africa. Kyalami was a very fast circuit, like Monza or Silverstone, but had one other feature that Renault was keen on taking advantage of, its height. Located almost 1,500 meters (4,900ft) above sea level, the track caused naturally aspirated engines to lose about 25-30% of their power. However, Renault's turbo engine could compensate for most of the loss, and thus allowing Jabouille, still driving the only car the team had, to qualify 6th. However, the car once again broke down in the race.
The team powered through, and unlike in 1977, they decided to take their car to all but one of the remaining rounds of the championship. They showed up at the next race at Monaco, probably the worst track for the car, as the short straights and tight turns would only highlight the car's turbo-lag problems. But, to the surprise of even the team, the car not only managed to qualify 12th but also finished the race 10th. It had been lapped 4 times by the race leader, and Jabouille's struggle to drive the car was evident, but for the team, finishing the race was in itself a tiny victory after so much hard work and disappointment.
The RS01 entering the Parc Fermé area after finishing a race for the first time in Monaco 1978.
The car managed to complete another race when Jabouille finished 13th in Spain, but the following races were retirements. Ken Tyrrell, founder of the team bearing his name, famously referred to the car as "The Yellow Teapot" due to its tendency to blow up in a cloud of white smoke. The RS01 had shown enormous improvement in qualifying, consistently starting near the top 10, before surprising with a best qualifying result of 3rd in Austria and Monza. Sadly, all these promising performances lead to nothing as they all ended in DNFs.
After a total of 7 retirements for the car, the team arrived at the 1978 US GP. It was to be a race filled with retirements, among them some of the usual front runners. The team probably expected their car to follow eventually, but it didn't. Showing great pace, Jabouille even ran in 2nd place for several laps before being overtaken as he struggled with his brakes. The car just missed the podium, finishing 4th and delivering three championship points that to the hard-fought team felt like glory.
1978 has still a showcase of the RS01's poor reliability, but results gradually improved and it got a best result of 4th at the US GP, achieving the first points finish for a turbocharged car.
Renault had improved the design of the RS01 during its use. The simplicity of its chassis made it easy to develop, but it also gave it a tendency to be on the heavier side of the scale for F1 cars, and the fact that the cast-iron block engine was very heavy on its own, didn't help either. The RS01 was far from a race-winning or pole-sitting car, but it wasn't meant to be. Its purpose was to be mainly a test mule for the turbo V6 engine, and by 1979, Renault believed it had served its purpose well enough. Months prior, work had begun on a successor. However, the new car wasn't ready for the start of the season, so Renault stuck with the RS01 for just a little longer.
Renault had built a second car to race with, and partnering Jaboille was Rene Arnoux, an up and coming driver that had driven with Renault in Formula 2. After more reliability shenanigans, the RS01 did leave with one last highlight. On the South African GP, Jaboille qualified on pole position, the first for a turbocharged car. The superior power of the Renault allowed it to defend its lead after a rather bad start, managing to complete a lap in the lead, again, a first for a turbocharged car. After its brief moment of glory, the engine blew on lap 47.
The RS10 was the RS01's successor, it was a very superior car with several new features such as a reworked engine and chassis.
Renault presented its new car, the RS10 at the Spanish GP. Initially, only Jabouille had the new car as the team hadn't been able to get a second one ready for Arnoux. The car proved a worthy successor to the RS01 as it too had its engine blow up on its first outing. Jabouille retired the car again on the following race. By the car's third outing at Monaco, Renault had a car ready for Arnoux.
The RS10 still had reliability problems, however, it was vastly superior to its predecessor. The engine, for instance, had twin turbos rather than a single one, and the chassis was a completely new design capable of ground effect, which was becoming a trend in the F1 grid. The car's first race finish happened right there at Monaco, as Jabouille finished 8th while Arnoux broke down. The following race was at home soil, the French GP at Dijon.
The RS10s proved to be decent on their first qualifying outings, but still struggled with reliability. The first time both cars raced, Jabouille finished 8th while Arnoux retired.
Jean Pierre Jabouille was among the last of a breed of F1 drivers that were also engineers. Jabouille had been directly involved in the development of Renault's F1 program, as well as testing and improving both the RS01 and RS10, which probably made it extremely rewarding to see his and the team's effort pay off when he got the RS10 on pole for their home race, with Arnoux right behind in 2nd. Jabouille led the whole race, beating the lap record several times. The crowd was overjoyed to see a French driver, at the wheel of a French car, running on French tires (Michelin), and even French engine oil (Elf) win the French GP.
Behind him however, was his teammate Arnoux fighting for second place with Gilles Villeneuve. Lap after lap, the crowd sat at the edge of their seats as they witnessed what would be regarded as one of the greatest battles in Formula 1 history. Arnoux and Villeneuve swapped positions several times as they banged wheels, locked up, went wide, and raced side by side with only a couple of laps remaining before the checkered flag. Villeneuve would ultimately edge rookie Arnoux to take 2nd. Still, Renault went on to celebrate their first win. The French team and their yellow cars had made history.
Renault won their home race in 1979, this was the first-ever victory for a turbocharged car in Formula 1
Renault's point was proven. Following Renault's example, Ferrari and BMW (powering Brabham) were the first to start their own turbo engine programs. Porsche (powering McLaren) and Honda (powering Williams) followed suit. Alfa Romeo then switched from their V12 to a turbo V6, and Lotus became Renault's first costumers after striking a deal to get the French power units. In a sadly ironic manner, Tyrrell was the last team to adopt the turbo power units, even having to resort to being costumers of Renault, however, the years the team had refused to let go of the V8 are among the factors that lead to the legendary team's downfall.
Renault retired from the sport as a constructor in 1985, only staying as an engine supplier until the turbo engines were banned in 1989. Strangely enough, Renault never won the championship during the turbo era they had laid the ground for, only managing to finish 2nd twice.
The higher power output and top speed of the Renaults prompted almost every team capable to switch to turbo power units, thus, the early 1980s marked the beginning of F1's first "Turbo Era"
In 2014, Formula 1 returned to turbocharged power units, starting the second turbo era for the sport. This era has, just as the first turbo era, provided us with the fastest cars F1 has ever seen. The addition of hybrid technology has also made today's F1 cars the most advanced and complex we've ever seen. The evolution and development of new technology has been a symbol of Formula 1 ever since its very beginning. When some madmen started racing jet fuel-propelled tin cans around airfields in the early 1950s. Renault was probably looked at that way when they tried racing in the pinnacle of motorsport with engines that were famous for failing, but ingenuity and persistence are the essence of this sport. Looking at their effort, more than forty years later, it is easy to see that the team didn't lack either of the two.
That was the story of Renault and its involvement in F1's turbo era. I've always been a big Renault fan and this story is really one of my favorites. Renault were absolute nobodies to the sport and arrived at a time where great names like Ferrari, Tyrrell, Lotus, Brabham, and Williams really were all giants. And still, against all odds, they managed to beat them. They dared try something nobody else had, and they made it work. I often think Renault is an underrated brand that doesn't get the reputation it deserves. It is a name older than Alfa Romeo and as capable as Porsche or Mercedes. I think of them as a little crazy in a very likable way, and if it weren't for them, Formula 1 and motorsport in general might not have been what it is today.