Of the many people involved in Renault’s F1 adventure few played a greater role than Jean-Pierre Jabouille, who combined his job as race and test driver with engineering input off the track. Thirty five years ago he made history in the British GP at Silverstone when he became the first driver to race a Renault F1 car.
Jabouille was also an integral part of the Alpine-Renault sportscar programme, which culminated in pole positions at Le Mans in 1977 and 1978.
Born in Paris in 1942, Jabouille made his racing debut in the Renault 8 Gordini series in 1966. He quickly moved up to F3, where he soon proved to be a race winner, finishing second in the 1968 French championship.
He then moved up to F2, where he would stay for several seasons while also racing in sportscars for Alpine Renault and Matra. In 1974 he had two unsuccessful attempts at qualifying for Grands Prix with Williams and Surtees, before finally making his first start with Tyrrell in the 1975 French GP.
Meanwhile the wheels were set in motion for Renault’s move into F1 with the turbo V6 engine, with Jabouille as the ideal test and development driver. In 1976 he won the European F2 championship with his own Elf Switzerland team as behind the scenes the pioneering F1 programme began to take shape.
Jabouille gave the Renault RS01 its debut at Silverstone in July 1977, having logged up thousands of miles of testing. Despite its experience with turbos in sportscars, the company had a lot to learn.
“The first time I drove the 1.5-litre at Paul Ricard, the turbo arrived just in the straight line,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “In the corners on the other parts of the track, I had nothing, just 200bhp! I thought, this is not the right direction...
“But afterwards Bernard Dudot said, ‘Jean-Pierre, no problem. We’ll change the turbo for a smaller one, for less horsepower at the top but better response.’ It made a big difference, and I thought that after a lot of work, it would be possible to compare the 1.5-litre turbo with an aspirated engine.
“And there was a lot of work! Many times I did two laps, three laps, and the engine went bang. I tried it in Jarama just after the GP there, and the times were getting better and better. And we made the decision to race it.”
At the car’s Silverstone debut, the Renault was the subject of much curiosity.
“I remember at some time during practice, I arrived with the engine smoking. Ken Tyrrell laughed, and said it was a teapot! The first GP was not very easy. It was not just the turbo engine; we also brought in Michelin, and radial tyres. I remember my problem was not the engine but the tyres; no grip! With the turbo response and no grip it was very difficult to drive.”
In the early days throttle lag was a major problem: “With an aspirated engine you control everything with the throttle. With a turbo engine you controlled nothing. You touched it, nothing. You touched it some more, nothing. You touched it a little more, and brrrrr, everything! And in the wet it was not easy... The solution was when we put two turbos for 1979.”
While lag would remain a characteristic of all turbo cars, the twin turbo set-up was a vast improvement. In July ’79, a little under two years after the first race, Jabouille scored a historic victory at Dijon.
“At the end of ’78 I was sure that within six months or a year I’d win a race. But when I won, for me it was not just the engine, but the chassis. There was a lot of downforce with the RS10 wing car. The handling was very, very good, and Michelin were also much better. With a turbo engine it was better, as you needed traction.”
Jabouille would leave Renault at the end of 1980 after he suffered serious leg injuries in the Canadian GP. He raced briefly for Ligier in 1981, before retiring from single-seaters half way through the season.
Subsequently he raced in touring cars for several years, later the experience he gained with Renault proved invaluable in the development of Peugeot’s sportscar operation, with Jabouille both driving and helping Jean Todt run the team. After he retired and Todt left for Ferrari Jabouille led Peugeot’s F1 engine programme for a while, before setting up his own sportscar team.