The car had originally appeared in 1996 – a successor to the Clio Maxi – and immediately set hearts racing with its flared looks and distinct sound from its 2.0 litre engine (producing around 275hp and revving upwards of 8400rpm).
The drivers were Manxman Martin Rowe and, joining him new for 1998, Finland’s Tapio Laukkanen.
Renault had initially appointed the French Automeca team from just outside Marseille in the south of France to run its cars in UK rallying back in 1995 (then with the Clio).
And by 1998, the Automeca mechanics and engineers had learnt what it took to be successful on mud/gravel based forest stages as well as on asphalt with which they had been more accustomed in their native France.
In fact in ’97 the Mégane, with Rowe at the wheel, narrowly missed out on the title at the final round. For ’98, Colin McRae’s WRC title-winning co-driver from 1995, Derek Ringer, would be navigating alongside him and together they went into the season as strong favourites for the crown.
There was still some mighty opposition, however. VW had McRae’s younger brother Alistair leading its attack, SEAT had former title winner Gwyndaf Evans at the helm, Nissan its reigning champion Mark Higgins and Vauxhall was also entering the fray with its Astra model. In addition of course there was Rowe’s team-mate Laukkanen…
The season though could not have got off to a better start for Rowe and Ringer with victories on the opening two rounds, in Wales and the first half of the Kielder-based Pirelli International event.
Evans however had been third and second on those and when he won the next two events and Rowe could only manage fourth and third it meant suddenly that the title battle had swung the way of the SEAT driver.
A second place finish on the second part of the Scottish Rally double header fixture moved Rowe back ahead only for Evans then to take another victory on the next event in Ulster.
It all meant that they would go into the final round – Rowe’s home rally on the Isle of Man – tying on points. Ultimately it was to go Rowe’s as he took his third victory of the season to clinch the title in style. Even better, Renault also won the manufacturers’ crown.
For R.S. enthusiasts who don’t have a VHS or even DVD copy of the action, it is well worth keying in ‘British Rally Championship 1998’ in the search bar on YouTube and revelling in a piece of Renault Sport rallying heaven – even if it is for Ringer’s mishap while spraying the victory champagne at the end!
The Maxi Mégane would be back in action in ’99 as Renault sought to defend its titles with Rowe and Laukkanen and even assist the manufacturer in the World Rally Championship. A story for another time perhaps…
All photos © Jakob Ebrey Photography