Sunday, 9 March 2014

Attack of the Yellow Teapot

If Ron Howard was seeking to make a sequel to the magnificent Rush set during the 1977 season, perhaps he could go with the title above. Admittedly, the car dubbed by Ken Tyrrell as the Yellow Teapot, the Renault RS01, did not trouble the score sheets in that year, but it was the herald of a new era. In deciding to exploit the rule that allowed teams to enter either a three litre normally aspirated engine or a 1.5 litre turbocharged engine, the fledgling Renault team would ultimately steer Formula One in a new direction by being the first constructor to opt for the latter. Today with turbochargers commonplace on road cars and set to make a return in F1 this year, it is hard to grasp what a radical departure this was. At the time turbocharging was a technology restricted to aircraft engines and diesel engines for trucks.

A500 'Phantom' test car 1976
In truth the conservative and risk averse powers that be at Renault were dragged somewhat reluctantly into F1. The development of the turbo engine had been run as an under-the-radar R&D project, the result of fruitful collaboration between chassis manufacturer Alpine, Renault's performance engine subsidiary Gordini and the fuel giant Elf who initially bankrolled the engine development. Not until the engine developed under the ingenious gaze of Bernard Dudot was showing promise was the turbo concept's potential to take Renault into Formula One or to victory in the Le Mans 24hrs revealed to the board. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting.

No doubt after some Gallic grumbling and prevarication, the board committed to the project and Renault Sport was created under the direction of former racer and future team owner Gerard Larrousse. It was initially envisaged that Renault would enter Formula One as a supplier to the Tyrrell team, which had it come to fruition would have seen the first turbo engine in the back of the legendary P34 six wheeler, as if that wasn't radical enough already.
As it turned out Tyrrell was unconvinced by the potential of turbos and so Renault committed to going it alone with their own car.

Testing began in earnest in March 1976 with the 1.5L V6 turbo engine installed in the A500 Alpine test chassis known as the Phantom, pictured top. Early testing was dogged by problems as engineer and racer Jean Pierre Jabouille, the perfect man for the job, wrestled the car around Michelin's private test track, struggling with the turbo lag, the all-or-nothing power delivery of the engine and unforgiving Michelin radial tyres. These were another brand new innovation for F1 that Renault would introduce in the following season. Throughout 1976 the team continued to develop the car, targeting participation in the following year's championship with a single car for Jabouille.

Jabouille battles with Patrese's Shadow at the '77 Dutch GP

The Renault RS01 made its first appearance at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. The race saw champion James Hunt take his first of three wins in the season but poor reliability ruined his chances of retaining his title and instead the more consistent Lauda took his second title for Ferrari, seeing off the challenges of Scheckter and Andretti.

At Silverstone Jabouille qualified a lowly 21st and managed just sixteen laps before the car expired in a cloud of steam. This would become the trademark of the RS01 as it failed to finish all seven of the races that it entered in that year, prompting Tyrrell to christen it the Yellow Teapot, no doubt congratulating himself on having stuck with conventional wisdom at least where engines were concerned. When it was running, the car was hamstrung by turbo lag on twisty circuits and then left struggling for grip as the Michelin tyres gave out, much to Jabouille's frustration.

Nevertheless Renault had learned much in their first season and in 1978 the RS01 returned with a new twin turbo configuration to help overcome the lag problem. A second car was now entered for some races with Rene Arnoux lining up alongside Jabouille. The advantages of turbocharging were obvious with the Renault 1.5L developing 50bhp more than the three litre normally aspirated engines of its rivals. Whilst still at a disadvantage in twisty sections with the lag issue not entirely resolved, at high altitude circuits the Renault was expected to enjoy a significant advantage over its rivals, whose engines would lose performance at altitude whilst the turbo, with its origins in aviation for just this purpose, would allow the Renault engine to maintain its performance. At the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, Jabouille proved the point by qualifying in sixth, the best performance yet for the Renault. Unfortunately the car lasted just 38 laps before retiring with engine failure. Reliability remained abysmal throughout 1978 with Jabouille finishing just four times in fourteen starts. Jabouille would finally score the first points for Renault with a fourth place finish at the US Grand Prix. The 1978 season was dominated by aerodynamics with the 'ground effect' Lotuses of Andretti and Peterson winning 8 of the 16 races. Turbos still had a way to go to prove their worth.

Arnoux and Villeneuve dice for 2nd at the 79 French GP
From a reliability point of view the 1979 season was no better with Jabouille and Arnoux managing just 8 finishes from 30 starts. Nevertheless they were far more competitive. Jabouille put the RS01 on pole at the third race in South Africa only to retire after 47 laps with engine failure. At the Monaco Grand Prix Renault debuted the new ground effect RS10 and from here on in they would be front runners if not frequent finishers. At the French Grand Prix at Dijon, another high altitude track, the Renaults locked out the front row. Other teams and manufacturers took note. In the race Jabouille saw off the challenge of Gilles Villeneuve's flat 12 Ferrari to take victory, with Arnoux finishing third after a scrap with Villeneuve in the closing stages which has passed into legend.
The Renaults continued to be dogged by poor reliability through the rest of the season but their pace was beyond question. In the remaining 7 races of the season the Renault drivers took two poles apiece, with podium finishes for Arnoux in the British and US Grands Prix. Three more wins would follow in 1980, although the season was marred by an effectively career ending accident for Jabouille at the penultimate race of the season in Canada. He would return briefly for Ligier in the following season but only managed two races before retiring for good. By now the potential of the turbo was becoming clear with other manufacturers developing their own turbo engines. Ferrari would be the first to introduce a turbo engine in 1981 with BMW, Honda and Porsche following their lead.
By 1983 everyone was at it. Michele Alboretto's win in the '83 US Grand Prix for Tyrrell would be the last victory for a normally aspirated engine in Formula One until Turbos were banned at the end of 1988. Renault just missed out on the Formula One driver's title in 1983 with Alain Prost losing out to Nelson Piquet in the BMW powered Brabham by just two points, ironically suffering a turbo failure in the last race of the season. The acrimonious departure of Prost at the end of 1983 saw the fortunes of Renault slump. Renault continued in Formula One until the end of the 1985 season before wrapping up the works team due to financial pressures. Ultimately their investment did not deliver on its promise but they had revolutionised the sport, ushering in the era of the 1000bhp monsters that bestrode the 80's. The yellow teapot deserves a special place in F1 history, even though it never finished a race.

Derek Warwick hustles the RS40 around at the '84 US GP

Everything you could want to know about the development of the Renault turbo
1979 French GP - final laps - You Tube

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