It’s down to the incrediblegripsummonedbythosebulbous
225/45 VR15 rear tyres. Pick up speed through complexes of
corners, and you soon learn to put faith in their stickiness.
Combined with the incrediblesteering, capable ofwinding on
such tight angles, the car can beplacedwithfineprecision.
The only factor that doesn’tquitegel isthebrakingsystem.
With very little pedal travel orfeel,therequiredtechniqueislike
slowing a less responsive CitroënDS – readingtheroad,thinking
ahead and leaning firmly but progressively on the unyielding
metal underfoot. It’s at this point,ona wetroad,that theA310GT
might finally reveal the shortcomingsofitsrear-enginedlayout.It
feels as though pressing the unprogressivepedaltoohardmight
lock the brakes, making those vast tyres suddenly letgo and
behave like curling stones. Butthat’snotsomethingthat would
trouble a skilled rally driver,and thebraking system couldbe
easily adjusted by their servicecrew.
So if it manages to combine the
best elements of cars like theLancia
Stratos and Porsche 911 – bothtitans
of Seventies rallying – while being
so controllable, and has theFrench
Championship results to prove its
prowess, why didn’t it make the
same kind of mark on the World
Rally Championship that its rivals
- and A110 predecessor – managed?
The reason lies in Renault company
politics, and a seismic moment in World Rallying that’s been
forgotten since, and wasn’t reallynoticedby theBritishpress.
In the wake of the 1973 internationaloilcrisis,Renaultbought
both Alpine – manufacturer of Renault-engined sports cars since
1959 – and Gordini, the Renault performance-tuner and engine-
design specialist. Although Alpine already used Gordini-tuned
engines, the relationship within what would eventually become
RenaultSport was formalised. Gordini was to be the competition
department, and Alpine would build Renault’s low-volume sports
cars, even if the mechanicals were fundamentally Gordini.
On a visit to Alpine’s Dieppe factory to evaluate the new
four-cylinder version of the A310 in 1974 and check out the V6
prototype, CAR’s Mel Nichols spotted a Gordini side-project
lurking in a corner – which turned out to be a Renault 5 packing
a then-astonishing 160bhp from a mere 1397cc, brought about by
increased compression and Weber carburetion.
Although it was barely noticed here, early road-testing of this
prototype prompted a similar reaction in France to the one the
LotusCarltongeneratedinthe UK in the late Eighties – the press
wasaghast,brandingthetweaked 5 irresponsible and dangerous.
ButaspertheCarlton,theFrench public fell in love with the
concept.By 1976 thiscarwas available to buy as the Renault 5
Alpine(morecorrectlybadgedGordini in the UK, where the right
to use the Alpinename was owned by Chrysler) – admittedly
downtuned to 93bhp, but easily whacked back up for motor
sportuse.Itquicklypickedupa nickname – ‘le skateboard’ – and
comparisonswiththeMiniCooper. And then, the snow-stricken
Freshfromthemodel’scrushing victory in the 1977 French Rally
Championship, the Alpine A310 V6s of Paul Rouby/Jean-Louis
MartinandOlivierLamirault/Christian Gilbert lined up against the
Group 4 opposition– LanciaStratoses, Porsche 911s and Fiat 131
Abarths.YetallbutthePorsche 911 of Jean-Pierre Nicolas/Vincent
Laverne would be humbled by a
pair of 1.4-litre Renault 5 Alpines,
driven by Jean Ragnotti and Guy
Fréquelin to second and third place.
Ragnotti was less than two minutes
shy of the winning Porsche by the
end of the rally.
The best-placed A310 was the
Rouby/Martin car, far adrift in
17th. With both 131s and Stratoses
kept from the podium apparently
by lowly superminis, the Italian
presslabelledtherallya national humiliation. But quietly, it had
beensoberingforAlpineasa builder of sports cars, as opposed to
assemblerofspecial-editionRenaults, as well.
Although the Audi Quattro is seen as the revolution that
changed rallying forever with its four-wheel drive, in reality it
was one side of a simultaneous equation. On the other was the
concept of getting a huge amount of power from a comparatively
small, lightweight engine and mounting it within the wheelbase
of something that looked like a mass-produced supermini. And
Gordini, which followed the 1978 Monte Carlo victory with a Le
Mans 24 Hours win by a turbocharged 2.0-litre V6, then the first
forced-induction Formula One win with just 1.5 litres in a field full
of 3.0-litre V8s at the French Grand Prix the following year, knew
this solution lay in turbocharging the 5 Alpine’s four-cylinder,
increasing its compression even further.
Back in 1974, Gordini managing director Jean Terramorsi
bullishly told Mel Nichols, ‘First Ferrari was superior, then
Cosworth, and in the future it is going to be Renault. In the next
‘Brake too hard and
those vast tyres might
suddenly behave like
Nogano alloys were
for the GT Pack
for cooling the
V6 are minimal