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Feature: the story of the Renault 5 Turbo rally car

Renault 5 Turbo rally car

The story of the Renault 5 Turbo rally car is an intriguing one, given that the car was a front-runner in world rallying at a time when four-wheel drive was breaking on to the scene.

Despite this, the car won many events, and was driven by rally stars such as Guy Frequelin and Carlos Sainz, as Martin Holmes reports.

Renault 5 Turbo rally car engine

The Renault 5 Turbo prototype engine, pictured here in October 1979. All photo: Martin Holmes

From the middle of the 1970s, Renault were in the foreground for the development of turbocharging in motorsport.

In 1977, their Renault RS01 was the first-ever turbocharged car to be raced in Formula One when Jean-Pierre Jabouille took the start of the British Grand Prix with a 1.5 litre V6 turbo engine, the car painted in a bright yellow colour scheme.

The yellow ‘house’ colours were to become the trademark of the company’s premier competition cars for many years, signifying a break from the old tradition of the blue colour, the traditional French racing colour, in which Renault’s associated Alpine company adorned their cars.

For Renault, the race tracks were not the company’s only shop window.  At the 1978 Paris Motor Show, a prototype was unveiled to the public.   It had no engine, but the car’s design was essentially finalised.

Renault 5 Turbo rally car

Guy Frequelin / Jean-Marc Andrie, Giro d’Italia, October 1979.

This car was to feature a mid-mounted turbocharged engine and was intended for competition in Group 4 rules, the premier formula for world championship rallying.

It was the forerunner of the Renault 5 Turbo, a model which was eventually launched at the Brussels Motor Show in January 1980.  Production commenced on May 20, with the first cars going on sale on July 20.

When the design work of the car got under way, it was decided to continue the company’s traditional formula with the Alpine Renault sports cars of having the engine behind the drivers, driving the rear wheels.

Renault 5 Turbo

Renault 5 Turbo debut: Guy Frequelin / Jean-Marc Andrie, Giro d’Italia, October 1979.

The current rallying scene was confusing at that time. Many of the top rally cars in those days had the traditional format, with front engines and normally aspirated power units, though the Lancia Stratos design had the same formula as the new Renault, though with a sports car body.

In the way that the French company, Peugeot, adopted the same concept in the mid ‘80s, the Renault was based on a standard saloon design, creating a super-mini car.

The plan was that the Renault 5 Turbo cars would be built at the Alpine headquarters at Dieppe, in the north of France, leaving Renault Sport free to pursue other ongoing competition projects uninterrupted.

Renault 5 Turbo rally car

Bruno Saby and his Renault 5 Turbo on the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally.

The 5 Turbo design was initially intended to have a full spaceframe chassis, but eventually the engine and transmission were fitted into the rear of the car in the space where the rear seats were on the mass production Renault 5.

The choice of engine was then the next decision. In those days the competition engine capacity co-efficient for turbocharged cars was x1.4. Allied to this were the related design factors which were dictated by engine size, notably the minimum weight of the car and the dimensions of the road wheels.

Finally, the engine size was settled at 1397cc and the base engine was chosen as Renault’s in-house “Cléon-Fonte” design.

Renault 5 Turbo

Jean Ragnotti won the 1981 Monte Carlo Rally for Renault.

This was a push rod engine which started life in 1962 and continued for well over 30 years, in sizes ranging from 956cc to 1565cc. It was used in carburettor or fuel injection form, normally aspirated or turbocharged, and attached to four-speed, five-speed or automatic transmissions.

The prototype 5 Turbo first ran in March 1978, featuring suspension units from the front-drive Renault 5 Alpine car.

When the car was put into production, the engine produced 158bhp in standard form, said to be the most powerful production car then built in France.

There were to be two main versions for the competition Renault 5 Turbo, the 178bhp Clubman’s version (named after the French rally Criterium des Cevennes), and the 207bhp version called the Tour de Corse.

The timing of the arrival of these cars in motorsport, however, was problematic as it was clear that power-to-weight was not going to assure success on most events, as four-wheel-drive was clearly to be a sinecure for success on international gravel rallying.

Renault 5 Turbo 1980

The works Renault 5 Turbo retired on the 1980 Tour de Corse with alternator failure.

While the design was still in a prototype form, the competition debut of the 5 Turbo came in Italy on the Giro d’Italia, a combined stage and circuit event open to cars of different guises in late October 1979. It was run as a promotion for the Turin motor industry.

For non-production cars the only available category was in Group 5, which on the Giro saw a most powerful array of competitors, led by road-adapted Lancia Beta Monte Carlo racing sports cars, Porsche 935, Group 5 Lancia Stratos and so on.

The driver for the event was to be Guy Frequelin, but despite its small size, the car was perhaps the most anticipated novelty of the event, which due to Frequelin’s commitments, was not expected to be used again that year.

At the time there was no corporate commitment to proceed with this design into production.  The car carried the signage of the Calberson car transport company.

The shape of the car had changed little since the original Paris Salon debut, but a lot had been going on since the car had initially been shown in public.  Noted in Italy were Bosch injection, coil springs at the rear, and torsion bar at the rear.

Renault 5 Turbo

Ragnotti leaves the start ramp before his victory on the 1985 Tour de Corse Rally.

The weight of the Renault 5 Turbo rally car was given as 900kg, the wheelbase as 2430mm and the power at about 250bhp at 7000rpm.  The steering was rack and pinion, the compression ratio 7:1, and 13” wheels were fitted with the usual Michelins.

Ventilated discs were fitted front and rear. The transmission was by 5-speed ZF gearbox through a twin-plate Sachs clutch.

One of the major limitations for the car on this event was that the axle ratio could not be changed from test to test, which accounted for some disappointing times on the race track tests.

It would not be a happy occasion. Quite soon the engine started to suffer and the car was withdrawn on the second day.  The programme, however, proceeded.

Homologation was applied for and on September 1, 1980, this was granted, evidence being received that 400 examples had been built.

Serious competition plans were ahead. Straightaway a single car was entered for the 1980 Tour de France, this once week-long event had been shortened into a four-day event with rally special stages now the essence of competition.

Renault 5 Turbo

Roadside servicing for the Renault 5 Turbo on the Tour de Corse Rally.

Jean Ragnotti was the driver and he immediately became engaged in a battle with Bernard Darniche’s Chardonnet team Lancia Stratos.

Since the car had appeared on the Giro d’Italia a considerable amount of detailed tidying-up had been carried out.  The car design was now competition-friendly, a gearbox change was carried out in 20 minutes, but later there was a broken exhaust which meant that fumes entered the car.

Because of a developing unpleasant situation, the car was eventually withdrawn.

Five weeks later the car was out again, this time on the Tour de Corse, making the debut of the car in the World Rally Championship.

Since the Tour de France the exhaust manifold had been strengthened. The car was now developing about 260bhp, but the big surprise was that there were no fewer than six privately owned 5 Turbos also on the rally.

Renault 5 Turbo rally car

Preparation of the works Renault 5 Turbos at the Tour de Corse in 1985.

The most promising of these was the car of Bruno Saby, who finished fourth overall: this was prepared by the dealer in Grenoble, whilst four of the private cars entered came from owners in Corsica itself.

Only Ragnotti’s car was fully modified for rallies, the others being standard versions that would eventually qualify as Group 3 cars.

On his final appearance of the season, Ragnotti finished second on the Cevennes Rally. Preparations then began for 1981.

The 1981 Monte Carlo Rally was to be a pivotal turning point in rally sport.  The four-wheel-drive turbocharged Audi Quattro had been homologated and Hannu Mikkola’s car sped away in the early stages, at the rate on ONE MINUTE per stage.

Mikkola then went off the road, ending his rally.

Jean- Luc Therier’s Porsche then led into the final night before he went off, and scooping the prizes was Jean Ragotti’s 5 Turbo, which for this event was fitted with Michelin’s special TRX tyres which required specially designed wheels.

In Corsica Ragnotti could not match the speed of Jean-Claude Andruet’s Ferrari, Darniche’s Stratos or Therier’s Porsche, and after making four scratch times Ragnotti retired after the fan belt broke. The season finished with fifth place on the secret route RAC Rally in Britain.

By now the initial impetus was ebbing away from the 5 Turbo campaign, though Ragnotti scored another WRC win in the 1982 Tour de Corse, five minutes ahead of Andruet’s Ferrari, the Renault leading all the way except for the first five stages.

Carlos Sainz Renault 5 Turbo

Carlos Sainz drove his Renault 5 Turbo to second place on the 1986 Catalunya Rally.

1983 was a disastrous season as necessary suspension development was undertaken as the team had to adjust the design of the car to comply with the now compulsory Group B specification.  In 1984 the team concentrated on smaller events, and after finishing third in the Tour de Corse, the official WRC programme was stopped.  Now it was time for a change …

To the delight of fans, the Group B Renault 5 Maxi Turbo was homologated on March 1, 1985, making its debut on the French championship Touraine Rally, when Ragnotti finished second behind Frequelin’s Opel Manta 400.

The ‘Maxi’ was quite a different car to the old 5 Turbo.   It had a bigger engine, 1527cc, produced 350bhp, had aerodynamic alterations, a magnesium gearbox casing, a redesigned steering rack, and changes to the front suspension with improved suspension geometry and wheel travel.

The WRC debut of the car was the Tour de Corse when Ragnotti impressively led from start to finish, a huge encouragement after two disappointing retirements earlier with the car on French championship events.

There were three Maxi Turbos in Corsica.  Ragnotti was in the official car, while fellow French drivers Francois Chatriot (who had gearbox, then engine trouble) and Didier Auriol (also with engine trouble) had privately sponsored cars.

For this event 16” wheels were used at the rear.

Renault 5 Turbo

It was to be a tragic event as the Lancia driver, Attilio Bettega, lost his life, the team withdrawing their other cars in respect, but all the time Renault was watching their rivals having problems.

Ragnotti won by over 20 minutes from Saby, now driving for Peugeot, but for the official team it was to be a one-WRC spectacular, though Ragnotti went on to win the non-championship Tour de France.

With no prospect of Renault following other teams into four-wheel-drive transmissions, the team changed course.  1986 was spent competing with the less powerful front-wheel-drive 11 Turbo cars, moving into the new Group A championship regime in 1987, before moving on to the smaller front-wheel drive 5 GT Turbo cars, before the Clio era started in the early ‘90s.

Elsewhere in rallying the 5 Maxi Turbo was still active and succeeding.  In France, Chatriot was second in the Tour de Corse and then went on to win the Tour de France.  In Spain, a young future world champion, Carlos Sainz, was beginning to make his name at the wheel of a Maxi.

The heritage of the 5 Turbo and Maxi Turbo projects continued, and turbocharged rallying at Renault went from strength to strength.

Cars from nearly all of Renault’s subsequent turbo design lines started to be used by privateers in rallying, including R5 Alpine Turbo, R5 GT Turbo, R9 and R11 Turbo, R18 Turbo, R21 2 litre Turbo, R25 V6 Turbo, and Alpine V6 Turbo.

This gave fun to a whole new generation of rally drivers.  And in a completely different competitive sense, specialist production car collectors enjoyed acquiring and investing in Renault 5 Turbo cars.

The 5 Turbo 1 production version was considered the most desirable variant.  It had been produced in only 1690 units, while followed by the less coveted, yet still desirable, Renault 5 Turbo 2 at 3167 units.

All photos: Martin Holmes Rallying

If you like Renault rally cars, you’ll love this tarmac rally spec Clio RS featured HERE.

Need more Renault 5 Turbo? Watch these videos:

Martin Holmes is widely considered as world rallying's most experienced, and most respected journalist. Martin covers the WRC, ERC and all major rally championships around the world.

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