Q&A with Jean-Pierre Menrath

Renault Sport F1 director of testing & development and original member of the 1977 Renault trackside team

‘‘The turbo was both a radical change and a revelation.’’

What did people in the paddocks think about you as pioneers of the turbo engine?
People didn’t really believe in us. From a technical point of view, it was more of a challenge than anyone ever imagined. At the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s, the technology was in its infancy and we made changes at every GP. We were confident that we’d make it to the end of the race, but we were miles from actually winning. But that didn’t matter: we believed in what we were doing. We could see we were making progress and that, sooner or later, our efforts were going to pay dividends. People started looking at us differently when we won our first race, the French Grand Prix. It was both a radical change and a revelation: suddenly, the turbo- powered cars posed a real threat. It made others realise that they had to start thinking about abandoning normally-aspirated engines and switching to turbo.

What were the characteristics and the challenges of the turbo engine, at that time?
The most recurrent challenge we had was to do with lag. The drivers absolutely had to change their driving style. And, of course, the heat dissipation of the turbo engines was the most restrictive aspect in terms of designing a fast race car. The radiators had to be bigger, which made the turbo engines more difficult to fit into single- seaters than the normally-aspirated engines. Other than that, the other major issue was power. Generating an extra 500bhp of power output with a 1,500cc engine was a real achievement at the time. We were obliged to produce more power than the leading normally- aspirated engines of the time made by Cosworth, in order to compensate for the shortcomings of the turbo engines, and so reliability was the most testing aspect at the start. But you have to bear in mind that we went from 520/530bhp in 1979 to over 1,000bhp in the space of five years! At the end of 1986, we even had a test engine that was capable of developing up to 1,200bhp thanks to the use of new turbochargers, with a new design. At the outset, they were intended to be used at altitude and in the end, at sea level, they produced exceptional performances. Unfortunately, the engine only lasted three laps!

What memories do you have of that era?
I have some excellent memories. The technical development was fabulous. There was a lot more tuning work. From a purely professional perspective, it was fascinating. As a test or race engineer, you really enjoyed working on this project. Developing a turbo engine involves spending a lot of time on the track: the proportion of development time on a track is much higher than with a normally-aspirated engine. For a normally-aspirated engine, the lines and pipes have to be neat, the flow of liquids must be optimum, etc. With a turbo engine, it just has to work! It was a question of trial and error. I remember there was one time when we were at altitude in Kyalami. There is less air, so the engine wouldn’t start. We just couldn’t find the right settings to fire the engine. We had to heat it for two or three hours before we managed to get it to start. We came across difficulties with things that were as basic as starting the engine!
Having said all this, I still feel a sense of failure as we never won the world championship. The turbo experience nonetheless enabled us to start again afterwards, with better foundations for what followed and, ultimately, to succeed. I have some very good memories of that period, and the fact that we had developed this new technology in a world like F1.

How would you compare the engine from the 1980s and the 2014 engine?
The major difference, of course, and the major technological development on the new engine, is in the electronics. We started developing a turbocharged engine with distributors and igniters, which are no longer in use today. The fuel injection system had no electronics. And in terms of design, the modern simulation tools didn’t exist back then, nor did all the computer systems and software used to design the engines more effectively and track their performance more accurately. There was no telemetry, no data acquisition. For the record, the driver could alter the booster pressure. Our “telltale” was a dial with a needle that was stuck pointing up. So, at the end of the day, the level of monitoring was somewhat limited.
Nowadays, engine technology is a lot more effective. We’re very close to the complex systems used in aerospace.