The 5 that really was a Supercar.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that no successful model line can attain true immortality without a competition pedigree, so it should surprise nobody that the Renault 5 gained one alongside its many other accolades. Motorsport had been a somewhat patchy activity within Billancourt in the run up to the 1970s, with the bulk of the heavy lifting being provided by outsiders like Gordini and Alpine.
In 1974, the Renault 5 became available in 85 bhp LS Kitée specification, a low-volume model for competition in the newly renamed Renault 5 Elf Cup. 150 were produced for the 1975 season of the race series which proved popular and competitive. Two years later, Dieppe’s technicians had completed their ministrations resulting in the Alpine A5, Renault’s official performance offering. This too would gain a competition career, being campaigned in the World Rally Championship’s Group 2 class, the A5s as fielded by Renault Sport developing 130 bhp. Early results from the 1977 Mille Pistes and San Remo rallies illustrated the promise of the Alpine 5, but the following year, a class victory by Jean Ragnotti in the Monte Carlo event would mark the high point of the A5’s rally career.
Despite the occasional giant-killing performance, the standard R5 was never going to consistently battle for top honours on the rally stages of Europe and further afield. Billancourt’s last full-blooded rally contender was courtesy of Alpine in the formidable shape of the A110, a car so successful it would become as synonymous with the sport as Lancia’s Stratos which subsequently wrested its mantle. This time however, Renault were taking it upon themselves.
Jean Terramorsi, a senior manager at Billancourt’s officie à la Direction du Produit outlined his requirements in 1976, these being lightness, a compact package, a close resemblance to an equivalent production model and minimal changes from homologated production model to rally weapon. It was Bertone designer, Marc Deschamps who formulated the idea of a mid-engined Cinq, producing sketches that when viewed by Terramorsi and Renault boss, Bernard Hanon were greeted with enthusiasm.
Prototype production of what became dubbed projet 822 was assigned to the Alpine facility at Berex, utilising a strengthened and lightened production R5 bodyshell, with suitable modifications to the rear floorpan to house the mid-mounted powertrain. Various engines were considered, including the Alpine A310’s V6 and the Douvrin 2.0 litre four, but eventually a turbocharged version of the Cléon 1397 cc unit from the Alpine 5 was chosen as combining the best compromise of power, weight and durability within Renault’s chosen weight classification. Renault Sport were heavily involved in turbocharger development as part of their nascent Formula One programme at this time, so a turbocharged 5 would also prove a useful punctuation point underlining the carmaker’s newfound commitment.
In the Autumn of 1978, Renault exhibited a non-running mock up at the Paris motor show, which was very well received. The car’s styling had by then been further evolved, both at Renault’s Centre de Style in Rueil Malmaison and by Marcello Gandini, late of Bertone. A month after the Paris show, the first 5 Turbo prototype was demonstrated to the press at Lédenon, demonstrating proof of concept. The following year, a single prototype made its competition debut at the Giro d’Italia. Engine problems however forced its retirement.
That Autumn a Turbo 5 was entered in the Tour de France Auto with Jean Ragnotti and Jean Marc Andrié as navigator. Soon afterwards the same pairing made the Turbo’s WRC debut at the Tour de Corse. Of the seven Turbo 5s which took part, only one finished – the non-works Turbo of Bruno Saby finishing fourth overall. Ragnotti was again amongst the retirees, his Turbo 5 succumbing to alternator failure. The Turbo wasn’t yet a winner, but the promise was definitely there.
Late January 1981, and the Monte Carlo Rally, celebrating its 70th anniversary was even more keenly anticipated than usual. The big news at the principality that year was the first real test for Audi’s new four wheel drive Quattro, which had annihilated the opposition earlier that month at Austria’s Janner Rally, based around the ancient walled city of Feistadt. Driven by Franz Wittman, the Quattro, which had only been homologated to compete set fastest times on each of the 31 stages.
Audi fielded two works-prepared 300 bhp Quattros for the Monte, driven by Hannu Mikkola, the pre-race favourite and Michele Mouton. With most rival teams offering somewhat dated opposition, Renault, who had not won the event since 1973 would be the Audi’s primary works threat. Two Renault Sport R5 Turbos would start, driven by Ragnotti and Saby.
The rally got under way amid drier conditions than expected, there being less snow than in previous years. Mikkola set the early pace until a mistake caused him to collide with a bridge parapet, severely damaging the car and losing his lead. A subsequent brake failure later in the race led to his retirement. Mouton had no better fortune, her Quattro plagued by contaminated fuel. Audi retired the car.
The race lead now fell to privateer, Jean-Luc Thérier in a Porsche 911 SC, but caught out by snow dumped upon the otherwise dry road by ‘race fans’ seeking a spectacle, he crashed luridly, narrowly avoiding a sheer drop. Some three minutes behind, Ragnotti’s Cinq then assumed the lead, which he would hold to the end, giving the Turbo 5 its first WRC victory. 1982 proved less of a success; ironically, it was Germany’s Walter Röhl driving an Opel Ascona 400 who became WRC champion that year, the last gasp of a dying era.
Group B regulations would come into force for World Rallying in 1983, allowing huge increases in power outputs, mated to four-wheel drive. Having proved the concept with the Quattro, the older rear-wheel drive rally machines were no match for the Audi’s four-wheel drive traction or power. Renault debuted a new, more powerful 240 bhp Group B Tour de Corse Turbo 5 for 1983, but Audi made it stick that year and the next, Hannu Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist swapping palmarès.
While benefiting from its compactness, its light weight and mid-engined layout, the Turbo 5 however suffered from a lack of traction, a consequence of its comparatively narrow wheelwells. For the 1985 season, this would change, the Turbo undergoing a major makeover. Now dubbed the 8221 Maxi, this heavily modified and lightened version also received a larger, more powerful 1526 cc engine developing 350 bhp.
The ’85 championship went to Timo Salonen driving a Peugeot 205 T16, double humiliation for Renault with their great domestic rival beating them both in competition and in car sales. While a further evolved four-wheel drive Super-Maxi was considered, the tragic events of the 1986 season forced the FIA’s hands and Group B was banned for 1987. The Turbo 5 continued to race, but not at the very top level, 1985 marking the works Turbo’s final year of WRC competition.
Like all similar machines, the Turbo 5 was required to be developed both as a road car for homologation purposes, requiring a somewhat different approach. The resultant car would, like many competition models, be something of a parts bin raid – suspension and brakes would be sourced from the Alpine A310, with the gearbox from the Renault 30. The 1.4 litre Cléon engine, with its Garret T3 turbo, developed 160 bhp in roadgoing trim.
Production of the 400 Renault 5 Turbos required for homologation began at Alpine’s Berex facility in the Spring of 1980, the factory being given over entirely to this task. The process was convoluted, owing to the specialised nature of the car. Standard R5 bodies were taken from Flins and modified by coachbuilder, Heuliez, before being shipped to Berex for assembly. Composites were employed throughout for weight saving, while the roof and doors were in aluminium. The cars were available in two colours: Olympic Blue or Grenadine Red. The interior was designed by carrozzeria Bertone and was somewhat unorthodox with its right-angled steering wheel spoke design and modular dash layout.
In 1980, just over 800 Turbo 5s were delivered, the car’s steroidal appearance lending it a slightly menacing but unique appeal. Many would be in for a career in some form of motorsport – or a one way ticket into the foliage. For 1982 a larger intercooler was fitted and steel replaced aluminium for the door skins. 536 were built that year and a further 352 in 1983. The following year the Turbo 2 was announced – a slightly rationalised, slightly cheaper version, losing the bespoke Bertone interior for that of the production front-wheel drive Alpine 5 Turbo and the earlier car’s aluminium roof panel. Apart from a special run of 200 larger engined Group B Turbo 2s, the car remained largely unchanged until production ceased in 1986 with 3167 Turbo 2s built.
You can’t win them all, and while the Turbo 5 could be considered a minor success, it was certainly a victim of both timing and circumstance. Motorsport is a tough business; it’s questionable just how much Renault gained, be it on the rally circuits or the Formula One race tracks. But the Turbo proved a useful halo model – for the model line itself and for Renault as a whole, not to mention something of a legend in its own right – the R5 that truly was a Supercar.
 Amédée Gordini sold his business to Renault in 1968. The French carmaker then took a controlling interest in Alpine in 1974, merging it with Gordini to form Renault Sport in 1976.
 Ragnotti’s Alpine 5 came second overall, with the A5 of Guy Fréquelin third. The winner was Jean-Pierre Nicolas in a Porsche 911 – the nunelfer prevailing in snowy conditions throughout the rally. Ragnotti would also post a third place in the Rallye Côte d’Ivoire in October 1978. Alongside his works Renault duties, Jean Ragnotti, who would become synonymous with the Turbo 5 was also a stunt driver for the film industry.
 The Alpine A110’s success was something of an embarrassment for Renault, but was probably instrumental in la régie taking over the specialist carmaker.
 The 5 Turbo bodies were 5 cm longer than normal.
 Mouton’s Quattro had received a tow during the stage in question, so Audi team management elected to retire the repaired car, since it would have been disqualified anyway.
From 1981 to 1984 a successful and hotly contested one-make track series, The Renault 5 Turbo European Cup ran as a prelude to the Formula One races and as a pre-race attraction at the 24 heures du Mans.
Renault Sport would reprise the Turbo 5 with a series of roadgoing mid-engined V6 Clio models.
Sources: Motor Sport/ WRC.com/ Autocar/ Evo/ Renault Classic