05/03/2019

F1 reflections: March 1979 & 1989

Forty years ago this month, Renault took its maiden pole position in Formula 1 and led a grand prix for the first time. Then came something else remarkable in March a decade later…
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The venue: Kyalami, Transvaal Province, South Africa. The date: 3 March 1979. Some 20 months after making its debut in Formula 1, Renault was able to celebrate P1 on the starting grid in a grand prix – this the third round of the 1979 season. 

It came courtesy of Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jabouille who was able to take advantage of his revised RS1 chassis’s turbo engine at this high altitude circuit to overcome even the Ferraris of Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve.

It was a glorious moment for Renault’s technicians in particular who, going back to 1976, had toiled non-stop trying to perfect a turbo engine for F1.

Image, then, their faces when Jabouille, out-dragged at the start thanks to the 1.5 V6t Renault-Gordini’s engine lag, simply then powered back past the Ferraris once the power plant had got into its stride to lead on the long run down to the first bend.

This was a historic moment for F1 history, having witnessed a car using turbo power qualifying at the very front of the grid, it was now watching one lead a race for the first time.

It didn’t matter that it lasted only one lap. Nor that Jabouille eventually retired with an engine fault. Renault’s pioneering turbocharged technology had now finally started to deliver big time on the track and it was to prove just the beginning as later events that season would prove…

Now fast forward to a decade. The venue: Jacerapagua, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The date: 26 March 1989.

F1 had undergone a major rules shake-up with turbocharged engines now outlawed. Everyone therefore had been forced to go the normally aspirated route.

Renault had withdrawn from F1 as a team at the end of 1985 but kept up its presence on the grid in 1986 as an engine supplier to teams,, most notably Lotus with its star driver Ayrton Senna.

For 1987 and 1988 – the final years of the turbo era – its name had disappeared but 1989’s new non-turbo rules marked a fresh opportunity for the company and it stepped with a fully manufacturer-backed engine programme in partnership with the British Williams team.

New rules always throw up great unknowns but Renault’s engineers had clearly got their sums right in developing their first N/A engine – the 3.5 V10 RS1.

Williams’s drivers were Belgian Thierry Boutsen and Italian Riccardo Patrese and immediately the Williams-Renault combination was right towards the front. 

In qualifying for the opening round of the season both cars were inside the top two rows of the grid – Patrese a magnificent P2 and Boutsen close behind in P4.

Then something magical happened. Having pioneered turbocharging in F1 a decade or more earlier, Renault’s first attempt at a normally aspirated engine would now go and lead the first 15 laps on its debut, thanks to Mr Patrese. He would lead briefly again later in the race before he joined Boutsen in retirement.

But despite the non-finish there was still much to celebrate. The pace and power out of the box of the new Williams-Renault combination had impressed many and was the first glimpse of what would become one of the greatest technical partnerships in F1 history…