Renault has competed in Grand Prix racing for over 35 years, and has enjoyed success as both an engine supplier and constructor.
The journey started when legendary engineer Amédée Gordini, who had created Grand Prix cars under his own name, was recruited to design high performance cars for Renault.
The Dauphine Gordini appeared in 1957, and it was followed by further high performance cars, including the R8 Gordini and the R12 and R17. Gordini also took the Renault name to Le Mans.
Gordini’s facilities in Paris proved to be too small for the ambitious project, so a new building outside the city was sought. The ideal location was found at Viry-Châtillon, on the edge of the A6 motorway leading from Paris to the south of France. The Gordini facility was inaugurated on 6 February 1969, and it was to be the launch pad for motor sporting success over the following decades.
The initial focus was on a new 2-litre V6 engine, which was officially launched in January 1973. The engine soon proved to be competitive in the prestigious European 2-litre sportscar series. That was followed by a move into the FIA World Sportscar Championship with a turbocharged version of the engine. Gerard Larrousse and Jean-Pierre Jabouille duly scored a historic first WSC win for the marque at Mugello in 1975.
Renault Sport was founded in 1976, and that year saw the birth of a parallel single-seater programme with the V6 engine in European F2. Together with partner Elf, Renault fostered a generation of talented French drivers. Jean-Pierre Jabouille won the F2 title in 1976, and Rene Arnoux repeated the success the following year. Patrick Tambay and Didier Pironi also won races with the Renault engine.
In sportscars the turbocharged Renaults proved to be incredibly fast, securing a string of poles and fastest laps, but bad luck robbed the team of good results. The main goal was of course the Le Mans 24 Hours. Jabouille took pole in both 1976 and ’77, but success eluded the works team, although a Renault-engined mirage took second place in the latter year.
However, everything came together in 1978 when Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud scored a historic victory, with another Renault coming home fourth. With Le Mans success finally secured, Renault could now focus on its other goal — Formula One.
The option to run a turbocharged engine had been in the rules for many years, but nobody had dared to pursue it until Renault. Renault had quietly begun track testing with a 1.5-litre version of the turbo engine in 1976, and a short programme of races was scheduled for the following year.
The RS01 made its debut in the 1977 British GP in the hands of Jabouille. Nicknamed the ‘Yellow Teapot,’ the car retired from its first race, but not before it had made a big impression. Four further outings at the end of the year provided more valuable experience. The learning process continued through 1978, and at the US GP Jabouille earned the first points for Renault — and for any turbo engine — with fourth place.
With Le Mans won, Renault concentrated on F1 in 1979, adding a second car for Arnoux. Jabouille took the team’s first pole in South Africa and then in July scored a memorable first victory on home soil in Dijon.
When Alain Prost joined in 1981 the Renault team developed into a regular pacesetter, and a World Championship contender. Indeed Prost only just missed out on the title in 1983. Renault also extended it involvement to that of engine supplier, forming partnerships with the Lotus, Ligier and Tyrrell teams. In Portugal in 1985 Ayrton Senna scored his first ever GP victory with Renault power, and the Brazilian proved to be one of the stars of the season.
The Renault management decided to close the works outfit at the end of 1985, and focus instead on supplying engines to other teams. Indeed in 1986 the Senna/Lotus/Renault combination proved to the fastest on the grid, as the Brazilian took eight poles — although frustration on race days meant that he scored only two wins.
At the end of 1986 Renault decided to stop its turbo F1 programme, but it was to prove to be a short sabbatical. Within months the engineers at Viry were working on a V10 for the new normally aspirated era, and in 1988 the ideal partner was found for the future programme in the form of Williams.
In its first year of competition in 1989 the new partnership won two Grands Prix, and two further wins followed in 1990. During the later season Adrian Newey joined Williams as chief designer, and then Nigel Mansell — who had used Renault power at Lotus — rejoined the team.
It was the start of an incredible era. By the end of 1991 the combination was the one to beat, and in 1992 Mansell proved so dominant that he secured Renault’s first World Championship by August.
Former works Renault driver Prost joined Williams in 1993, and he too won the title before retiring. Further championships followed for Damon Hill in 1996, and for Jacques Villeneuve in 1997. Williams-Renault also won the constructors’ title in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.
Outside F1, Williams and Renault also collaborated on a touring car project which saw Renault Lagunas raced in the British Touring Car Championship. Success came quickly, and in 1997 Renault won the BTCC drivers’, manufacturers’ and teams’ titles. The partnership also designed and built the iconic Renault Clio Williams, one of the most prized hot hatches of a generation.
In 1995 Renault expanded its involvement with a new partnership with the Benetton team. Michael Schumacher won the championship in 1995, while Benetton won the constructors’ title — ensuring that with its two partners Renault scored six straight title successes between 1992 and 1997. Between 195 and 97 Renault engines won 74% of the races.
Renault officially departed Formula One at the end of 1997. Williams, Benetton and later the new BAR team used Renault-based engines under the Supertec, Mecachrome and Playlife names, and work continued in a small development cell at Viry.
Again, Renault’s official absence was to be a short one. In early 2001 it was announced that the company had bought the Benetton team, and was to return in a full works capacity. The Renault name returned as Benetton’s engine supplier that season, and then in 2002 the team was reborn as Renault, with the chassis department still based at Enstone, UK, while working close with the engine division in Viry.
In 2003 Fernando Alonso gave the new team its first pole in Malaysia, and then the young Spaniard followed up with his and the team’s historic first win in Hungary. The following year Jarno Trulli gave Renault victory in the most prestigious race of the year in Monaco.
In 2005 Alonso was the man to beat as he won the drivers’ title and Renault took the constructors’ version. Despite the huge change from V10 to V8 technology for 2006, the team was able to sustain its momentum as it again captured both titles.
Supplying other teams had long been a Renault policy, and in 2007 a new partnership was formed with Red Bull Racing, which allowed former Williams designer Adrian Newey — and driver David Coulthard — to renew their relationships with the marque.
The dark blue cars soon moved up the grid, and in 2009 Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber gave RBR its first victories, and earned the team runner-up spot in the constructors’ championship. In 2010 both drivers were title contenders from the start of the season. At the end of the year Vettel emerged triumphant as the youngest champion in the history of the sport, while Red Bull-Renault earned the constructors’ championship.
In 2010 Renault had begun the process of withdrawing from team ownership. The 2011 season marked the dawn of another chapter in the company’s history as it returned to its core activity of engine supply, releasing its remaining shares in the Renault F1 Team. Under its new ownership, the team was now known as Lotus Renault GP, while Renault also supplied Team Lotus with engines.
Meanwhile Sebastian Vettel proved unstoppable in the World Championship, breaking all the records as he secured his second title with four races to go. Renault also powered Red Bull Racing to a second constructors’ title.
For 2012 Renault continues its successful partnership with Red Bull, with Vettel aiming to become the youngest-ever triple World Champion. Lotus Renault GP is now known as Lotus F1 Team, while the former Team Lotus has been renamed Caterham F1 Team. Renault also has a fourth partner as the iconic relationship with Williams has been renewed for the first time in 1997.