THOSE YEARS WITH THE TWO-LITRE NORMALLY-ASPIRATED ENGINE AND THE FIRST SEASON WITH THE TURBO IN 1975 WERE JUST THE FLAT STAGES, TO BORROW A CYCLING TERM. FOR RENAULT AND ALPINE THE CLIMB REALLY STARTED IN 1976, AND RENAULT WAS INTENT ON BEING FIRST TO THE SUMMIT. THE ONLY THING THAT STILL COUNTED WAS AN OUTRIGHT WIN AT LE MANS.
After the inconsistent results in ‘75, a fundamental repositioning for Renault and its outposts was sought to bring improvements. In October, Renault management went to Gérard Larrousse: ‘We aren’t reliable enough. The car is good, but we can’t win like this. We’re convinced that the problem is the organisation, not the car.’
Larrousse had been running Team Elf Switzerland since 1974, and with great success. Before that the 35-year-old from Lyon had enjoyed quite the career as a driver. He first made his name in rallying, before competing across a number of different classes with a number of different manufacturers. He raced for Porsche, Matra, Lola, and Alpine in the World Championship for Makes; for Alfa Romeo, BMW, and Ford in touring cars; and finally in his Elf2 in Formula 2. As an experienced driver and team boss, Larrousse saw the problems in the same way as the Renault management – but as an outsider he could do little more than make suggestions for improvements. He had no decision-making power.
On the 1st of January 1976, Larrousse took over the newly-created position as Renault’s general manager of all of its motor racing interests and set about organising a well-oiled working relationship between all of the parties. ‘I had Alpine in Dieppe, Gordini in Viry-Châtillon, and the Renault rallying department, with very little communication between the three,’ he said. ‘Everyone did their own job. My job was to bring them all together and coordinate what they were doing. It wasn’t always popular work.’ A new factory was built for ‘Renault Sport’ in Dieppe, which became the home for the sports car programme.
To that point the Alpine operation had been reasonably relaxed, but the new structure meant that planning and organisation were significantly intensified.
Renault gets serious
The A442 was modified and further developed in a number of ways. The familiar 24-valve V6 engine with its Garrett turbo was updated in a bid to boost reliability. New regulations meant an overhaul for the chassis as well. There was now a limit on the width of the rear wheels, so rims with a wider diameter were used. That changed the track width and threw off the balance, with a lack of rear grip. To get it back the engineers redesigned the rear suspension and the rear spoiler.
As was the case the year before, the plan was for a partial World Sportscar Championship programme and a huge push for Le Mans. A top-shelf driver line-up was locked in: Formula 1 drivers Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier, and Jacques Laffite, two-time Le Mans winner Henri Pescarolo, long-time Renault driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille, and young Formula 2 driver Patrick Tambay.
Despite all of the changes and improvements, Renault Sport’s first race ended in chaos. The two Alpine Renaults driven by Depailler and Jabouille qualified first and third for the 300 kilometre race at the Nürburgring, split only by Rolf Stommelen’s Porsche 936. When the race started in wet, foggy conditions, Depailler led the field through Südkehre, but was passed by his teammate down the straight behind the pits. In trying to retake the lead at the Nordkurve, however, the Tyrrell F1 driver missed his braking point on the wet side of the track. He lost control and went into a spin. In an effort to avoid the spinning car, Jabouille lost control of his own car, and both Alpines ended up in the barrier. Larrousse was understandably not amused, and Depailler was benched for several months…
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