Monday, May 21, 2018

Renault 5 Alpine and Maxi Turbo – driving the rally legends

Renault 5 Alpine and Maxi Turbo

Renault’s fire-breathing 5 Alpine and Maxi Turbo rallying superstars couldn’t be further from their shopping car roots. Octane gets strapped in for a wild ride.

In 1972 Renault introduced a chic new supermini that changed the way the world viewed mainstream motoring. It was called simply the 5 – but this unimaginative name belied an exciting twist on the typical French small car. Its clean, modernist lines epitomised the 1970s and made a great stylistic leap from the Renault 4, while its innovative packaging, spacious interior and practical hatchback exposed the limitations of the brilliant but flawed Mini.

By the time production ended in 1996, more than five million 5s had been built, making the Renault one of the most successful cars of all time. As with the Mini, the 5 also enjoyed a remarkable motor sport career, most notably in rallying at the highest level. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s the works Renault Sport team dominated national championships and became a force to be reckoned with at world championship level, culminating in the fire-breathing Group B era.

Four decades after the 5 first hit the road, our friends at Renault Classic have brought two iconic rally cars – a Group 2 Renault 5 Alpine and a monstrous Group B Renault 5 Maxi Turbo – for us to play with on the twists and turns of France’s Dijon-Prenois circuit. It’s a perfect day, blessed with dazzling blue skies, and the cars look sensational as they are unloaded from the transporter and left to bask in the sunny pitlane.

Of our brightly coloured pair it’s the crazy-looking Maxi that steals the limelight – but still, there’s something rather wonderful about the slim-hipped Group 2 Alpine. I have to confess that before today the significance of this pre-turbocharged-era 5 had fallen through the cracks in my otherwise reasonable rally knowledge. So while I had an inkling that Jean-Pierre Nicolas won the 1978 Monte Carlo Rally in a Group 4 Porsche 911 3.0 RS, I had no idea that a pair of 5 Alpines chased him home in second and third overall (first and second in the Group 2 class), ahead of big gun Group 4 Fiat 131 Abarths and Lancia Stratos HFs. The term ‘giant killer’ doesn’t do this car justice.

Look more closely and you can see that while the Group 2 Alpine is far closer to a regular Renault 5 than the freakish Group B Maxi, it’s still a proper little brawler. Those fat alloy wheels shod with generous rubber require some serious wheelarch extensions, while the stance and camber settings ensure it crackles with attitude and looks born for the relentless rough-and-tumble of rallies such as the Monte.

Massive hooded spotlights dominate the frontal aspect, but it’s beneath the bonnet that you discover not only how much effort went into transforming the 5 from unassuming shopping trolley into a formidable stage fighter, but why the car lent itself so readily to motor sport in the first place. The engine – a rather unsophisticated in-line four displacing a mere 1397cc – is set way back in the chassis, with the gearbox protruding ahead of it.

Strictly speaking, the motor’s rearward location means the 5 is front/mid-engined, but this is how Renault designed the road car, not some sneaky homologation wheeze. On one side hangs a pair of huge carburettors, while on the other a serpentine collection of manifold tubing rises upwards and forwards before descending behind the left-hand wheelarch housing. It’s an impressive and intriguing sight.

The result is a solid 130bhp, or a fraction under 100bhp per litre. Not bad for the days before electronic ignition and super-smart ECUs, and more than enough to sling 850kg of narrow-bodied hatchback down a twisty mountain stage. To help it find maximum traction the Group 2 Alpine is fitted with a limited-slip differential, while the five-speed gearbox gave works drivers Jean Ragnotti and Guy Fréquelin plenty of options for the Monte’s myriad corners.

My brain’s more reckless side is thinking I would have been better off sampling these cars on a closed-road rally stage. Then again, Dijon is a sinuous circuit with lots of ups and downs, so there’s plenty of scope for fun and – much to the relief of the sensible section of my grey matter – rather less scope for clouting a stone wall. Monsieur Ragnotti is also present, but he is here to do some shakedown work for Renault Classic, not chaperone me. Nevertheless, when he sees me walking towards the Group 2 car he waves and makes a bicep-flexing gesture before gripping an imaginary steering wheel and puffing out his cheeks. I’m not sure whether he’s being serious or simply trying to put the wind up me, but the message is clear.

The engine fires with a deliciously raucous snort, the sucky, hard-edged kind you get only from a four-cylinder engine fitted with big, thirsty carbs. The gearshift is precise and satisfyingly meaty, the clutch similarly positive yet not excessively weighty. But the steering… Mon dieu! As we chunter down the pitlane and onto the circuit it’s all I can do to get the wheel turning. Blame arms withered from over-reliance on power-steering for that. You have to lock your wrists and exert force from your forearms and shoulders to elicit the desired response from the steering at low speed. Then, when you accelerate hard in second and third, that limited-slip differential means the nose pulls and tugs left and right. Blimey, Ragnotti wasn’t joking.

I really hadn’t expected such physicality, but after a lap or two to get comfortable the Group 2’s heft seems to suit the car perfectly. I always try to treat precious old machinery with the respect it deserves, but this one doesn’t like half-measures. Truth be told, it thrives on full throttle and plenty of commitment. The brakes – discs all round – have surprising power and are nicely progressive, and the gearshift shares the same polish and precision, all of which helps to boost your confidence and encourages you to try a bit harder.

And so you brake a little later, carry more speed into the corner, work the front end harder, then get back on the power good and early, relying on the limited-slip differential to dig for traction. It’s at this point that something quite remarkable happens, for rather than understeer as you might expect from a front-wheel-drive car, the Group 2 settles into a decidedly oversteery stance. Through the tighter corners it pulls itself straight under power, but in the faster bends the tail slides and stays there, hung out like a rear-drive car’s, even when you get back on the power.

It is both enormously entertaining and surprisingly effective, as long as you don’t lose your nerve and allow your right foot’s position to retreat from anything other than resolutely planted on the floorboards. I can honestly say I have never piloted a front-wheel-drive car quite like it. Nor was I expecting a rally machine to be quite so enjoyable on the wider, more flowing and less frantic confines of a race circuit. As it stands, I’m struggling to think of a car in which I’ve had more fun.

So, this 5 is a hoot to hustle. However, it’s one thing to enjoy the freedom of a dozen or so no-pressure laps of Dijon, and quite another to attack hundreds of miles of special stage, often on snow and ice and sometimes in the dead of night. Therefore I won’t even begin to pretend to know what it must have been like for Ragnotti and Fréquelin as they battled far more powerful adversaries on the snaking stages of the Monte Carlo.

What I can say is that there’s no question that this inherent agility – probably more accurately described as dynamic instability – coupled with minimal mass and strong traction helped tilt the odds, if not in favour of the plucky little 5 then certainly less towards the grippier, gruntier Group 4 machinery. That only a rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive 911 RS, driven by Monte specialist Nicolas, could beat the little 5 in the snowy conditions tells its own story about the scale of the Group 2 Alpine’s achievement. What a ballsy little car.

I’d be lying if I said the prospect of driving the Group B 5 Maxi Turbo wasn’t a teensy bit scary. Actually I’m genuinely intimidated, but I ask you, has there ever been a more outrageous rally car? The final, flame-spitting evolution of the mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo, the Maxi made a valiant last stand for rear-wheel drive in the face of overwhelmingly superior all-wheel-drive Group B rivals from Audi, Austin Rover, Ford, Lancia and Peugeot. Undeterred, Renault’s favourite son Jean Ragnotti destroyed the opposition in the 1985 Tour de Corse rally, scoring a sensational home win for Renault around the tortuous twists and turns of the French island outpost.

Conceived in 1984 and completed in time for the 1985 season, the Maxi is an icon to this day; its drama and legendary reputation remain undiminished by the 28 years standing between it and its last great victory. Parked in the Dijon pitlane, it looks extraordinary. Outlandish and exaggerated, its origins in Renault’s cheeky front-engined, front-wheel-drive hatchback have been all but erased, replaced by cartoonish bodywork, a pugilistic swagger and an ability to render grown men weak at the knees.

The Maxi was Renault’s response to the increasingly specialised and outrageous cars of the Group B era. The mid-engined 5 Turbo had been originally built to comply with Group 4 regulations, and with Renault fully committed to Formula 1 the budget simply wasn’t available to create a new four-wheel-drive car like the Peugeot 205 T16, Lancia Delta S4 or Ford RS200. Instead it was decided to take the R5 Turbo concept as far as it could go.

Exploiting Group B regulations to the full, Renault built 200 Evolution models, which featured some basic modifications from the standard production mid-engined R5 Turbo, then immediately followed the Evo with a further 20 cars, which were called the Maxi. Of these, eight were immediately disassembled for use as spares packages to support the dozen surviving cars.

With only two driven wheels it was clear that the Maxi would be completely reliant on Michelin’s latest tyre technology, so Renault focused on squeezing the largest rims it could manage beneath the Maxi’s engorged arches. FISA’s rules also allowed an increase in engine size, so the team, led by Phillipe Coblence, upped the capacity of the inline four-cylinder motor from 1397 to 1527cc. This unit used many parts from the Formula 1 programme’s 1.5-litre V6 turbo. The same turbocharger, water and fuel-injection systems, together with pistons of a similar design, helped the small-capacity pushrod engine develop 350bhp and 311lb ft of torque. To save weight, the car’s basic steel structure was clothed in aluminium, carbonfibre and Kevlar panels, while the 16-point aluminium rollcage was redesigned to increase the ’shell’s rigidity by some 40%. The Maxi weighed just 905kg and was, in short, a weapon.

Open the lightweight door and you’re immediately struck by how cramped the cockpit is. You sit high and close to the steering wheel, which at first feels a bit awkward but soon makes sense once you appreciate the visibility it gives you and the amount of leverage you can exert on the rim. The pedals are big and close together, all the better for left-foot braking (not that I’ll be attempting any of that voodoo during my brief stint in this precious car), while a dry-run through the H-pattern five-speed gearbox reveals a precise and weighty shift quality, matched only by the solid heft of the clutch pedal.

The instruments are recessed in a boxy binnacle, bright dayglo orange dials providing vivid flashes of 1980s-style colour, while taking centre stage in the middle of the centre console sits a big white-faced boost gauge.

It’s an incredibly evocative place to sit. Pungent, too, as your nose and eyes smart from the heady mix of high-octane petrol fumes joined by the distinctive tang of carbonfibre resin and bitter waft of soft-compound Michelin tyres pre-heated by the fierce French sun. I wait in silence for a few moments, absorbing the character and atmosphere that crackle within the cockpit of this legendary machine, pausing to imagine the heat and heroism as Jean Ragnotti and his fearless co-driver Gilles Thimonier attacked the relentless twists and turns of the Tour de Corse rally on their way to a famous victory in 1985.

Of the 50 special stages in that year’s rally, Ragnotti was quickest through 17, second quickest through eight and third quickest through the remaining 25, his average winning margin almost 19 seconds per stage. It’s a performance that beggars belief, but one that hints at the potency of the Maxi and the genius of Ragnotti. Together they were a pairing of incandescent brilliance.

Starting the heavily turbocharged 1527cc engine isn’t as easy as you might think. At first it coughs and splutters and spits dark, smutty puffs of fuel-rich smoke from the square-section side-exit exhaust, before settling into a lumpy, impatient idle. A prod of the throttle illicits little in the way of clean response, so you must make slow, exaggerated squeezes to get the engine to pick up, at which point it emits a hard, metallic holler followed by a shriek as the turbo spools up, then dumps spare boost through the wastegate. It sounds like a wild animal and does nothing to calm my nerves.

Once out onto the circuit it’s easier to keep the Maxi on the boil, but there’s no escaping the turbo lag, which punctuates every upshift through the gearbox like the calm before the storm. With confidence you find you can be more insistent with the throttle, so while the turbo always takes a few seconds to really come to life you can at least plan for the moment it gives its all.

Despite my fears that the Maxi will be brutally unforgiving, it’s actually surprisingly predictable and transparent in its behaviour. Of course, you’re always aware of the engine sat behind your shoulders, but the handling isn’t balanced on a knife-edge even through Dijon’s numerous tricky direction changes. As the boost builds and all 311lb ft of torque reaches the rear wheels there’s a delicious feel of the chassis taking the strain, at first loading the front tyres then eventually breaching the traction provided by the wide rear Michelins. It takes practice to tread the fine line between being swamped by boost or becalmed by turbo lag mid-corner, but if you get it right the Maxi fires out of the corners in a manner no front-wheel-drive, front-engined rear-drive or even four-wheel-drive car could match.

Much of this prowess is down to the fact that Renault got the fundamental elements of the car so right, from the ultra-precise short-throw gearshift to the strong, progressive and beautifully balanced brakes. The steering is perfectly judged – not too heavy, nor too quick – so the process of keeping the Maxi on your chosen trajectory is rarely less than completely intuitive, even when you have to apply opposite lock to keep that fat tail under control.

Of course, as I’ve already observed, driving a few laps around a familiar and relatively forgiving race track doesn’t come close to sitting flat-out for three days on tortuously twisty Corsican tarmac. However, it’s abundantly clear that the agile and explosively accelerative Maxi 5 is not the widowmaker you might expect. I came to Dijon expecting to be left ashen-faced and intimidated by a wayward and spiteful freak, but will leave hugely impressed by its driveability, completely smitten by its larger-than-life character and absolutely buzzing with adrenalin. It is without question the ultimate road-legal Renault, and one of the most exciting cars ever made. Super Cinq indeed.

Words: Richard Meaden // Photography: Andy Morgan