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Renault-Alpine A442: The turbo that came to victory at Le Mans '78

In 1976 Renault definitively acquired Alpine, also acquiring all the projects destined for competition. In that sense, the use of the turbocharger was a challenge destined to conquer the victory at Le Mans against the Porsche troops of the time. After a problematic debut due to reliability, this racing model was finally made at Le Mans in 1978 before Renault Sport turned to F1.

In 1976 the inevitable happened at last. Renault's purchase of Alpine after years of working closely with Jean Rédélé's small company. Thus, the diamond brand not only took on street models like the Alpine A310 but also the racing program. A field of work in which prototypes were focused on winning the most emblematic race of the World Endurance Championship: Le Mans. A really complex challenge. Well, although Alpine accumulated a great track record in rallies, that race was another matter.

Even more so during the seventies. With Ferrari already retired and Ford satiated after reigning four times with the GT40. But dominated by the fabulous Porsche 917s succeeded by the Matras until the Germans returned to victory in 1976. Thus, even with all the financial effort that Renault could sustain to carry out the Alpine designs, the situation was not easily solvable. A difficult context, where, as Bob Dylan would say, the answer was "floating in the wind". Of course, far from empty poetic sentences, here we are referring to a much more tangible reality. We are referring to the force of air at the service of engineering.

At this point, many of you will be thinking about aerodynamics. An aspect in which the Alpine A442 is undoubtedly exceptional thanks to its fluid line with the cockpit fairing and the long tail to improve the drag coefficient. Nevertheless, the success of this racing model is due to the air handling in the engine thanks to its Garrett turbocharger. A technology in which Renault definitely excelled with the RS01. First F1 equipped with a turbo engine and a direct heir to the tests carried out with the Alpine A442. A sensational model that took away its dominance at Le Mans from Porsche, winning in 1978 with Jean-Pierre Jaussaud and Didier Pironi at the controls.

ALPINE A442: INCREASED POWER THANKS TO THE TURBOCHARGER

At the beginning of the eighties all the brands with interests in the competition were deeply interested in the turbo. In that sense, Ferrari premiered it in competition with the 126CK from F1 to transfer it shortly after to their street cars with the 208 GTB. A scheme based on knowledge transfer from competition to street models where Renault stands as the most representative manufacturer. And, after all, its engineers had been successfully developing the use of the turbocharger since the Alpine A442 managed to bring its two-liter V490 engine up to 6CV.

A really remarkable power, since this engine stayed at 270CV without the help of the turbo in the previous models A440 and A441. Two trials to get to the Alpine A442, which debuted at the 1000 km of Mugello winning completely unexpectedly. And it is that, the great advantage given in terms of power by the turbo encounters serious problems when we observe the pressure at which the engine must work. Which is why the models that had been testing with the turbocharger since the seventies with series such as the Can-Am Porsche 917/30 ran into reliability.

This was known to the engineers, who received what happened at the premiere of the Alpine A442 as a stroke of luck that did not continue in 1976. In fact, the constant abandonments brought Renault down the street of shame, which thought about retiring the model after dropping out at Le Mans that year and the next. However, determined to demonstrate the benefits of the turbocharger as a powerful but also reliable technology, Renault Sport invested large sums of money in attending Le Mans 1978 with all the guarantees. In this way, he came to the appointment with three cars: two A442s and an A443.

CONFIRMATION ARRIVES: LE MANS 1978

At the starting line, the Alpine A442 and A443 shared the top positions with the new Porsche 936. In this way, it was visualized between who should be the duel, really starting all expectations in favor of a much more experienced and effective Porsche. Nevertheless, Jaussaud and Pironi's A442 set a hellish pace from the start with times at Le Mans below three minutes and forty seconds to win the race with five laps doubled to second place. A brand so frantic that it exhausted Pironi to the point of not being able to get on the podium due to accumulated fatigue.

In the midst of the fervor, Renault decided to withdraw in time knowing that this would be difficult to repeat in the face of the onslaught of the Porsche. Thus, Renault Sport put distance from Le Mans even having conquered it in 1978 to focus on F1. Category in which they would also be recognized for their leading use of turbo. A technology that the diamond brand used like few others during the eighties in its series cars, almost all of them with sports variants equipped with this way of handling the gases in the engine. A whole new field of technology applied to motorsports in which the Alpine A442 stands out as a winning pioneer.

Photographs: RM Sotheby's

P.D. The Alpine A442 chosen to illustrate this article is one of four built and the only one currently in private hands. This is the 4420 chassis, which will be auctioned on November 19 by RM Sotheby's as part of The Guikas Collection.

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Miguel Sánchez

Written by Miguel Sánchez

Through the news from La Escudería, we will travel the winding roads of Maranello listening to the roar of the Italian V12; We will travel Route66 in search of the power of the great American engines; we will get lost in the narrow English lanes tracking the elegance of their sports cars; We will speed up the braking in the curves of the Monte Carlo Rally and we will even get dusty in a garage while rescuing lost jewels.

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