|Rondeau M378 Cosworth|
In its long history the 24 Hours of Le Mans has only once been won by a driver in a car of his own making. This unique feat was achieved by Le Mans resident Jean Rondeau in 1980. The foundations for his victory were laid in 1976 when Rondeau built his first racing car, literally in the backyard of his house. For the first years, the effort was backed by coloured paper producer Inaltera. After back-to-back 'GTP' class victories at Le Mans, the partnership ended and all the team's assets, including the Inaltera badged cars, were sold off. Jean Rondeau was fortunately left with his original drawings, enabling him to build a new car for the 1978 edition of the race on very short notice.
Like its predecessors, the new Rondeau M378 used a steel tubular spaceframe with aluminium sheet reinforcement as the chassis. Used as a stressed member was the Formula 1 sourced Cosworth DFV V8 engine, which in the back of the Inalteras had proven remarkably reliable. In endurance trim, it now produced in excess of 450 bhp. The suspension was also wholly conventional with double wishbones at the front and a rear end consisting of parallel links and twin trailing arms. A Hewland five-speed gearbox and Lockheed disc brakes completed the mechanical package. The car was clothed in a fibreglass body designed with help from French company 'Bureau de Design Ovale'. Created exclusively for Le Mans, it was very slippery and featured no rear wing, just two fins for high speed stability. Compared to the Inaltera, the biggest changes were a longer tail and partly covered rear wheels.
As with his earlier cars, Jean Rondeau entered the M378 in the GTP (Grand Touring Prototype) class as opposed to the Group 6 class for 3-litre prototypes for which the new car was also eligible. Group 6 was the playing field of the Porsche and Renault-Alpine factory teams, so there was little chance of success there for privateer efforts like Rondeau. To qualify for the GTP class, cars had to have a full size windshield and a considerably higher minimum weight, so Rondeau did compromise his odds for the already unlikely outright victory further. Jean Rondeau secured a sponsorship deal with bearing manufacturer SKF and was partnered behind the wheel by fellow Frenchmen Bernard Darniche and Jacky Haran. The car was completed just days before qualifying and set the 40th time. That was quickly forgotten as the Rondeau fought its way up to the leader-board to finish ninth overall and 1st in the GTP class. The second placed GTP was one of the earlier Inalteras.
Despite three consecutive class victories, Jean Rondeau still struggled to find structural backing. All work was suspended until early in 1979 when ITT and several other sponsors stepped up. One of the factors contributing to the increase in Rondeau's efforts was the withdrawal from both Porsche and Renault-Alpine, which left the privateer effort with an actual chance of victory. Subtle tweaks to the aerodynamics and reliability improvements were made to the design before two new chassis were constructed. Both these 'M379s' were built to Group 6 specifications clearly with an eye on the outright victory. The existing car was updated and again entered in the GTP class. Unfortunately the M378 fell victim to the very wet conditions and crashed heavily during the race. The Group 6 cars were manned by top flight drivers like Ragnotti, Beltoise and three-time winner Pescarolo. They fared considerably better with the fastest of the two finishing in fifth overall and first in the Group 6 class. With a production based Group 5 Porsche taking the outright victory, the 1979 Le Mans was a missed opportunity for all prototypes entered that year.
Le Mans was again the only race on the schedule in 1979 and immediately after the race the attention already shifted to the next edition. Early in 1980 funds had been found to perform an actual test with the 'B-spec' of the M379. The biggest change was the addition of a small winglet to each of the two fins to increase the downforce. The modified car completed 26 hours at Paul Ricard with little trouble. Rondeau's squad for Le Mans again consisted of three cars with two Group 6 examples as 'works' entries and the Belga backed GTP car run for Gordon Spice and Jean-Michel and Philippe Martin. This duly finished third outright, securing Rondeau's fourth GTP class victory. During the race the Pescarolo and Ragnotti driven machine suffered Rondeau's first mechanical failure, a cracked cylinder, while leading the race. Rondeau and Jaussaud in the second Group 6 M379 almost did not qualify for the race due to electrical issues. The race itself was also far from flawless with some niggling problems and two spins. Fortunately it was good enough to claim a spectacular victory despite a very strong challenge in the final hours from Jacky Ickx in a privately entered Porsche 936.
The Le Mans win opened the sponsorship floodgates and Rondeau returned to the track in 1981 with no fewer than five examples of the latest version of the M379. Two of these were entered in the GTP class. Of the three Group 6 cars, two were fitted with the long stroke DFL engine, which displaced 3.3 litres. All five cars sported full-width rear wings. The increased effort from Rondeau was more than compensated by the arrival of two considerably upgraded works Porsche 936s. Tragedy struck early in the race when Lafosse suffered a fatal accident aboard one of the Group 6 Rondeaus. The other Group 6 cars also failed to reach the finish with the Jaussaud/Rondeau's Otis liveried machine succumbing to a cracked chassis and the Pescarolo/Tambay 'Oceanic' M379 grinding to a halt with fuel pump failure. The two GTP cars fared much better and finished second and third outright and first and second in their class. The faster of the two was piloted by Haran, Streiff and Schlesser.
For the 1982 season the rules were drastically changed with the arrival of the 'Group C' class, which replaced all existing prototype classes. One of the biggest changes was the introduction of 'ground effect' aerodynamics, which rendered the existing machines virtually obsolete. This was the cue for Rondeau to start the development of the all new M482. Unfortunately the project suffered from setbacks and delays, which meant the car was not ready for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As a stop-gap, Rondeau produced the M382, which combined the existing chassis with the in-board suspension developed for the M482. The car also featured a slightly longer tail without the typical rear wheel covers of the M378/9 series. The M382 was also the first new Rondeau made available to customers. In fact the first two chassis were sold to customers in the United States and were raced in the Daytona 24 Hours; the very first time a Rondeau was used away from Le Mans.
Rondeau also broke with tradition by entering the full World Championship. This was immediately awarded with a debut victory for the M382 at the Monza 1000 km. The winning car was powered by the latest DFL engine, now displacing just under 4 litre. At the next round, the Silverstone 1000 km, Porsche debuted the all new 956 Group C car complete with a sophisticated 'ground effect' aero-package. On raw speed the Porsche was superior but the Rondeau team had a very steady run throughout the season and amassed enough points to be in contention for the World Championship. The French manufacturer eventually lost out after Porsche convinced the FIA to add the points scored by a privately entered Porsche at the Nurburgring 1000 km to their tally. Uncharacteristically, the team's worst performance came at Le Mans, where only a privately entered M379 and M382 reached the finish.
In 1983 all attention was on the new M482 with substantial support of Ford. The small team unfortunately failed to get to grips with the complicated 'ground effect' aerodynamics. With the arrival of more major manufacturers, Rondeau's fortunes withered. By the end of the season, the company was in receivership. The sad end of the story was Jean Rondeau's fatal crash at a railway crossing in 1985. The cars he built outlived him and were raced until the late 1980s. During the brief lull of manufacturer involvement, Le Mans lay up for grasps for small 'garagists' and Jean Rondeau convincingly made the most of it. The Rondeau remains as the last privately developed car to win the big race. Jean Rondeau's exploits have inspired the likes of Yves Courage and Henri Pescarolo to also pursue a Le Mans victory with locally developed machinery.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on June 08, 2012
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