In 1977, French car manufacturer Renault decided to enter a factory team in Formula One, partly as a prestige project but mainly as a testbed for new advances in turbo-charger technology. The first turbo-charged car in F1 history debuted at the British Grand Prix in 1977 driven by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and made it 16 laps before the turbo broke – and for the rest of the year and most of the following one the team’s efforts were rewarded only with the frequent sight of their cars pulling off with broken engines – assuming they made the grid at all. However, the team didn’t give up and for 1979 introduced a new ground-effect car and a second driver in René Arnoux. It was more of the same for the first half of the season – qualifying times improved but races saw the “yellow kettles” brewing up with monotonous regularity, but then at the French Grand Prix at Dijon the two cars suddenly came good – qualifying on the front row and then driving a magnificent race for Jabouille to take the team’s first win and Arnoux to come in third after an epic battle for second with Gilles Villeneuve. Arnoux went on to score two more second places and a sixth. 1980 saw the team challenging more regularly but still prone to reliability issues; Jabouille won in Austria but retired from every other race bar one, while Arnoux won in Brazil and South Africa from pole and had better luck. At the penultimate race of the season, Jabouille crashed heavily and broke his leg, just after signing for the Ligier team, while Alain Prost was tempted away from McLaren after his debut year there to partner Arnoux for a hopefully better 1981.
Alain Prost took to karting from an early age and left school in 1974 to concentrate on his racing career. He moved up to French Formula Renault, winning his first season, then into Formula Three in 1978, winning both the French and European F3 titles in 1979, placing him firmly on F1 teams’ radar. In the end, he signed for McLaren for the 1980 season and scored a point in his first race and four more over the season. A promising first year, though, was marred by a number of accidents for which Prost felt he was unduly blamed when the car itself was at fault, and he moved to the French Renault team for 1981, replacing Jean-Pierre Jabouille alongside the experienced Arnoux.
René Arnoux won the 1977 European Formula Two championships with the Renault F2 team, but got his Formula One debut with small French garage team Martini – he qualified four times and finished three races, but the team folded before the end of the year and Arnoux moved to Surtees – also on its last legs – for the final two races in which he finished once. However his clear talent and Renault connections won him a seat at the company’s works Formula One team when it expanded to two cars for 1979 and despite the car’s unreliability Arnoux managed to score his first points – three podium visits including that epic battle with Villeneuve in France and a sixth place. In 1980 he went one better and won two races at the start of the year, though poor reliability restricted his results to one more podium and a lower points finish.