Le Mans 1977 - Alpine-Renault suffers but learns
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Le Mans 1977 - Alpine-Renault suffers but learns

During the second half of the 1970s, two big manufacturers went head to head at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: Renault and Porsche. In 1977, the second of three human and mechanical confrontations took place shrouded in suspense.

You know the moment. Special and magical, it's the moment race cars take their positions on the starting grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a Saturday in June, shortly after noon. The parade directly in view of the spectators marks the culmination of the 24 Hours of Le Mans starting process. In addition to other goings-on, the arrival of the cars rolled out by hand helps raise the tension at the circuit.

Nostalgic for some, vintage for others, this photo cannot help but betray its era. Aviator glasses, bell bottom pants, prominent sideburns, the feel is definitely all about the 70s! In front of a crowd as packed as impatient, the No. 7 Alpine-Renault A442's mechanics lived out their moment of glory. The parade gave these brave and proud representatives a very special opportunity to bond with spectators, as it did for their colleagues in charge of the No. 9 car.

Not pictured, drivers Patrick Tambay, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, Patrick Depailler and Jacques Laffite mingled with their guardian angels in greeting the spectators, before the V6 Turbos cranked up. It was in this relatively buoyant ambiance that the cars took their places one after the other, amidst screams from the crowd awaiting but one thing: the start of this 45th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A difficult edition for the Renault-Sport team. Difficile yes, but undeniably beneficial.

After testing the waters in 1976 and the entry of a single Alpine for Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Patrick Tambay and José Dolhem, Renault put significantly more technical and financial means into 1977. Up against the official delegation of the Porsche-Martini team which entered two 936s (Ickx/Pescarolo–Barth/Haywood) and one 935 (Stommelen/Schurti), Gérard Larrousse's men put the pedal to the metal. The French manufacturer expedited three A442 models in La Sarthe for the Jabouille/Bell, Laffite/Depailler and Tambay/Jaussaud driver line-ups, a rebellion enhanced by a fourth car presented by Jacky Haran and Hughes de Chaunac for the trio Arnoux/Pironi/Fréquelin. Completed in undesirable weather conditions, especially on Wednesday, the qualifying sessions set the tone! The four French prototypes occupied the five first positions on the starting grid, flanked by the No. 3 Porsche 936. More than just on paper, the French were incontestably faster than the Germans...

However, the results of this second attempt were rough for the drivers, mechanics, engineers and heads of Alpine-Renault. As a harbinger, Didier Pironi stopped his car in the first lap of the race, between the Mulsanne and Indianapolis turns, as his engine suddenly caught fire from an oil leak. It was a cold shower to the French outfit. Yet it still managed to remain unified and determined in its efforts. Confident at the start of a cold and rainy night in La Sarthe, the No. 9 and No. 8 A442 driver line-ups lead the race against a Porsche riddled with mechanical issues.

At four in the morning, things started moving fast: the No. 8 of Laffite/Depailler was stopped in its pit to repair the gears of its gearbox while Patrick Tambay left his car coming out of the Indianapolis turn, V6 Turbo broken down. For the French manufacturer, the last hopes for success went out the window when Jean-Pierre Jabouille brought back the No. 9 A442 after a concerning cloud of smoke. The smoke being the last signs of life on the part of a tired V6. The retirement of the last Alpine-Renault was finalized while Jürgen Barth, Hurley Haywood and a heroic Jacky Ickx took the lead of the race. In 1978, the confrontation between Porsche and Renault reached its climas with four cars officially entered by both sides. But that's another story...