For many current F1 fans the name Renault will conjure up memories of the Alonso dominated team of 2005 and 2006, or possibly the engine suppliers behind the dominant Red Bull era of 2010-2013, or even the mess that came out of the switch to V6 turbos in 2014.
Those with a taste for schadenfreude might just think of Nelson Piquet Jr. and Singaporean safety cars whenever the name Renault crops up, while those of us who are slightly older will remember the steadfastly French team of Renault’s first foray into F1, from 1977 to 1985, with drivers such as Alain Prost or René Arnoux.
However, regardless of what it calls to mind, for most of us the name Renault means a car or a team, not a person, but this was not always the case.
The Renault car company was originally known as the Société Renault Frères, which for those of you without the benefit of GCSE French means the Renault Brothers Company, as it was founded by Louis Renault and his two brothers Marcel and Fernand. Louis was born in Paris in 1877 and as a child was fascinated by engineering and spent his spare time playing with old engines or visiting the Serpollet factory, which manufactured steam cars. As an aside, steam power was at the time more efficient than the internal combustion engine and many land speed records were held by steam powered cars, so young Louis’ interest is not quite as strange and old-fashioned as it might seem.
He built his first car at the age of twenty one, which he called the Voiturette (little carriage) or the 1CV. The Voiturette featured a universally jointed driveshaft and a three speed gearbox with third gear connected in direct drive, i.e. straight to the engine. The car proved a success, especially due to the relative ease with which it could climb hills and, after winning a bet which matched his car with a traditional bicycle chain driven one up a steep Parisian slope, he got orders for a dozen of his new vehicles. Realising the potential he decided to set up in the car making business with his brothers, who had some industrial experience from working in their father’s button factory. They dealt with the financial and business matters, while Louis was responsible for the design side of things.
Soon after starting the car company the brothers realised that entering and winning motor races would be good publicity and started taking part in small scale city to city races. Louis and Marcel were the racing brothers, while Fernand just took care of business, possibly as a result of the ill health which later lead to his premature retirement from the company and ultimately to his early death in 1909.
The two racing Renault brothers drove their own cars in these early races until the infamous Paris-Madrid race of 1903, which marked the end of the early city to city races, a type of race that did not return to motorsport until the first Mille Miglia in 1927. The race began in Versailles on the outskirts of Paris, with 216 cars and 59 motorcycles. By the end of the first day there had been innumerable crashes, with half the cars out of the race and at least eight people dead, both spectators and drivers, including Marcel Renault. The race was stopped that night at Bordeaux, roughly the halfway point and was never completed.
After the death of his brother, Louis never raced again, although Renault’s cars did and the first official Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1906 was won by a Renault AK 90CV driven by Ferenc Szisz, who had been Louis’ riding mechanic during the city to city races.
After that, however, Renault did not win another Grand Prix until Jean-Pierre Jabouille at the French Grand Prix at Dijon in 1979. In the same race teammate René Arnoux came in third, the two Renaults being split by the Ferrari of Gilles Villeneuve.
Unfortunately for Louis Renault things did not end well, as he chose to collaborate with the occupying German forces during World War Two. He refused to produce tanks in his factories for the Nazis, but he did agree to produce trucks for them, which led to his arrest in 1944 after France was liberated. He died in prison awaiting trial and the company founded by him and his brothers was nationalised and remained in the hands of the French state until it was privatised again in 1996.
So, the next time the name Renault is mentioned, spare a thought for a man who, in his time, was as innovative and controversial a driver, engineer and designer as anyone in the history of motor racing and make sure that the name of Louis Renault is restored to its place in the history of the sport.