Renault’s first Formula One team entered the sport in 1977 at the British Grand Prix. They were the first team to exploit the regulation allowing 1.5-litre turbocharged engines as an alternative to 3.0-litre normally aspirated units – these turbo engines would, within a few years, become de rigeur for all front-running teams.
Even though it was Renault that brought this technical revolution to the sport, they never capitalised on it with a Grand Prix win. Instead, the team was wound up at the end of 1985 at which time they hadn’t won for two years.
Why was this so? Well, it wasn’t for a shortage of talented drivers. Alain Prost scored nine wins for them, but would win his championships with other teams. Rene Arnoux and Jean-Pierre Jabouille weren’t short of talent either, and also won.
Indeed it was Jabouille who won the team’s first race – appropriately at their home race – in Dijon, 1979. But he was out the following year and Alain Prost, fresh from his first Formula One season with McLaren, switched to the all-French outfit for 1980.
The arrival of Prost created instant tension with Arnoux, as the new driver proved immediately capable of out-qualifying and out-racing his team mate. Prost took his maiden Grand Prix win – again appropriately at home – in Dijon later that year. By the end of the season Prost had amassed 43 of Renault’s 54 points, enough to put him fifth and the team third in their respective championships.
Hopes were high for 1982. Turbo engines were by now a serious proposition. The lag problems that had blighted earlier units had been eased, improving drivability on slow circuits like Monaco where previously the Renaults had struggled.
Rivals such as Ferrari were now using turbo engines as well, and Brabham would occasionally use BMW turbos, but Renault could bank on them suffering the same sorts of developmental problems they had. The trouble was, Renault were still not getting on top of those problems themselves.
Prost made a perfect start to the season with wins in Kyalami, South Africa and Jacarepagua, Brazil. But a host of car problems put him out of six races mid-season. In Monaco he uncharacteristically crashed out of the lead towards the end of the race.
Eventually matters came to a head with team mate Arnoux – once again, appropriately at home – in Paul Ricard. The Renaults circulated at the front of the field, line astern, Arnoux leading, Prost waiting to be let through in accordance with team orders and their championship positions. But Arnoux never let Prost by, and took the chequered flag ahead of his seething team mate.
The prospect of a home win was far too great for Arnoux to resist – even if flaunting team orders in such a way jeopardised team stability and brought to mind the Gilles Villeneuve-Didier Pironi feud that had led to Villeneuve’s death just a few races earlier.
Arnoux fell out of favour with Renault and signed for Ferrari for 1983. Prost’s championship hopes were fading, but they were about to receive an unwelcome boost. During practice for the next race, at Hockenheim, Germany, Prost was hit from behind in the streaming rain by championship leader Pironi, whose Ferrari cartwheeled violently off the circuit, smashing Pironi’s legs. He would never race an F1 car again.
Prost failed to score in Germany, but Pironi’s accident drastically changed the championship outlook with four races remaining:
|Didier Pironi, Ferrari||39|
|John Watson, McLaren-Cosworth||30|
|Keke Rosberg, Williams-Cosworth||27|
|Alain Prost, Renault||25|
But the final four races mercilessly exposed Renault’s weaknesses. Prost’s car failed him while leading in Austria. Rosberg’s nimble Williams sailed past him for the win in Dijon. When Prost retied in Italy, with his sixth engine failure, it put him out of contention for the championship.
Prost’s frustration boiled over at the end of 1983 when, despite his repeated exhortations to his engineers to develop the car at a faster rate, Renault were overhauled in the championship and beaten by Brabham at the final race of the season. Prost lost the title to Nelson Piquet.
This was the beginning of the end for Renault Mark 1. Prost left to join McLaren, for whom he immediately began winning and would claim three drivers’ titles for. Renault never won another race until after their 1985 dissolution and 2002 re-formation – which has now won championships with the kind of reliability they so badly lacked in the 1980s.