Has any brand more effectively promoted itself through competition than Renault? To most punters it is a maker of city and family cars, but to enthusiasts it's one of the most active and influential brands in motorsport, having produced race and rally cars like the RS10 - that ushered in turbo F1 cars - and the awesome Monte-winning R5 Turbo. Since then it's gone on to achieve all sorts of impressive accolades, but the turbocharged stuff from the 70s and 80s remains some of the most exciting. Well, it certainly appears to be, when gathered in the pitlane of La Ferté-Gaucher circuit about 50 miles east of Paris.
Sat trackside are three competition 5 Turbos, an 11 Turbo Group A racer and the legendary RS10 that single-handedly flipped F1 engine development on its head. Wrapped in original liveries and warmed ready for their stints on circuit, the sight, smell and sound of them harks back to a time when Renault was a force to be reckoned with on the race and rally stage. Against all odds, the manufacturer used its innovative turbo technology to take on the established leaders of each category, setting it on a route that included the launch of multiple turbocharged road cars so us mere mortals could experience a little of the magic on the open road.
On hand are two of the men responsible for utilising Renault's turbo innovations in motorsport with great success: Rene Arnoux and Jean Ragnotti, the Frenchmen who respectively secured the brand its first win in Formula 1 (and the sport's first for a turbo car) in 1979 and a Monte rally win two years later. Only 71-year-old Arnoux will be driving today because Ragnotti, 73, is suffering with a very bad back, but his enthusiasm when talking about the 5 Turbo he used all those years ago is enough to illustrate the passion. Arnoux is an animated character at most times, but when zipping up his race suit as mechanics flick open and shut the throttle gate to ready his RS10, he's a ball of excitement.
"Driving a turbo car from that era, it was paradise," he explained to PH. "I can't explain how I felt, it's something you can only understand if you experience it for yourself because it's twice what you get from other cars. These were machines with 1,500hp in qualifying, with skirts, that were terrifying to drive in the wet. I shit myself many times!"
Like a man half his age, Arnoux's return to the cockpit is a seamless one, his steady out lap swiftly followed by one featuring big kicks of turbo power on corner exits and heavy prods of throttle with each down shift. His explanation of driving technique earlier was to "get on the throttle early to build the boost" and the deafening volume of the RS10's 1.5-litre V6, rated at 500hp here, means we can hear the process in action. The sharp increase of boost when the turbos spool up is visual, too, as if the car engages its afterburners somewhere halfway up the 11,000rpm rev range to rocket Arnoux forward at twice the speed. What a sight it must have been to see this man race wheel to wheel with Gilles Villeneuve in that legendary battle at Dijon 40 years ago. The boosted Renault would have had to be driven in an entirely different manner to the naturally-aspirated flat-12-powered Ferrari 312T, yet the two cars slid around each other on circuit like the sweetest synchronised routine you've ever seen.
A handful of laps is all we're given on this day, but they're enough to remind just how significant the RS10 was and how daring Renault had been with the decision to go down the turbo route. No-one else had attempted to do it in 1979. After that, it was practically the only way to go if you wanted to win; it took a regulation ban to stop the might of boost from wrapping up every Formula 1 championship from then after, of course.
The story for turbo powered Renaults was only just getting going when the RS10 landed; it was in 1981 that Ragnotti secured the first Monte win in his 5 Turbo, which he then went on to win the Tour de Corse in 1982, before doing it again in '85 with the 5 Turbo Maxi. But the arrival of the all-wheel drive Audi Quattro meant the 5's days of success were already numbered, despite being a real engineering marvel in itself with that mid-mounted 1.4-litre turbo engine giving it exceptional balance. The car drove beautifully, according to Ragnotti: "The Maxi was actually the easiest rally car I drove because you could get on the power early and then it would spool up as you're exiting the corner".
This time we're getting to experience the process he describes up close and personal, as a passenger beside one of Renault's demonstration professionals. An R5 Europa Cup is on hand to give us a feel of what this sort of car felt like back then; it's absolutely gorgeous, draped in Elf logos with the French colours on its lower sections. Inside, it's a bonkers mix of red and blue plastics and squared-off lines. The madness continues when we're off because it's instantly clear that these competition 5s wanted to be driven sideways, all of the time.
The R5 Turbo Tour de Corse that's here, however, is the wildest ride, because its power is boosted to 350hp and as such the kick in the arse as that boost comes in, 1980s-style, is big. The sweet balance of a mid-engined 5 remains even in this guise, though, so it can be lobbed about and thrown over kerbs with big hits of power but remain fluid in its motion, even if the boost gauge is rapidly rising and falling in the background. What a lovely thing this must be to drive.
The itch to jump into the driver's seat is soon scratched though because Renault brought along some of its finest turbo road cars for us to try. One is the 5 Turbo 2 we drove for the recent PH Hero, but there is also a drop-dead gorgeous Alpine 5 Turbo, which sits tiny with the prettiness of an original Mini Cooper and that wonderful sense of Frenchness. It's a joy to drive, too, the front location of its 110hp 1.4-turbo giving it more conventional hot hatch handling.
But, perhaps surprisingly, the 11 Turbo and Fuego Turbo are the most rewarding steers on hand today (this side of the race stuff, that is). The former has a 105hp version of the 1.4, the latter has a 132hp 1.6, but both feel equally quick because their power to weights are very close. It's clear in the way they have such positive front ends and engines that suddenly explode into life that Renaults of the early and mid-eighties were something really very exciting - and totally fitting for a manufacturer that had set the world of motorsport alight. The lineage that followed, as we know now, was something quite impressive too. What a stupendous 40 years it's been.