Renault is, by and large, a mass volume car manufacturer.
For this reason, the man in the street does not always associate the company with cutting edge performance. Even those interested in Formula One are sometimes unaware of the marque’s long and illustrious racing history.
That history was not born yesterday or yesteryear, with Renault’s remarkable F1 successes over the last couple of seasons. Nor was it born just short of 30 years ago when a yellow, white and black F1 missile with an outwardly puny little 1.5-liter engine took its place on the Silverstone grid for the British Grand Prix of 1977.
No. Renault’s involvement in racing stretches back even beyond the previous century, into the one before that.
For it was in 1899 already, that founding fathers Louis and Marcel Renault drove one of their own vehicles to victory in the Paris-to-Trouville road race. And it was a mere seven years later that Hungary’s Ferenc Szisz won the very first official Grand Prix, held over two days – on 26-27 June 1906 – on a 103 km long Le Mans track called Circuit de la Sarthe. The cars had to run 12 laps in total (for a race distance of 1236 km) with 32 starters from 12 manufacturers, amongst them Brasier, Clement-Bayard, Darracq, Fiat, Hotchkiss, Lorraine-Dietrich, Itala, Mercedes, Panhard and Renault.
So, the competition was strong. Renault nevertheless decided to retain their 1905 mill, a 13-liter side-valved 4-cylinder delivering 72 kW at 1200 rpm, which was modest compared to the Fiat and Clement-Bayard’s 82 kW.
But here’s the clever bit: La Regie also decided to lighten the cars by racing them without differentials, as there were only three major corners per lap.
Another novelty was hydraulic dampers invented by Louis Renault himself, the first ever on a racing car.
And Michelin’s detachable rim wheels were yet another spankingly new idea, saving huge time during wheel changes, which had to be performed by the driver and his mechanic.
The spirit of innovation was thus established from the very start of Renault’s involvement in motor racing. It is a legacy that has never wavered or waned, even when the first F1 turbo car – the Renault RS01 with that puny little 1.5-liter mill already mentioned – started 21st in the British GP of 1977. Some who couldn’t read the future of the sport as well as Renault did, even regarded the whole thing as a bit of a joke. Or worse: an embarrassment.
The turbo era
The engine was a Gordini-based V6, to begin with. Charged with a single 2.8 bar Garrett turbo spinning at 130 000 rpm, the V6 blew up so frequently that the RS01 became known as ‘The Yellow Teapot’.
In time the single Garrett was replaced with two smaller KKK turbo’s, launching La Regie’s first pole, unsurprisingly, at the high altitude Kyalami circuit in South Africa. Soon thereafter, Jean-Pierre Jabouille also drove his twin-turboed RS11 to victory in the French GP of 1979, repeating the success of Ferenc Szisz three-quarters of a century earlier – again on Michelin tyres.
A paddock frenzy followed. More than a dozen years after a new set of F1 regulations had opened up the possibility of charged 1.5-liter engines, Renault had delivered. Even great lateral thinkers like Colin Chapman suddenly took notice, not least when Renault again moved the goal posts in 1984 by introducing pit-to-car radios.
By then turbo’s were de rigeur, resulting in a certain degree of lunacy as Renault and BMW units cranked out more than 1400 horses on rip-snorting qualifying runs. It later emerged that BMW had literally turned to a rocket-fuel concoction derived from a development in Germany’s Second World War rocket research center at Peenemunde.
Under the circumstances, Renault never won a title in the turbo era, though they continued with engine supplies after the works team closed shop at the end of 1985. It remained a sight then, to behold the spookily quick Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, as he gunned his black-and-gold Renault powered JPS Lotusses of 1985 and 1986 with boost touching 5 bar!
The V10 era
Senna was just one of many great names powered by Renault in the modern era, the others being Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and nowadays Fernando Alonso as well.
All of them, ironically bar Senna, won driver’s titles with Renault power, courtesy of a super-successful V10 that debuted in 1989 when regulations compelled a return to normally-aspirated mills.
Honda joined Renault in opting for the V10 configuration, seeing it as the ideal compromise between V12 power and V8 size, weight and driveability. Such was the rate of Renault’s development though, that Honda switched to a V12 for 1992 in an effort to stop La Regie’s rampant march.
But to no avail. Honda and Ferrari V12’s were no match for the Renault V10, and Honda retired from F1 after Williams-Renault driver Nigel Mansell charged to a record 9 victories and 108 points in 1992, including another record of 14 poles.
Mansell and team mate Patrese also clinched the constructor’s championship for Williams-Renault, launching an almost unparalleled run of F1 glory with driver’s titles in 1992 (Mansell), 1993 (Prost), 1995 (Schumacher),1996 (Hill) and 1997 (Villeneuve), plus constructor’s titles in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 (all of them with Williams, bar Benetton’s 1995 success).
Pneumatic and electro-magnetic valves
Having co-pioneered the V10 configuration, Renault certainly made the lay-out their own after yet another technological breakthrough in the shape of pneumatic valving. Instead of mechanical springs, Bernard Dudot and his engineers used compressed nitrogen to close valves. Seeing that a metal spring could do this job only up to a point – both in speed and reliability – DP (for distribution pneumatique) suddenly lifted the rev ceiling of a F1 engine from 13 000 rpm to 17 000 (and nowadays over 19 000) rpm.
So, what’s next?
Having carved out such an enviable reputation as innovators, everybody had been looking at Renault for the next big jump in engine technology. Ever since the company’s recent return to F1, first as an engine supplier to Benetton in 2001 and then as a fully-fledged 100% Renault owned outfit in 2002, the buzz has been about yet another breakthrough in valve train technology, this time with an electro-magnetic system to replace distribution pneumatique.
The concept is simple enough: a valve train controlled via computer rather than a camshaft and drive gears, thus reducing moving parts and cutting weight.
Practice proved the opposite: the electro-mechanics involved was complex, rather than simple, and the system was heavy, rather than light, as actively controlled magnetic coils – used to open and close the valves – could not be built small and light enough to manage the forces and speeds required for an ultra high-revving engine.
Imagine also, what 40 or 32 of them (one for each valve on a V10 or V8) would do to center of gravity and therefore handling!
Instead of an electro-magnetic system then, Renault tackled electro-hydraulics. Valve return would still be via pneumatics, but a hydraulic system governed by electronics would open the valves – making cams redundant.
The wide-angled V10
Pretty neat, not so? Except that this technology has still to be perfected.
Which is not to say that Renault didn’t have a surprise ready with its recent return to F1? Company CEO Louis Schweitzer gave the green light on condition that Renault would find a unique technical advantage.
A wide-angled V10 was the answer.
Drawbacks of this architecture are decreased engine rigidity (resulting in more vibrations and weaker reliability) plus a complicated air supply and oil management.
Firstly air: The further apart two banks are, the more difficult it is to feed and nourish cylinders with a cross-flow of fuel and air, precisely because furious and volatile engine activities (like piston action and combustion) cause complex patterns of air and vapour moving around at extremely high pressures and speeds. These acoustic waves (as they are called) bouncing around the engine must be harnessed into harmonious patterns, mostly by the shape of the engine casing. The wider the V, the more difficult.
Secondly oil: A tighter V secures easier oil management, as gravity aids scavenger pumps in gathering it from the outer recesses of the engine, for recirculation.
Packaging a bunch of exhaust bananas in the diminished space outside each bank of a flat V is also difficult.
With an eye on simplicity, and thus reliability, a narrower V holds many advantageous. A wider V, on the other hand, ensures a lower center of gravity (for better car handling) and a lower engine cover (for better aerodynamics).
Renault thought that the disadvantages could be overcome in the long run, leaving them with clear advantages over rivals using the safer and more popular 90 degree angle. True to their pioneering spirit, they thus went for a wide 111-degree V.
Just like the turbo, the engine had an inauspicious start in the back of a Benetton, securing 21st and 22nd places on the Brazilian grid for 2001. Just like the turbo’s, the flat V10 was initially totally unreliable. And just like the turbo’s, it took two years to win, Fernando Alonso having lapped Michael Schumacher in Hungary 2003 on his way to becoming the youngest GP winner ever.
Mass dampers and fast starts
Unfortunately, the wide V10 never had a real chance to prove itself. A new set of regulations for 2004 demanded the use of a single engine over a whole race weekend, compelling Renault to scrap the complicated 111-degree architecture.
Jean-Jacques His was relieved as head of the engine programme and replaced by a promising young Cosworth engineer, Rob White. As an interim measure, Renault then effectively raced an old narrow-angled 75-degree Supertec block (from the 1990’s) in 2004.
Because of its weight, it was difficult to drive. Yet Renault still finished third in the constructor’s race.
A main priority for 2005 was then to trim the engine’s weight, which enabled Renault to win both the driver’s and constructor’s championships after years of Ferrari dominance – but not without yet another brilliant Renault insight, which was to shift the weight balance of the R25 rearwards.
In combination with fantastic electronics, this helped to get the Renaults off the line and out of corners in a hurry – a cardinal virtue in the point-and-squirt nature of modern day F1 racing.
Not ever a company to stagnate, Renault also pioneered the mass damper system towards the end of 2005, utilizing a mass suspended inside a damper to equalize tyre bounce frequencies under heavy loads, for example when cornering or bouncing cars over kerbs. This reduces bounce and pitch, ensuring better tyre-to-tarmac contact and therefore a more constant level of grip and traction.
Unfortunately, this system was controversially banned out of the blue, just before this year’s German GP on July 30 – a hundred years and one month after Renault’s first ever GP victory!
Changing the game forever
Clearly then, Renault are automotive innovators of note. But there was another contribution with far-reaching effects that is often overlooked, which came about as a result of the company’s first fully-fledged foray into F1.
Pre-1977, F1 was very much a sport for Ferrari and the garagistas, as Enzo loved to call them; privately owned teams who for many many years relied solely on Cosworth power bought over the counter.
Yes, Alfa, Maserati, Mercedes and so on participated in the 1950’s, Honda in the 1960’s and Ferrari and Ford – via the Cosworth engine – are special cases.
But it remained Renault who ultimately changed the perception that car manufacturers had no place in F1. Alfa followed them with a works team soon thereafter, and BMW, Porsche, Honda, Mercedes and Peugeot joined the fray as engine suppliers, which again prompted Toyota, Jaguar, BMW, Honda and low and behold, Renault themselves, to compete as fully owned works teams in modern-day F1.
The Silver Diamond might by and large be a mass volume car manufacturer.
But there’s a good argument to be made that it is also the most innovative and successful motor racing equippe in the world!