Renault RS01: F1’s turbo pioneer

Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Renault RS01, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

The turbo era: showers of sparks, sky-rocketing engine power and tyre-shredding brutes of F1 cars.

It all started with one rather ugly and chronically unreliable machine: the Renault RS01.

But turbo technology wasn’t the only innovation on the car dubbed the ‘yellow teapot’.

Turbo trouble

The regulation allowing teams to use a 1.5-litre turbocharged engine as an alternative to a 3.0-lire normally aspirated unit had been on the books for more than a decade.

No-one had bothered to exploit it before Renault, and the derision its original effort attracted can be summed up by its nickname, the ‘yellow teapot’, because it was frequently spotted in a cloud of steam or smoke.

Renault’s 1.5-litre turbo V6 had its roots in a 2-litre engine originally developed for sports car racing which had been adapted for use in Formula Two. Jean-Pierre Jabouille won the F2 title with the engine in 1976.

It was Jaboullie who gave the RS01 its debut in 1977. It used a version of the same engine, reduced in stroke to meet the 1.5-litre limit, but retired when the turbo failed after 16 laps. The technology was the future, but its gestation was long and slow.

Turbocharging allowed engineers to increase the pressure of the air being fed to the engine in order to significantly increase its power. But several difficult obstacles had to be overcome: the problem of packaging the turbochargers, the extra weight they added and the increase in fuel consumption.

Exhaust gasses were used to drive the turbocharger, causing increased temperatures, which if not properly controlled could lead to failures usually accompanied by enormous fires.

The use of exhaust gasses also caused the phenomenon of throttle lag. After the driver came off the throttle the drop in exhaust gasses would cause the turbo to slow, meaning there was less power when the driver came to accelerate again. Once they had accelerated the turbo would begin to spin up again and deliver the extra power in a huge and sudden burst.


Renault RS01, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Renault brought the RS01 to four of the seven remaining races that year, failing to qualify in Canada and retiring in the other three.

They returned at the third race of 1978 where Jabouille gave the first hint of the car’s potential by qualifying sixth, thriving at the high-altitude Kyalami track.

But the real breakthrough that year came when Renault achieved their other objective of winning the Le Mans 24 Hours – after which they switched their focus to the F1 programme.

After a year of persistent retirements, the RS01 scored its first points at Watkins Glen, Jabouille bringing the car home in fourth place.

The team continued with the car for a third year in 1979, Jabouille now joined by Rene Arnoux. But it wasn’t until the car was superseded by the RS10 that Renault finally scored a turbo-powered victory.

Appropriately enough, it came on home ground at Dijon, and was scored by Jabouille. However, the race is best remembered for the immense battle for second place between Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari and Arnoux in the second Renault.

Over the following years BMW and Honda joined the sport with turbo engines of their own – the former beating Renault in the race to win the first championship with turbo power in 1983.

Turbo power was banned in Formula 1 at the end of 1988. However a new engine formula, similar in basic configuration to that used by Renault in 1977, will be introduced in 2014:

Radial tyres

Renault RS01, Goodwood Festival of Speed, 2011

Turbo power wasn’t the only technology introduced on the RS01. Another innovation on the car proved far quicker to yield results.

The race marked the first appearance of Michelin tyres in Formula 1. The French manufacturer introduced radial tyres, which were constructed in such a way to increase the contact patch between the tyre and the track surface.

Ferrari were quick to see the benefit of the technology and switched to Michelin tyres the following year. They gave the French manufacturer their first win in F1 in the Brazilian Grand Prix and won four further races that year.

Renault RS01 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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15 comments on “Renault RS01: F1’s turbo pioneer”

  1. Really fascinating to see how these things go in circles! Or maybe a spiral upwards.

  2. Is there any other manufacturer more committed to f1 than Renault? Ferrari dont count since they were just a race team selling road cars.

    1977-1986, 1989-1997 and 2001-present. Just 5 years of absence since 1977.

    1. DeadManWoking
      2nd July 2011, 15:20

      Renault’s motor racing heritage extends back to the very beginning. They were the winners of the very first Grand Prix race, the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1906.

  3. Ugly? It’s not stunning, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s ugly! ;)

    1. Yeah, I don’t think it’s ugly but funny. And I love the sound of the V6 Turbo.

    2. Agreed. It may not be a Lotus 79, but it’s not a bad looker at all. The yellow & black livery looks great too.

    3. I was going to say the same thing, its a great looking thing, particularly head on. In profile it is a bit awkward looking, but that doesn’t stop it being a very good looking, if not “pretty” car.

    4. It’s a lot better looking than any post-2009 F1 car.

  4. I hope in 2014 the cars will sound the same as this car

  5. I hope Renault do a better job of packaging the turbos :) newey would be ******.

  6. I think it’s a beautiful car!

    Imagine driving that round Monaco with that enormous turbo lag!!!! :O

  7. I read up about radial tyres last night. Michelin was awarded patents for their radial manufacturing processed way back in 1951. I’m surprised radials didn’t show up in F1 till 1977. I’m also very surprised that they managed to keep those super-wide 70’s style rear tyres in shape despite being crossplies.

  8. ferranmclaren
    3rd July 2011, 8:02

    i’m really expecting something very good from the new turbo engines if they will still be able to top 320-350 ,and then they will have much more acceleration and less reliability ,I guess the sound will also be good if you hear the old f1-turbos.
    And think about the impact it has on the driving and racing we’ll see when the turbo-lack comes in while overtaking.
    And technology wise it is only good if you are able te get the same performance with a smaller engine ,using the biggest engine is the american way:P.

  9. Great to see the history of turbo in F1 and fair play to see Renault be so persistent with it, I doubt we would get that level of commitment these days, understandably so though.

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