JEAN-PASCAL DAUCE: PH MEETS
Project manager for the Alpine-Caterham sports car, Jean-Pascal Dauce is PH's kind of petrolhead
Alpine-Caterham sports car a reality. We've already written about this in some detail but Dauce's history developing cars like the Megane R26.R and his subsequent background at Renaultsport's race division both bode well for the project - as does his ability to argue a case for bold ideas against the odds, like limited-slip diffs in hot hatches and a road-going Megane with Perspex windows, no radio or air con and a roll cage where the rear seats were, for instance.
We bumped into him more recently at Geneva, scrutinising the Alfa Romeo 4C. No surprise to find him there, the Alfa's lightweight construction, transverse small-capacity turbocharged four-cylinder engine and dual-clutch gearbox features we deduced likely to be shared with the Alpine-Caterham road car, even if the £50K price won't be.
First some context, though. And the story behind that Alpine of his. "I have had it for 24 years," he says. "When I was 15 I said I would have an Alpine and everyone said I was crazy. They said I would not fit! But I read a story by a journalist who was very tall - 1.88 metres - and he fit OK so I knew it would be OK."
Sizing it up was one thing; buying it was another. Studying maths as part of his engineering training he had the graph of his savings - aided by an abstemious approach to usual student distractions like clubbing, smoking and drinking - set against the rising values at the time. Realising the two lines were getting further apart he managed to get a loan from his parents to bridge the gap, walked into a Parisian showroom as a cocky 22-year-old and told the sceptical salesman he'd be back to buy the A110 1300 they had in. Which he did.
Something of a step up from the 500-franc Renault 8 he'd previously enjoyed. "It only had 45hp but it would do slides on the cobbles!" he recalls. The friend he sold the car to tried to emulate that trick on a grippier surface, and ended up breaking a hub and flipping it before the registration paperwork had even gone through.
Other cars have come and gone since, including an Alpine GTA, a Renault Sport Spider and an ex-Patrick Le Quement Ferrari 328, since replaced with a 348 after being scared off by the maintenance costs for 355s. Showing us pictures of his Ferrari he takes a true geek's pride in the fact the gearbox is correctly stamped and the original VIN sticker in place. You get the sense he's just a teeny bit obsessive about his cars. But who's to deny a man that pleasure? And among them all the A110 has remained a constant.
More recent tenures at the Enstone F1 HQ and running Renaultsport's motorsport development side mean the Alpine-Caterham is the first road car he's worked on in a while. But that's OK, because the last one he was involved with was the R26.R. And anyone who can get a car like that past the bean counters has to be onto something. So what makes him tick?
He has a refreshingly Gallic take on the power wars seen waged among the performance mainstream too. "If I was German and having my 10th Porsche in a row with 240, 260, 270, 300hp then maybe I would say horsepower is good," he shrugs. "I'm not saying it's not important, I am saying I find a different way. For sure, I am a fan of Porsche but I cannot play the same game."
"When we began with Megane RS I thought our contenders would be Golf GTI but after one year we knew that were much better than that," he says, bluntly. "People buy the GTI because they like the badge but the R26.R and even the R26 was something special. The risk is that not everyone feels the difference but those who can feel it I think prefer it."
He then explains how he was convinced by the value of a diff on a slip-road - "my 10 seconds of fun on the way home" - on the daily commute from Dieppe. In the non-diff equipped 225 it would run wide under power across two lanes. With the diff he could go flat out and stay in lane. Convinced by the engineering case, arguing it to the number crunchers was less easy, but he pulled it off and the Megane was the first Renault to use an LSD. "It made the red carpet for the Megane 3," he says, with obvious pride.
So how will all this passion translate to the Alpine-Caterham? Well, Dauce is clear that he's in charge but he obviously relishes working in a small team where decisions can be made quickly, ideas tried, and incorporated or thrown out on merit.
"We have to be commando, let's say," he explains. "I will have to take the best of the best of the two brands, and I told them 'you are the boss now, you have to tell me what to do.' I have to make decisions quickly to progress. If it's a good decision you will beat the competitors; if it's a bad one you will learn very quickly. If you want a front engine or you want a rear engine, I don't care. There is only one choice - you can't have two. I can make mistakes, I don't care. If someone is not happy I just say, hey, I give you 10 minutes and if we just say it was a big mistake? You agree? We change. I have no ego, it's my job."
And with that rapid-fire monologue you get a sense of the fire in the belly that has seen him drive through some challenging projects. Open to ideas and discussion, you also get the sense that once a decision is made, it's made, and he's unapologetic. If the bosses and/or market say small-turbo engine and dual-clutch gearbox he'll make it work. His way, though.
In the often grey and conservative end of the industry it's great to meet a proper petrolhead able to combine steely engineering and business focus, but also grin about taking his kids around the 'ring in the family Espace, tyres squealing and delighting in sharing the passion with his offspring. We await his next road car with renewed interest.