Peugeot once shoved a turbocharged engine into the middle of the 205 hatchback, slung a four-wheel drive system underneath and sold 200 of the things as road cars. Imagine that. MG did something similar with the Metro, although it went all-in with a normally-aspirated V6. Lancia had a go at splicing together the DNA of a mid-engined supercar and a family hatchback as well, installing into the middle of the Delta a four-cylinder engine that was both turbocharged and supercharged.
None of this will be news to you – Group B rally cars and their wild road-going counterparts have been celebrated for decades. But those cars were all homologation specials that existed for a very specific purpose – their makers couldn’t go rallying without them. Question is, did anybody ever explain that bit to Renault?
For many years now, the French manufacturer has been building and marketing totally loopy performance machines, all based on humble shopping cars, purely for the fun if it. The mid-engined Clio V6 didn’t permit Renault to compete in any FIA world championships. Nor did the Megane R26.R with its stripped-out interior, track day tyres, extensive weight saving measures, buckets seats and harnesses, and that tangle of roll cage where the rear seats should have been.
It’s as though Peugeot, MG and Lancia all turned up to the office one day in the eighties wearing daft trousers to raise money for charity in a spot of properly regulated silliness. And that was that. Ever since, though, Renault has been rocking up to work in full court jester get-up, hopping from one foot to the other, tipping over cups of water, never noticing that everybody else has long since been back in their dark grey suits.
The most obvious aspect of the R26.R’s legacy is the Megane 275 Trophy-R that copied its formula in 2014, and the 300 Trophy-R that went on sale last year. But the R26.R was the original, not only of the Renault Sport dynasty, but also the trackday-special hot hatch genre that it created in 2008.
Without a top-line motorsport programme to warrant the R26.R’s existence, how did such an esoteric project ever get off the ground? The man to ask is Jean-Pascale Dauce, now chief engineer at Alpine, formerly head of engineering for Renault Sport. He’s the man who brought the R26.R to life. Forget Groupe Renault board meetings and rigorous market research; this story is all about a small team of car-mad guys, a skunkworks project and one good-humoured boss.
“There were only four of us,” says Dauce. “One from marketing, another from engineering, a project manager and myself. We were so happy that the Megane 2 R.S. had been well-received and were keen to do something special for the end of its life.” It hadn’t always been well-received. Dauce acknowledges that the Megane 2 R.S. was nothing more than an also-ran in the hot hatch category in the eyes of the motoring press. That was true when the 225 model was launched in 2004 at least, but perceptions began to change the following year when Renault Sport found its feet with uprated versions like the 225 Cup.
And then Fernando Alonso won his and Renault’s first Formula 1 world title in 2005. That seemed to embolden everybody within Renault Sport. The 230 Renault F1 Team R26 that emerged in 2006 to celebrate that success had a little more power, revised chassis settings and, crucially, a limited slip differential, helping it leap to the top of the hot hatch class.
It stayed there for several years. As that Megane neared the end of its life, Dauce and his colleagues began discussing the idea of a ‘farewell’ model to send it off with a bang. Initially the plan was a limited-run version of the R26 that had bespoke trim or a custom exterior body colour. Nothing too ambitious.
But Dauce reckoned Renault Sport could do better. “I proposed to my boss at the time that we instead spend the budget we’d set aside for that car on a demonstrator for a ‘full version’, as we called it.” Dauce spent every Euro he had on that demonstrator, leaving nothing aside for the limited model with the exclusive paintwork. He reasoned that if the Renault Sport board didn’t go for it, they’d scrap the plan entirely and not bother with a farewell version of the R26 at all. Nobody outside the company would ever know such a thing had been discussed in the first place, after all.
Dauce and his small team were given the green light to press on with the demonstrator. If the board liked it, the development budget for the production model would be found one way or another. “The Porsche 911 GT3 RS was a kind of inspiration to us,” confirms Dauce. “We hoped that if Porsche did a hot hatch, it would be close to our approach. The four of us worked very hard and very quickly to build our demonstrator mule. We put together all the ideas we had, putting in place the cost and timing details for each component.”
Dauce and his colleagues had a very clear vision for this ‘full version’ of the R26. It could be summed up by the French word ‘radicale’. That’s how the R26.R got its name. “My team was very enthusiastic – we also wanted to create a Radicale version for every Renault Sport model.” What on Earth might a stripped-out, caged, Cup-tyre shod Twingo 133 or Clio 200 have been like? Radical, undoubtedly.
“After a few months, we prepared a go/no go project. I didn't want to go in as usual with a Powerpoint presentation, so we put our mule in a confidential room with a cover on it to prevent from distracting from the bosses. We had a series of posters on the wall showing technical content, planning, performance, weight, targeted Nurburgring lap time record, cost of goods and investment, sales estimate, economics and so on. After going through these posters in a very unconventional stand-up meeting, we unveiled the car.”
Dauce says that car was very similar to the R26.R that eventually went into production, albeit with “a few more things that were not retained”. He spent 30 minutes presenting his mule and another 30 discussing it with his boss, Remi Deconinck, then managing director of Renault Sport. “It was while sitting in the driver’s bucket seat with the harness fastened that Remi said to me, ‘JP, you’re late!’”
And that was how the R26.R – the most uncompromising hot hatch ever built, short of a handful of homologation specials – was given the go ahead. “It was a relief. For me, the idea wasn’t to boost sales of the Megane 2 R.S. as it neared the end of its life, but to demonstrate to the world what we at Renault Sport could deliver and bring to market. The decision to manufacture the car was like the car itself – brave and original.
“From there the development of the R26.R went really well. We were pushing like hell and the project became a real source of pride internally. My team of four was like the musketeers, nothing could stop us! We presented the car to the press at the Nurburgring, which was fantastic. We then debuted it publicly at the British motor show in London in July 2008. That was good as well, although the new Ford Focus RS did drag a lot of attention away from us.”
July 2008 is an important date. Dauce points out that the 997.2 GT3 RS that was launched with a very similar white and red colour scheme, plus an almost identical grey and red one, didn’t arrived until the following year. “The fact that they didn't change the deco is maybe a tribute to us!”
The rest is history. Only 450 R26.Rs were built, 159 coming to the UK (though the original plan was for 230 to cross the Channel). Dauce very proudly says that even Deconinck took an R26.R as his company car, choosing it over the more conventional Espace. “He drove it to work every day.” There’s no question the R26.R has inspired similar machines from rival manufacturers over the years, most notably the sensational 2017 VW Golf GTI Clubsport S that had no rear seats, very trick suspension and track day tyres.
The R26.R’s lasting legacy? Never mind stripped-out hot hatches: I think every high performance hot hatch that followed owes something to it. Renault Sport proved that motorsport-style engineering measures, such as costly lightweight materials and tacky rubber, aren’t necessarily wasted on front-wheel drive performance cars. The car also ignited the Nurburgring hot hatch lap record saga that the likes of VW, Seat and Honda have squabbled over ever since.
I worry that very low-volume, niche-interest cars like the R26.R will become increasingly rare as car makers find themselves under ever more pressure, be it of the commercial sort in a challenging market or escalating environmental stress. These passion projects and skunkworks cars, models that simply wouldn’t withstand the scrutiny of a board that’s looking to cut costs and de-risk itself, might not be around much longer. But thanks to the four musketeers, we’ll always have the R26.R.
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