14 December 2017

Fascinating F1 Fact: 17

It was in April 1995 that the last Alpine A610 rolled off the production line in Dieppe and the Alpine factory was converted to produce Renault Sport Spiders. Twenty two years later the same facility will soon be producing a new generation of Alpine road cars called the Alpine A110, which was revealed at the Geneva Motor Show in March.

Alpine is usually associated with rallying and it is often forgotten that the company played a vital role in the revival of French motorsport in the 1970s, but the connections go much further back than that. It is a story that begins in World War II when Renault was taken over by the Germans occupation forces and Prince Wilhelm Von Urach, who had been an engineer with Daimler-Benz from 1927 onwards, took over the running of the company, producing tanks, trucks and engines for the German military. Renault’s technical director Fernand Picard and veteran designer Charles Edmond Serre, who had helped build the very first Renault automobile while a teenager in 1898, decided that whatever happened, after the war there would be demand for a small economical car and began working on the secret Project 106E. The Germans knew nothing about it but the secret was shared with Renault’s head of styling Roger Barthaud and with Jean-Auguste Riolfo, the man in charge of testing programmes. The latter was a member of the Organisation Civile et Militaire (OCM) resistance movement and was arrested by the Germans in 1943 and charged with reproducing and distributing Gaullist leaflets. Louis Renault asked the Germans to let him go and because they could not prove the charge he was released. Project 106E continued quietly until after the Liberation. Renault was taken over by the French government and Pierre Lefaucheux was put in charge.

Project 106E was no longer a secret and became the Renault 4CV, unveiled at the Paris Salon in the autumn of 1946. It was a great success. One of Renault’s dealers at the time was Émile Rédélé in Dieppe, he was an old school racer and had worked as a mechanic on Ferenc Szisz’s 1906 Grand Prix de l’ACF’s Renault. His son Jean was mad about racing and in 1950, when he was 28, the junior Rédélé entered the Dieppe-Rouen Rally in a modified Renault 4CV. Very quickly a new business developed, converting 4Vs into rally and racing cars and Jean created Automobiles Alpine in 1951. The following year he won a class victory on the Mille Miglia. His first Alpine prototype, based on a 4CV chassis, followed in 1953 and its successors enjoyed considerable success in rallying, attracting increased support from Renault. The first Alpine road car appeared in 1955.

By 1964 Rédélé was ready to turn his attention to Renault-engined single-seater Formula 3 cars and Marcel Hubert designed a car, with some help from consultant Ron Tauranac. The resulting racing machine allowed Henry Grandsire to win the inaugural French F3 title. Although overshadowed by Matra, the Alpines were competitive in both Formula 2 and Formula 3 and in 1968, against the wishes of Renault, Rédélé asked Richard Bouleau to design a Formula 1 car for him. The Alpine A350 was run at Zandvoort by the company’s test driver Mauro Bianchi, grandfather of Jules Bianchi, but the V8 engine, developed for Renault by Gordini was seriously down on power in comparison to the Cosworth DFV. The project was abandoned and the car destroyed.

In the next few years Alpine concentrated on sports cars and rallying, winning the Monte Carlo Rally in 1971 with Ove Andersson driving. Alpines finished 1-2-3 on the Monte in 1973 and won the inaugural World Rally Championship title. That same year Patrick Depailler won the French Formula 3 title and this was followed by further success in Formula 2, with Jean-Pierre Jabouille eventually winning the championship in 1976, in an Alpine badged as an Elf 2.

By then, however, major changes were taking place. At the end of 1975 Jean Terramorsi, the head of Renault’s sporting department, had quietly asked Alpine designer Andre de Cortanze to create a Formula 1 car, to use the Renault Gordon turbo engine. The car was given the designation A500. As it was nearing completion, Renault acquired Alpine from Rédélé and the competition department in Dieppe was closed down and the staff were transferred to the new Renault Sport at Viry Chatillon. The prototype Alpine A500 did its first tests at Michelin’s test track at Ladoux in the same period, but the car would never race, serving as the base for the Renault RS01 that appeared in 1977, beginning the turbo era in F1. Renault has been in F1 ever since but if one looks closely at the new Alpine A110 one can trace its roots to Formula 1 as well.

Back in 2010 when Tony Fernandes, the boss of Team Lotus, negotiated a Formula 1 engine deal with Renault. Legal problems with Group Lotus led to the decision to switch the team to Caterham branding and Fernandes acquired Caterham Cars. This led to discussions about an alliance with Renault to build a new generation of Caterham road cars. At the time Renault’s chief operating officer Carlos Tavares was pushing the idea of reviving the Alpine name and saw Caterham as a useful way to help fund the project. Caterham commissioned Drive Design in Woking to work on a car that would use the same platform as the Alpine and Drive designers worked alongside Renault engineers at the Renault Technocentre in Guyancourt, to the south of Paris to create two designs. The project was announced in November 2012 with Caterham buying 50 percent of the Automobiles Alpine. Within a matter of months, however, Tavares had resigned, in order to move to become the head of Peugeot and Renault management wanted things done their way. In the end Caterham ended the relationship in June 2014, but Renault having invested in the project kept things running and three and a half years later the A110 has finally appeared.

Alpine has been active in recent years in LMP2, but it is only a badging exercise, the A470 being an ORECA-Gibson, run by Philippe Sinault’s Signatech. It finished third in the teams’ title behind Vaillante Rebellion and Jackie Chan DC Racing. There are plans for an Alpine Europa Cup later this year, with the Alpine A110 developed for competition by Signatech. The first of the six rounds will be at Paul Ricard on June 2-3.

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