Story by Roy P. Smith
In 1973, Renault, who by then were in the process of taking a major shareholding in the Alpine company based in Dieppe, were considering entering the European Sports Prototype Championship, the reason being that they had a new engine, created by the engineering team headed by François Castaing, an engineer with Amédée Gordini in the late 1960s before doing his National Service. The engine would be a V6; “But what shall we put it in?” asked the Renault management. It wasn’t long before the call was made to Alpine: build us a Sports Prototype please!
André de Cortanze led the team of designers who would soon be joined by long-time Alpine F3 mechanic Andre Désaubry. André: “Ah, there are so many memories. The start-up of the A440 in 1973 had been a difficult moment. I was transferred to the A440 2-litre project in 1973 and we began to learn the car. There was a problem the first time we went to Magny-Cours, where we took the first A440. Jean Pierre Jabouille set off; our friend Marcel Hubert had made us a nice engine cover in epoxy and on the straight at speed it ripped off! I remember, too, one of the many niggling problems that the new 2-litre engine had showed up at the Nürburgring: a problem with the cam drive belt jumping a notch. We didn’t understand why it was happening, and then we noticed there was a problem with belt tension and we had to modify the drive-wheel bearing to increase the tension around the pinion to ensure that the belt was correctly wrapped round the distributor drive. There was a lot to learn; this was just one tiny incident! The first happy moment with the car was at Croix-en-Ternois, when we won with Jean-Pierre, the first victory for that car, but it was far from performing at its best because there was not enough cooling for the brakes. The circuit required a lot of braking and when the car stopped everything was smoking. But we were happy; we had won for the first time with this car. We knew it was not perfect, but it had great potential.”
The die was cast. The 1973 season saw varied results but a lot of potential that led to a revised model – the Alpine A441. Three more cars were created: A441-0, A441-1and 441-2. So successful were these cars that Alpine won the 1974 European Championship, dominating with maximum points, while Alain Serpaggi took the Drivers’ Championship. Renault had plans to win Le Mans; they would need to perfect the car further and the only way to do this effectively, they decided, was by racing against the likes of Porsche and Alfa Romeo in the World Sports Prototype Championship.
The plan was that the A441-1 driven by Gérard Larrousse during 1974 would be returned to Dieppe and modified to become the car that would be known as the A441T (by journalists at the time) in fact 442-0 for the 1975 season. The T stood for Turbo, and with it a new era had arrived. Another new A441 – the A441-3 – was built at the end of 1974 for the restructured Larrousse-Archambeaud team, later renamed Elf Switzerland; this was a normally aspirated car which would eventually be the car that would mark the official return of Renault to Le Mans when this car ran at the 1975 24 Hours. The all-female pairing of Marie-Claude Beaumont and Lella Lombardi were the contracted drivers. Note that both the Turbo and normally aspirated version were 2 liter engines, though the Turbo would compete in the 3 liter class.
However, fuel was on everyone’s mind in 1974 following the Arab-Israeli war in the latter part of 1973. In a reflection of the economic situation, the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest), organizers of Le Mans, changed its rules, deciding that the cars would have to run a set minimum number of laps (20) between refueling, thus imposing a fuel consumption control on the race. For the World Championships, 1975 would see the first European round at Mugello. All eyes would be on what the fans saw as a new Renault: an Alpine Turbo car running in the 3-litre class and putting out a claimed 500bhp+.
The late Jean Sage told the author in 2007: “It was really good: a great team – the same people we had the year before but also with Jabouille and his engineer Jean-Claude Guénard on the F2 side. The Switzerland part of the name reflected the continued sponsorship from the year before from the Swiss Gruyère and Emmental Cheese Federation, which was a significant organization in Switzerland. They were happy with what had gone on in 1974 and got on very well with Mr Archambeaud, the previous sponsor in 1974. When he decided the year before that owing to financial problems he would not continue, Gérard Larrousse and I went to see the Swiss Cheese Federation and it was agreed that they would carry on with their sponsorship. The same thing happened for 1975 with the new A441-3 Sports Prototype car; along with the Swiss Cheese Federation, Elf Oil came on board and with a larger investment.”
The A441 Succeeds
Mugello on 23 March 1975 saw that first European race of the World Championship, run over 150 laps of the 3.259 mile (5.245km) circuit. Renault had decided to enter both the 2-litre championship with the A441-3 and 3-litre championship with the Turbo. The new chassis A441-3 had full factory support; they were going for the 2-litre class win.
Reports tell us that the weather was cold but dry and this suited the turbocharged car. Larrousse and Jabouille in the A442-0 Turbo were on pole, with Lella Lombardi/Marie-Claude Beaumont in 10th in the normally aspirated A441-3. The Turbo car took victory in that first running of the car, whilst the girls in the A441-3 were having a cracking wheel-to-wheel race with the Hine/Grob Chevron, swopping positions many times but eventually the Chevron just managed to take 4th place from them. Unfortunately the rest of 1975 turned into a test session as the A442-0 suffered many failures. The A441-3 though continued to race successfully, proving to be generally ultra reliable. At the Monza 1000km held on 20 April, Lella Lombardi and Marie-Claude Beaumont put the normally aspirated car on 12th place on the grid with 1min 37.73sec. A long way down the grid, one might think, but a surprise result was in store: a 4th place overall and first in the 2-litre class was the result, the Elf Switzerland team seeing the girls beat the men – as well as thirteen 3-litre cars – at their own game! There was a lot of muttering in the pit lane…
For Enna-Pergusa in Sicily for the 1000km Coppa Florio on 18 May, the factory team had decided not to run the A442 in the big class, so only the Elf Switzerland team would enter with the A441-3, car 10, for Lella Lombardi/Marie-Claude Beaumont. However, on each of the two practice days the car had had an accident, on both occasions caused by a broken rear suspension arm.
Fearing a bigger accident in the race and unable to understand why it was happening, the team decided to withdraw. Jean Sage said: “It was the right decision. We couldn’t fathom the suspension failures; maybe it was faulty parts from the factory or maybe there were other factors, but it would have been both irresponsible and dangerous to let the girls race when we didn’t know what was causing the breakages, so I withdrew the car.” Apparently they spent the very hot race day in swimsuits, renting a rowing boat on the nearby lake, relaxing and enjoying themselves away from the noise of the race!
And then there was Le Mans
Renault were now thinking about returning to Le Mans. However in 1975 the traditional Le Mans test weekend scheduled for 22-23 March had been cancelled due to a lack of entries. This meant the teams could not test in a real-life situation on the Le Mans circuit. Renault held discussions with its team members and decided not to risk the Turbo car; it was too thirsty to cope with the regulations for that year’s 24 Hours, which required the cars to go the minimum of 20 laps before refueling, meaning in general terms that the cars had to return better than 7mpg. Renault felt it had an ace up its sleeve – the Elf Switzerland A441-3 and the two formidable female drivers, Marie-Claude Beaumont and Lella Lombardi.
It would provide a good PR story, too – publicity was guaranteed. It would be a coup for Renault, though it was not the only all-woman team. There was another: one of its drivers was a young lady by the name of Michèle Mouton, soon to become world famous for her exploits in rallying. With the well-proven A441-3, Marie-Claude and Lella had shown great promise, so dare they dream of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours? Renault decided that the team, organized by Gérard Larrousse and carrying Elf Switzerland logos, was good enough and the decision was made to put it into the fray. François Castaing says: “We put together the team: mostly Larrousse’s engineers. François-Xavier Delfosse was there from the factory but not the Alpine guys from Dieppe. We did a big test with the girls at the Paul Ricard circuit. Because our team had women drivers it was a big deal at Le Mans. We made headlines. We kept training during the three days before Le Mans with our mechanics and got the time required to change the rear end of the car with the transmission down to below 5min. But it all came to nothing when we made a mistake – a stupid mistake; we had no one to blame but ourselves.”