Renault 8 Gordini and its driving greats return to the Monte

Sliding around on the Col de Turini stage of the Monte Carlo rally, with Ragnotti, Serpaggi and Leclère in a Renault 8 Gordini. Cold heaven!

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It all started badly. Precarious flight connections, delayed airplanes, stale coffee, no food, traveling for 23 hours and grabbing only an hour’s sleep.

I woke up in Monte Carlo after a fitful nap, feeling like a frog squashed by a truck tyre. Why so bad? Well, in the emails it looked easy: fly to Nice, rent a car, drive to Monaco and see the final night stage of the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique rally. Then, the following morning, after one or two passenger rides, I’d get to drive the wonderful Renault 8 Gordini.

Simple in theory, n’est-ce pas? Not so. Always when I am about to drive an unfamiliar car in public for the first time, a cold fear of ridicule creeps up my throat. It’s so easy to look like an idiot in front of motorsport legends like Jean ‘Jeannot’ Ragnotti or Alain Serpaggi, who I knew I’d meet on my trip; I couldn’t bear thinking about it.

Blazej Zulawski, my photographer and faithful friend, and I had been awake for 17 hours by this stage, and we’d just reached Monte Carlo. Prior to entering Monaco, we’d been thoroughly and very professionally checked by armed Gendarmes, and it took a long time. Two Poles, French rental car, entering Monaco in the afternoon... suspicious. After a pizza worth its weight in gold at Monaco prices, we met the drivers, each one of them no less of a legend than the Gordini brand itself.

We then set off to watch the final stage, and we heard that higher up in the mountains it was snowing. We were crammed into a shiny new 275bhp Megane RS, driven by a young Frenchman who looked annoyingly fresh and well groomed in comparison with our bedraggled selves.

At the start of the stage we were right behind one of the R8 Gordinis, this one driven by septuagenarian Serpaggi – born in Madagascar, winner of the European F3 Nations Cup and multiple French rally championships, Le Mans class victor and European sports car champion. And our immaculate driver, in a modern car with more than twice the power, couldn’t catch up with him. The old gentleman drove in a leisurely, delicate, efficient manner, and we only got close when he slowed down in order not to incur a time penalty.

The road was all curves and no straights, but I managed to doze off periodically. Images flashed through my sleep-deprived brain, and the first was that of the astonished faces of visitors to the October, 1964 Paris Motor Show, who saw the strange, boxy contraption painted blue with two white stripes that was supposed to replace the Dauphine Gordini.

This improved Renault 8 Gordini cost 11,500 New Francs and was able to reach 170kph – which at the time was quite an achievement for a car with such a tiny engine. Its 1.1-litre motor delivered 95bhp thanks to the magic touch of Amédée Gordini (known as ‘The Sorcerer’), an altered cylinder head and two twin-choke carbs.

The buyers were ecstatic – exactly 2262 of them, in fact. They already knew that the blue box had not only survived its race debut on the Corsica Rally (no mean feat, as only eight out of 79 cars reached the finish line), but also took first, third, fourth and fifth places. The R8 Gordini looked flimsy and fragile, but it wasn’t – and it again proved its speed and reliability in 1965 and 1966, winning on both occasions.

Renault bosses were sufficiently encouraged by the success of the first-generation model to fund its development. It appeared in 1966 with a 1300cc engine instead of 1100cc, capable of 110bhp at 6750rpm. Other changes included a five-speed gearbox and an additional, 26-litre fuel tank in the front of the car.

As the main tank remained in the engine bay at the rear, it didn’t matter if you understeered into a tree or oversteered into a lamp post, it all ended in exactly the same way... but way back then, people had a different approach to risk. In total, 9000 enthusiasts snapped up the new car. I was lined up to drive a model of that exact specification the following day. I was excited and apprehensive in equal measure.

It was a ridiculously early start in the city where each of us could afford to buy only half a pizza. We were still exhausted after the previous 24 hours – red-eyed and barely able to stand.

We and fellow members of the media were herded into a van, for a trip to the village of Bollène La-Vésubie that seemed to go on for hours. There’s nothing particularly special about the place – except that it is located on probably the most famous rally stage in the world, the Monte Carlo Rally’s Col de Turini. There, five glistening R8 Gordinis awaited us in the town square, along with the entire servicing operation.

After an hour shadowing Zulawski as he took exquisite pictures of every possible detail on the blue Renault, I was getting impatient. A lot of journalists were jostling to get their story, and I knew a section of the notorious stage had been closed for us for only a limited time. The hours were ticking by, and with every passing minute it was looking less likely that I’d get a chance to drive the car. Coming back without a story wasn’t an option. I walked around in circles in the chilly, damp air to warm up.

More time passed, and then suddenly, it was my turn for a passenger ride. I got in a car with Serpaggi, who, on studless tyres, proceeded to slither uphill at alarming speeds, never far from bottomless valleys and sheer drops with not a metre of Armco in sight. This was my first time aboard an R8, so I asked him about any handling peculiarities I should beware of.

Still driving at a good lick, he looked me in the eye and gave a Gallic shrug. He was not much of a talker, but I managed to squeeze a comment out of him. He told me the Gordini is predictable to drive, but that it’s essential to trail-brake far beyond a normal braking zone to ensure that it will turn in. That’s logical, given the weight distribution – a featherweight front and a motor hanging over the rear axle. By the time we’d reached the summit of the mountain pass (‘col’ means ‘pass’ in French), I’d psyched myself up to drive on the Turini. I was ready.

But first, frustratingly, we were scheduled to have lunch. We entered the famous inn, featured in countless Monte Carlo Rally snapshots. I attempted to eat something, but I was too stressed out. Every few minutes I wandered outside to breathe the clean Alpine air and let the intensifying snowstorm glue a few snowflakes to my flushed face.

Finally, the cars were fired up for their runs down the stage and back up again. The clock was ticking. Ragnotti, Serpaggi and another great former champion, Michel Leclère, were all working hard.

Leclère, who looked like an extremely charming WWII fighter pilot, with his white silk foulard tucked into the collar of his immaculate shirt, once won the French F3 championship. He also did very well in Formula 2, and contested eight Formula 1 races in cars such as a Tyrrell and a Wolf-Williams. He also raced at the Le Mans 24-hours several times.

He and his fellow motorsport heroes smiled serenely amidst the media mayhem at the summit. Zulawski kept out of my way; he knew the state of my nerves. The Renault 8s looked gorgeous, wrapped in blankets of snow. I stared at them, no longer aware of the cold.

Just as it looked as though we’d run out of time, I suddenly heard a yell. The distinguished French gentleman who was running the show hustled me into a blue car with Leclère in the passenger seat. Leclère insisted on speaking English ‘for practice’, and I was grateful, knowing my French might fail in an emergency. Zulawski jumped into another car with Serpaggi, as we wanted to take tracking shots, and we were off.

Photographs in the bag, I now needed to really try to understand the Renault. Leclère encouraged me to stay on the brakes until very late, even past lock-up, and to get on the gas, then to rotate the 8 Gordini on snow and ice. We were running civilian studs, and we could have done with slightly more grip. But I quickly learned why the Monte Carlo Rally is so hard: snow, ice, snow, wet tarmac, snow, dry tarmac, all in the space of a minute.

Nothing was constant – this surface wasn’t nearly as predictable as the asphalt in Catalunya or Finnish gravel. After a while I got the drift, figuratively and literally, as I got a feel for the way I needed to keep intentionally sliding the Renault, imposing my will on it. If I waited for a slide and tried to react, I would definitely be too late, as this car would not recover from a really deep one. I drove in a smooth, snaking line of shallow slides, and then everything clicked into place.

After 20 minutes, Leclère magnanimously encouraged me to go much faster. Sliding this awesomely obedient car with a sheer, barrierless drop on one side was heaven, and not at all physical.

In third gear we were doing 100-110kph, and the satisfaction of mastering the Gordini’s natural rhythm was overwhelming. The raised edges of the front wings helped me place the car accurately, while carrying speed through corners was so controllable that once I understood how far I could let the pendulum swing, I started to drive really aggressively.

The former Formula 1 star next to me remained relaxed. After the unbelievably intimidating drive, steaming from the effort and emotion, I couldn’t help but ask Leclère if he hadn’t been afraid to let a complete stranger drive him up and down the Col de Turini in a snowstorm. He smiled, shrugged gracefully and said: ‘Ragnotti said you were OK.’ He walked away, leaving me standing next to the car with my mouth hanging open. Yes, it was worth the wait.

More on Jean Ragnotti: this time getting sideways in a Renault 5 Turbo.

Photography by Blazej Zulawski

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