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Obituary

Jean-Pierre Jabouille obituary: More than Renault's F1 trailblazer

Jean-Pierre Jabouille secured his place in motorsport history at Dijon in 1979 when he became the first driver to win a grand prix in a turbocharged Formula 1 car.

Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Renault RS10

Yet his stint at Renault was just one chapter in a long and varied motorsport career that included the design of the chassis in which he took the title at the end of a hard-fought campaign in the 1976 European Formula 2 Championship.

Jabouille, who has died aged 80 after a long illness, was an engineer by trade rather than training: he’d briefly studied modern art at the Sorbonne. His intuitive mechanical skills made him the perfect choice to lead Renault’s entry into F1 with its turbocharged 1.5-litre V6 engine, which joined the grid midway through 1977.

Gerard Larrousse, who headed up the Renault Sport operation, recalled Jabouille as a “persuasive if not always diplomatic character” whose feel for a racing car was all-important in the eventual success of the sometimes faltering Renault F1 project.

“He was able to guide our engineers in the right direction and get the best out of the car,” said Larrousse. “He had a certainty that our crazy project would be a success, and after two seasons of development that would have discouraged many, Jean-Pierre won his bet.”

The key players at the Renault Sport team established at the end of 1976 for the French manufacturer’s F1 entry with the merger of its Alpine and Gordini sporting arms were already working together in F2 in the mid-1970s. Jabouille and, initially, Larrousse drove for Equipe Elf Switzerland, while Jean Sage was team manager. Larrousse was chosen as sporting director of the new F1 team and Jabouille its first driver, with Sage taking the TM role.

As Larrousse explained, the path to success was by no means smooth. The first Renault F1 race car, the RS01, was dubbed the “yellow teapot” by the doubtful Cosworth brigade for its propensity to expel steam and smoke.

The car missed its projected debut at the French GP at Dijon, turned up for the first time at the British GP at Silverstone, and wouldn’t make the finish of a race until Monaco the following season, through which Renault Sport again ran just a single car for Jabouille. Eventually, he claimed Renault’s first F1 points late in the 1978 season at Watkins Glen.

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Jabouille, pictured in discussion with Renault team manager Larrousse at the 1979 Argentine GP, led development on its turbo cars

Jabouille, pictured in discussion with Renault team manager Larrousse at the 1979 Argentine GP, led development on its turbo cars

Photo by: David Phipps

It would take until the following summer for Jabouille’s and Renault’s perseverance to pay off on home ground at Dijon. While Jabouille took victory, Rene Arnoux came home third in the second RS10 after his famed duel over the closing laps with Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve.

The Renault project had already shown what turbocharged technology might go on to achieve in F1. Jabouille had notched up a first pole at altitude at Kyalami in South Africa. He followed it up by topping qualifying at Dijon, and he and Arnoux would claim four more poles before the season’s end, even if race finishes were scarce.

There would be only one more victory for Jabouille over the course of an F1 career encompassing 49 starts. His Renault RE20 triumphed at the Osterreichring in 1980, taking a narrow victory over Alan Jones’s Williams from second on the grid. Serious leg injuries sustained in the Canadian GP at Montreal at the end of the year effectively brought his F1 career to an end.

He had already signed for Liger after being released by Renault, but missed the opening two races as he continued his recovery and then failed to qualify in two of the next five. He called time on F1, at least as a driver, after the Spanish GP and segued into an engineering role with a team built around his friend and brother-in-law Jacques Laffite.

Jabouille was a late starter in a sport in which he would play an active role into his sixties. He initially competed in hillclimbs aboard his Alpine road car before entering the Renault 8 Gordini one-make tin-top series that gave Jean-Pierre Jarier among others a start in racing.

After a move into Formula 3 aboard a self-prepared Brabham and then a Matra, he was picked up by Alpine and made the first of 14 Le Mans 24 Hours starts, racing an A220 prototype in 1968. It was the patronage of the state-owned Elf oil company, however, that set Jabouille on course for F1.

He raced for the works Tecno team with its backing in 1971 and then for British entrant John Coombs in 1972 with a March and then an Alpine chassis in 1973. He took his first victory in F2 with the French constructor’s spaceframe A367 design at Hockenheim in 1974 and then reworked the car into a contender known as the Elf 2J for the following year together with Jean-Claude Guenard, an ex-F3 racer who would die alongside Didier Pironi in a powerboat racing accident off the Isle of Wight in 1987. He and Larrousse would each win once in 1975 with BMW power.

Jabouille won the 1976 F2 title on his way to F1

Jabouille won the 1976 F2 title on his way to F1

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

The following year F2 allowed pure-bred racing engines and, with the two-litre Renault V6 on which the F1 powerplant would be based, he won three times and took a further three podiums to take the title by a single point from Arnoux. Elf had given Jabouille his F1 race debut when he drove a third Tyrrell in its colours at Paul Ricard in 1975. That followed a pair of non-qualifications aboard one of Frank Williams’s Iso-Marlboros and then a Surtees the previous year.

Jabouille continued to race touring cars after leaving Ligier, and in 1989 ended a long absence from Le Mans with a one-off for Team Sauber Mercedes. He then joined the Peugeot 905 Group C project for 1990 and notched up a pair of third-place finishes at Le Mans in 1992 and 1993 with a car he helped develop. He was over 50 by the time of what was his fourth Le Mans podium in the second of those years, but it was far from the end of his motorsport career.

He went on to found JB Racing with Michel Bouresche in 1995, and won the International Sports Racing Cup and then its successor, the SportsRacing World Cup, in 1998 and 1999, each time with Emmanuel Collard and Vincenzo Sospiri driving a Ferrari 333SP.

He won a French GT round as late as 2005 sharing a Chrysler Viper GTS-R with Alain Prost, and led the Team AutoGT team that developed the Morgan Aero 8 for the GT3 category in 2007-08.

Jabouille twice finished third with Peugeot at Le Mans in 1992 and 1993, matching his results with Matra in 1973 and 1974

Jabouille twice finished third with Peugeot at Le Mans in 1992 and 1993, matching his results with Matra in 1973 and 1974

Photo by: LAT Photographic

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