Renault - #Alpine
A443 1978. Richard Meaden on track in a #Le-Mans
icon. This French-crewed, French-built racing car led at La Sarthe in 1978 until a controversial fuelling issue handed victory to its team-mate. Richard Meaden tests it at Dijon-Prenois. Photography Gus Gregory.
Given the passion and beauty that defines Alpine and Renault's collective efforts at building racing cars, it's appropriate that the work of this most Gallic of motor sport partnerships should be separated into periods, like those of an artistic movement. The boldest creation to emerge during the rather self-explanatory 'Yellow Period' is this, the spectacular 1978- #Renault-Alpine-A443
The culmination of an obsessive quest for outright victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours, this remarkable-looking machine was created with the express intention of succeeding where the previous three efforts had ended in heartbreak and humiliation. Its visual intent speaks volumes, but fully to understand the extraordinary investment in effort and francs that Renault Sport piled into its 1978 assault on Le Mans, you need to appreciate what preceded it.
Though the World Championship of Makes - forerunner to the current World Endurance Championship (WEC) - had long provided impetus for all the major manufacturers' season-long sports car racing campaigns, the lure of Le Mans ensured it remained the Big Prize, even though it was a standalone event. In #1976 #Renault
was still dividing its attention between a full World Championship effort and winning Le Mans, but for #1977
the decision was taken to focus its endurance racing resources solely on the blue riband 24-hour race.
Then, as now, whether you're a beancounter keen for global marketing capital or a racer hungry for immortality, the pull of Le Mans rivals that of gravity itself. Yet with its revolutionary #Formula-1
adventure already beginning to eat into Renault's resources, privately and publicly there was a very real sense that, win or lose, 1978 would mark the final chapter in #Renault-Alpine
's Le Mans odyssey.
The A443 was everything the partnership knew about building racing cars, crystallised into one epic machine. Lest we forget, these were pioneering days for endurance racing. New Group 6 regulations introduced in the mid-70s had cemented the shift from the big-banger sports prototypes epitomised by the #Porsche-917
to be-winged, slick-shod, open-cockpit projectiles powered by a new kind of downsized, turbocharged engine.
Together with the new #Porsche-936
- which combined an evolution of the 917's tubular spaceframe with the forced-induction fiat-six from the 935 - the Renault-Alpines were the most impressive and outlandish- looking sports prototypes of this brave new era.
None was more highly developed, or exuberantly elongated, than the one-off A443. Developed in secret with the hope of stealing a march on #Porsche
, the A443 took the already pace-setting A442B to its ultimate conclusion. With a longer wheelbase for greater stability, an enlarged 2.2-litre turbocharged V6 for more power and torque, refined aerodynamics for reduced drag and increased downforce, plus countless detail refinements to improve reliability and fuel economy, the A443 existed on the cutting edge of sports-prototype design.
In recent years Audi's WEC effort has come to define the methodical approach that secures longterm dominance, but Renault Sport's programme of repeated endurance tests was every bit as meticulous. During the development of the A442 and A442B, the Renault-Alpine squad conducted countless longdistance tests at Paul Ricard and even at industry test facilities in the USA. They also ran somewhat risky high-speed aerodynamic tests on closed sections of French autoroute, running at speeds in excess of 350km/h. Theirs was an effort akin to the Space Race in four wheels. It's a lesser-known chapter of his career - I have to confess I only learned of it while researching this feature - but among the stellar ranks of French drivers selected by #Renault-Alpine
for its all-out effort was a lone Englishman: #Derek-Bell
. This was before his celebrated run of success with Porsche during the 1980s Group C era, but after his spell driving the mighty 917 and an early foray in the 936. He knew what it felt like to be part of a big, successful team, yet Renault's approach to racing blew him away, as he described in Volume 2 of Roy Smith's definitive study Alpine & Renault: The Sports Prototypes.
'When Gerard Larousse called to ask if I'd join the team at Le Mans for #1977
I couldn't believe they actually chose a Brit! I did feel a bit flattered, though by then I had already done seven #Le-Mans-24-Hours
, winning it in 1975 with #Jacky-Ickx
, so maybe they felt I had something to offer... Gerard said that before the race there would be a lot of testing to do. My God, what an understatement that was! The guys in the team were incredible; mentally driven like I had never seen before. Remember I had raced for Porsche; they had been there and done it all. At Porsche it was almost the same every year - you know, "OK, lads, it's Le Mans time again! Let's get sorted!" All the guys knew what to do, but they didn't go much for change.
'Renault was an amazing outfit. Suddenly I became part of this team - all young and dynamic. The organisation was 21st Century; it was fantastic. No disrespect to the other teams I have been with, but I have to say Renault was probably the most outstandingly refreshing of all of them. A serious, going-places outfit. Every time they went testing it was a big deal. They sorted the car, the drivers - everything.'
The test regime was intensified during the build-up to the 1978 Le Mans, not least because Renault's effort had ramped-up with the decision to build and develop the new A443 alongside its proven A442s. No fewer than five 24-hour endurance tests were conducted, covering tens of thousands of kilometres in an effort to expose any flaws in the car and root out any weaknesses in the team, its strategy or its driver line-up. The budget had also increased, from FF 7,714,000 in 1977 to FF 8,273,000 - just shy of £1 million, a massive amount of money for the time. The pressure was on like never before.
Le Mans is always a war of attrition and neither the French nor the German squad was taking any chances, each entering no fewer than four factory cars. Qualifying honours went Porsche's way, thanks to a blistering record-breaking lap from Jacky Ickx securing pole position in the first qualifying session. The Renaults found more pace in the second qualifying session, the A443 eventually posting the second-fastest lap in the hands of Patrick Depailler to secure a front-row slot alongside Ickx's flying Porsche. With the next three rows of the grid filled with the remaining works Renaults and Porsches, the scene was set for an epic battle.
One of the defining features of the A442 and 443 was the bizarre Perspex bubble canopy. With a letterbox-like slot in the front to help feed cool air and aid visibility, it boosted top speeds by some 5mph but it also made the cockpit unbearably hot. For the tall guys such as Jean- Pierre Jabouille it made life even harder, for he could barely fit in the car. He and Depailler tolerated the canopy for qualifying but ditched it for the race, while Jean-Pierre Jassaud over-ruled co-driver Didier Pironi and elected to stick with it on their A442B.
The race began in perfect conditions and Jabouille wasted no time in asserting himself and the A443 over Ickx and the 936. By the end of the first lap he had an 11-second lead over the Porsche, with the pair of 442s in hot pursuit. Drama came quickly, with the 936s of Ickx and Hurley Haywood both pitting on lap two for heat- related fuelling issues. By the fourth lap the A443 led from the pair of A442s, much to the partisan crowd's audible delight.
As darkness fell the Porsches continued to falter, while the Renaults ploughed on in dominant fashion, the lead swapping between them with the ebb and flow of pit stops. By midnight Jabouille and Depailler were back in the lead after stints that saw the pair lower the lap record half-a-dozen times.
By morning the 936 of Ickx and Bob Wolleck had mounted a comeback and was now in second place, two laps behind the A443, which was suffering from wheel vibrations but otherwise going like a train. When the threatening Porsche encountered transmission issues just before 9am and took more than 40 minutes to re-join the race, victory looked to be within Renault's grasp. Keen not to take unnecessary risks, the team instructed Depailler to use a device that had been fitted to all four Renaults before the race, which would allow the boost pressure to be reduced to make life easier for the engine. It was the only component on the car that hadn't been subjected to the relentless testing regime...
Despite misgivings from some quarters of the team, the decision was made to ease the stress on the engine. Twenty-one minutes later Depailler was stationary at the side of the track, surrounded by a cloud of smoke, the engine having suffered what was later diagnosed to be a piston failure caused by a fuelling issue directly related to lowering the boost. The 443's race was run.
The rest, as they say, is history; the Pironi/Jassaud 442B inherited the lead, surviving a deteriorating clutch and Pironi himself almost succumbing to heat stroke as he cooked beneath the greenhouse-like bubble canopy during a gruelling double stint to the finish. Weighing 7kg less than he did at the start of the race, Pironi was virtually desiccated, but after being plied with water he was sufficiently revived to make the podium celebrations. Renault had won Le Mans!
Something of that dramatic race remains present in the A443 to this day. Seeing it parked in the pitlane at the Dijon-Prenois circuit is a real pinch-yourself moment. This is one of the most dramatic and outlandish racing machines ever built, and its exaggerated form still possesses the power to stop you dead in your tracks nearly four decades after it first slackened jaws at Le Mans. Unlike today's LMP1 cars, which trade beauty for brutal functionality, the A443 is mesmerising, crazy and magnificent. Unmistakably the product of a company in its pomp, every part of the car exudes the confidence, purpose and pride of a car built to win, not merely to take part.
Owned and prepared by Renault Classic, the A443 is no dusty museum piece. In fact it still enjoys an active life, taking part in numerous demonstration runs and wowing appreciative crowds at the biennial Le Mans Classic race weekend. Pristine in every respect, it's a priceless jewel in the crown of Renault's remarkable back-catalogue of heroic competition cars. I'd be more than happy simply to stand and stare, but the ever- generous Hugues Portron - manager of Renault Classic - has agreed to let me drive it for a precious handful of laps.
I'm a little disappointed to see the A443 isn't sporting its famous Perspex bubble canopy, even though the sweltering beneath it and peering through the narrow, distortion-free slot would most likely be a horrid experience. Without it, climbing in is simply a case of swinging your left leg up and over the high side of the cockpit, plonking your foot down on the seat, then hopping slightly awkwardly as your right leg follows suit. Then comes the tricky job of supporting your weight on the two hefty tubes that dive down either side of the cockpit from the top of the rear bulkhead, before carefully threading your pins down into the footwell. Your ankles and shins clout a worrying array of hard metal objects on their diagonal route to the pedal box, which is offset so crazily to the right it feels like you're driving side-saddle. Best not to think about how far forward your feet sit in relation to the front wheels...
Put those dark thoughts to one side and, once you're settled into the seat, the A443 is surprisingly comfortable. The open cockpit is wide and spacious, the view ahead dominated by the stepped dashboard, which runs the full width of the car and sports an array of simple analogue dials that indicate the car's vital signs. With the slave battery connected and a 'C'est bon!' from the Renault Classic guys, it's time to press the starter button and awaken the 2.1-litre turbocharged V6.
After a few churns of the starter motor it fires into life, angry and urgent, each squeeze of the throttle eliciting an unmistakable blare from the exhaust and a lazy spool from the turbo. The clutch is heavy to depress; likewise the right-hand gearlever requires some muscle to pull across left and back to find the dogleg first gear. Despite a few nerves I manage to extricate myself from the pitlane without stalling, heading out onto the circuit for a few learning laps.
Portron has recommended double-declutching on upshifts as well as down, for the 'box was built with durability rather than sweet, sharp shifts in mind. You can certainly sense more inertia in the rotating masses of the 'box, and bigger-than-average teeth attempting to mesh with one another. Still, so long as you're deliberate with your inputs and synchronise the pumping of your left leg with a firm, accurate push or pull of the gearlever, it swaps cogs smoothly and swiftly enough, with emollient heel/toe blips the final bit of finesse needed for perfect downchanges. Reassuringly, once you're up and moving, the dogleg gate is sweetly sprung and well- defined, its centre bias helping you navigate your way either side of the second/third plane without getting lost on the way to or from fourth and fifth.
After a quick courtesy call back to the pits to make sure all is well with the car (it is), I'm sent back out for a few laps to drive as fast as prudence and courage allow. What strikes you first is how tall the gearing is. As you can imagine, employing five ratios to span 230mph leaves a few gaps, but what strikes you next is how the turbocharged V6 gets on top of each gear as torque begins to build, then rips though the last few thousand revs as the boost really hits home.
Second and third gears are the order of the day through the twists and turns of Dijon-Prenois, the big yellow car taking great bites out of the 2.4-mile lap with every lunge of boost. Apart from the endless downhill-uphill Courbes de Pouas and the long main straight it feeds you onto, Dijon is nothing like Le Mans, yet the A443 is great fun to try to get to grips with. It's keen to change direction, yet feels stable and faithful to your inputs. There's massive grip from the slick tyres and, as you gain confidence and carry more speed, you get the magical feeling of that mechanical grip being augmented by downforce.
As you might expect there's considerable turbo lag, which is exacerbated somewhat by the tall gearing and the fact that much of Dijon's lap is comprised of comers, yet far from the car feeling ponderous, you sense that you're beginning to get a tune from the A443. The engine is a force of nature, gaining exponentially in ferocity and firepower as that massive turbo begins to spin; once you're plunging out onto the long and slightly cresting straight, it more than has the lungs to hit its stride in top gear before the braking area for the tricky Villeroy double-apex right-hander emerges from the mercurial puddle of heat shimmer.
Your head bobbles about in the slipstream that passes over the open cockpit, but the view out is never less than breathtaking: the rising white louvred tops of the front wheelarches give you the perfect pointers as to where to place the car in the corner. Being sat so near to the front means you're always aware that there's an awful lot of car behind you (especially when you glance in the mirrors!), but it's never less than intuitive to thread between the kerbs. It's not especially physical, for thanks to the large-diameter steering wheel you only have to make modest steering inputs, with even the 180° Parabolique requiring no more than a quarter-turn of lock to negotiate. That said, I suspect a three-hour, flat- out double stint in the heat of the day might be taxing.
As ever with this kind of track test, it's an enviable opportunity to experience a brief but vibrant taste of what it must have been like to race a fabulous machine, not some ill-advised stab at the definitive dynamic appraisal. Nevertheless, that calm steering must have made it a joy to guide through the superfast curves at Le Mans, while the boundless straightline speed would surely have been exhilarating, and perhaps a little daunting, when spearing down the chicane-free Hunaudieres straight in the dead of night. To be Depailler or Jabouille - two great French racers at the top of their game - leading the French race in the French racing car must have been magnificent. Then to be so cruelly denied what must have felt like their destiny could only have been devastating.
Theirs was the pivotal act in an epic play; a tale of obsession that took Renault-Alpine to the brink of despair, but eventually filled an entire nation with pride. The #A443
might have failed to finish the only race it ever entered, but its role in the Regie's monumental effort to win the world's greatest endurance race should never be underestimated. Vive le Jaune!
‘THIS IS A VIBRANT TASTE OF WHAT IT MUST HAVE BEEN LIKE TO RACE A FABULOUS MACHINE’
Right. The A443 dominated the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours until a move intended to save the engine trashed it instead; Meaden sits where Depailler and Jabouille once ruled.
‘SQUEEZING THE THROTTLE ELICITS AN UNMISTAKABLE BLARE FROM THE EXHAUST’
Car #1978 #Alpine-A443
ENGINE 2138cc V6,
DOHC per bank, 24-valve, Kugelfischer fuel injection, Garrett T05 turbocharger
TRANSMISSION Hewland five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
SUSPENSION Front and rear: four-link, coil springs, telescopic dampers
BRAKES Vented, cross-drilled discs
PERFORMANCE Top speed 224mph
‘THE A443 EXISTED ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF SPORTS PROTOTYPE DESIGN’
Above and right Author Meaden squeezes into the cockpit ahead of his test at Dijon-Prenois; out on track he discovers ferocious power and docile steering.
Left and right. The stepped dashboard layout means all necessary info is in sight; functional bodywork looks menacing at a standstill; 2.1-litre V6 suffers monumental turbo-lag but grants enormous pace once on-boost.