6 Renault Cars That Helped Define F1

jeremytownsend.jpg 17/03/2016 by Jeremy Townsend
Renault F1 cars parked at Festival of Speed

This weekend’s Australian Grand Prix marks the return of Renault Sport to Formula 1, and we’ve taken a look back at the legendary Renault cars throughout F1 history that helped to shape the sport as it is today.

6. Renault RS01 (1977–1979): Formula 1’s first turbocharged engine

Renault RS01 (1977–1979)

The provision allowing F1 teams to use a 1.5-litre turbocharged engine, rather than a 3.0-litre engine of normal aspiration, had existed for years, but it took until 1977 for it to be fully exploited.

The Renault RS01 sported the Renault–Gordini EF1 1.5-litre V6 turbocharged engine, the first of its kind Formula 1 had seen. The RS01 was very much a work-in-progress, with its driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille, also an engineer, acting as co-designer on the vehicle throughout the season. 

The car’s experimental nature showed through persistent reliability and overheating issues, earning it the moniker of the ‘Yellow Teapot’ as it was regularly surrounded by a cloud of smoke. But Renault Sport were committed to innovation — the RS01 was also the first F1 car to feature radial tyres from Michelin — and they continued to iterate, incorporating learnings from their sister turbocharged Sports Car racing programme. 

In 1979, the project finally showed its promise when Jabouille took the RS01 to pole position in the South African GP at Kyalami, the high altitude benefitting its turbo over the competitors’ traditional engines. Unfortunately, Jabouille was forced to retire, and over 29 races, the car only managed to finish seven. But the RS01 had set the stage for a turbocharged F1 car, and its successor would change the course of the sport.

5. Renault RS10 (1979): First win for a turbocharged F1 car

Renault RS10 (1979) (1)

Replacing the RS01 midway through the 1979 season, the RS10 was the product of Renault Sport’s continued development of the V6 engine, both the 1.5-litre F1 variant, and its 2.0-litre Sports Car  counterpart. The 2.0-litre version had seen success at Le Mans, finishing 2nd in 1977 and 1st in 1978, proving the Renault engines could achieve the reliability that had eluded them so far in F1. 

The RS10 differed from its predecessor by incorporating twin-turbochargers (one per cylinder bank), while also featuring a 6-speed transmission and a completely new ground effect chassis, and it would find success almost immediately. 

The initial aims of the Renault Sport programme were to win both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and their home Grand Prix. Having achieved the former the previous year, all eyes were on the Dijon circuit for just the RS10’s second F1 race. 

Sure enough, the Renaults secured a 1–2 on the starting grid, and Jabouille converted his pole into a  win, becoming the first Frenchman to win the French GP for 31 years, while driving a French car, powered by a French engine, on French Michelin tyres, burning French Elf fuel, no less. However the race is perhaps better remembered for the epic, wheel-banging duel for second place between Jabouille’s teammate, René Arnoux, and Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve which is etched into F1 folklore. 

In total, the RS10 would bag an impressive five pole positions from nine races in the 1979 season, but it continued to be plagued by the reliability issues of its predecessor, with both cars finishing the same race just once. But the message had been sent; turbocharged engines were the future, and Ferrari, Brabham, McLaren and Williams all soon scrambled to assemble their own turbo programmes. Renault Sport’s innovation had ushered in a new era for Formula 1.

4. Renault RE30/RE30B (1981–1983): Success at last

Renault RE30/RE30B (1981–1983)

Debuting at the 1981 Monaco GP, the RE30 continued Renault Sport’s pursuit of racing innovation by introducing carbon fibre into parts of its construction, and the now-signature twin-turbocharged engine had been developed to produce 540bhp. 

Driving the RE30 was the promising young driver Alain Prost who had joined from McLaren, and it took the Frenchman just three races with the team to win his first GP, at his home circuit in Dijon. Prost followed that up with two poles, two second-placed finishes, and two more wins, but unreliability was again the culprit for Renault as his RE30 couldn’t finish the other five races, finishing 4th in the Drivers’ Championship. 

The car was updated to B-Spec for the following season, the engineers squeezing a further 50bhp out of the V6, allowing Prost to launch his title challenge in style, winning the first two GPs in the thin air of South Africa and Brazil. But yet again, reliability issues would strike and Prost would not taste victory again all season. 

In sheer speed terms, the RE30 was arguably the fastest car on the grid in 1982, with Prost and teammate René Arnoux sharing ten poles from sixteen races, but between them they only managed twelve finishes. Despite the consistency issues though, the RE30 family accumulated seven wins and sixteen poles over twenty-six races, making it Renault Sport’s most successful car until the 2000s, taking Renault Sport from F1 newbies to serious competitors.

3. Renault RE40 (1983): Close, but no cigar

Renault RE40 F1 car

The turbocharged journey Renault had embarked upon with the RS01 back in 1977 culminated in the RE40, an entirely carbon fibre chassis built around the Renault–Gordini EF1 that had debuted in the RS01, continuously refined and upgraded to produce 650bhp thanks to innovations including electronic fuel injection and air intake water injection. The FIA had banned ground effect at the end of the previous season, so the RE40 featured enlarged wings to account for the lost underbody downforce. 

Alain Prost was the team’s clear number one driver, and the new car was specifically designed around his smooth, conservative driving style, while he was heavily involved in the design and testing phase to ensure a more reliable vehicle from previous years. This extra effort at first seemed to have paid off, with Prost finishing all of the first ten races in the RE40, including three poles, four wins and a further two podiums, leaving him top of the Drivers’ Championship with four races remaining. 

But Prost was forced to retire in three of the final four meetings, and Nelson Piquet pipped him to the title by two points at the final round in South Africa, despite Prost having won the most races. 

Prost and the team would part ways at the end of the season, and the retirements would also cost Renault the Constructors’ Championship by ten points to Ferrari. 

From 1986, Renault would only supply turbo engines to select customer teams. By then, these flame-spitting monsters could produce 1200hp in Qualifying spec — over double what the ‘Yellow Teapot’ achieved only nine years earlier.

2. Renault R26 (2006): The indestructible chassis

Renault R26 (2006): The indestructible chassis

After a seventeen year hiatus from the top tier of motorsport, Renault returned to F1 in the 2002 season, and just three years later the team found success with Fernando Alonso behind the wheel of the 3.0-litre V10 packing R25. The car delivered eight wins, fifteen podiums, and finished completely outside the points in just one of eighteen starts, giving Renault a nine point win in the Constructors’ Championship, the team’s first in thirteen seasons of trying, and the first F1 title for any French car since 1969. 

Building on the R25’s success the previous season, Renault’s entry for the 2006 season, the R26, moved to a 2.4-litre V8 engine, which despite the loss of two cylinders produced a huge 750hp, screaming out to almost 20,000rpm! The car generated controversy in the first half of the season as its ingenious “Mass Damper” system (designed to stabilise the front end) was outlawed. But the real trump card of the R26 was its ability to combine grid-leading performance with unbelievable reliability throughout the season. 

While most F1 drivers use numerous chassis throughout a season, remarkably, Fernando Alonso’s R26-03 started every single race of 2006, finishing all but two races, and all but four races no lower than second place. As well as collecting six poles, Alonso’s chassis led more laps and won more races than any other. As a mark of that achievement, it now sits in Renault’s Classic Collection in Paris. 

Alonso was able to claim back-to-back Drivers’ Championships, becoming the youngest driver to do so, while, on the form of the R26, Renault scored the team’s second Constructors’ Championship. It represents a marked transformation from the RS01, the ‘Yellow Teapot’, that finished just seven from twenty-five races, to a single chassis that completed an entire season and brought home the title.

1. Renault R.S.16 (2016): Back in town

Renault R.S.16 (2016) F1 car

Nine years after the last World Championship, Renault Sport are back to claim their place at F1’s top table with a brand new design: the R.S.16. Developed in part at the Enstone base that has contributed so much to the modern day success of Renault in F1, the R.S.16 sports the R.E.16 1.6-litre V6 turbocharged engine. 

The car will be piloted by former GP2 Champion Jolyon Palmer (son of former F1 Driver, Jonathan Palmer) and ex-McLaren driver, Kevin Magnussen (son of former F1 Driver, Jan Magnussen).  Both have achieved stunning success in junior Formulae and are keen to make an impression from the start in F1. 

With turbocharged and hybrid-boosted engines now a part of the F1 firmament, and given the team’s expertise in finding innovative solutions to complex problems, how long will it be before the tally of victories (and World Championships!) is increased?

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