I don’t usually read spam from gray market watch dealers, but one caught my motorsports chronograph-obsessed eye: a new-in-box 2017 Bell & Ross BR126 Renault Sport 40th Anniversary chronograph. authenticwatches.com is selling it for $1775 – less than half its original retail price. As motorsport chronos go, the watch is not particularly remarkable. The French race car it commemorates is very much worth remembering . . .
That car is the Renault RS01. The 41mm Bell & Ross’ black and yellow color scheme and the logo on its face and caseback (picture at the bottom of the post) recall it triumphantly.
The RS01 was a blocky and awkward looking race car from République française that happens to be the very first F1 car to use a turbocharged engine. Believe it or not, it was also the first to use radial tires, supplied by Michelin naturellement.
Surprisingly, all that new technology didn’t make the RS01 an immediate success. Why? It was never meant to be a contender. It was designed to be an R&D platform.
The rules of F1 at the time permitted 3.0 liters of displacement for naturally aspirated engines. The Ford Cosworth DFV was the dominant engine, having carried James Hunt and his McLaren to the F1 championship the year before.
Other manufacturers like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Matra focused on developing 3.0 liter flat-12 engines for their cars.
Renault and their engineers André de Cortanze and Jean-Pierre Jabouille exploited a clause in the rules allowing turbo- or supercharging for engines displacing up to 1.5 liters.
The resulting engine – the Renault-Gordini EF1 – was a 90-degree V6 displacing 1496cc utilizing electronic fuel injection and a single Garrett turbocharger.
The RS01’s first race was the 1977 British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Equipped with an unsophisticated but robust suspension and aero package, the car looked chunky and cumbersome. Driven by engineer Jabouille, it’s performance matched its looks.
Chronically unreliable, it failed to finish a single race in 1977. Competing teams called it “the yellow teapot” because of its tendency to blow up in a cloud of white smoke.
Jabouille – one of the last great F1 driver/engineers – and the Renault team pressed on in 1978 and 1979.
They changed the metallurgy of the engine’s block and heads, implemented air-water intercooling and installed two, small KKK turbos to combat lag. Power increased from 510 hp to over 700 hp and, crucially, reliability and longevity were found.
The RS01 chassis was further developed as well. Eventually the evolved car barely resembled the ungainly machine rolled onto the grid at Silverstone.
The RS01 scored its first points in the 1978 US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. It scored its first pole position in 1979 at the South African Grand Prix – and that’s when everything changed.
The 4920 ft altitude at Kyalami made the advantages of forced induction brutally obvious. While the naturally aspirated cars shed up to 20 percent of their peak power in the thin air, the RS01 didn’t lose a step.
Other teams took note. Over the next few years nearly the entire F1 grid switched to turbocharged 1.5 liter engines. We can thank Renault’s RS01, the EF1 engine and engineer Jabouille for ushering forth one of the sport’s most competitive and exciting eras.
Driven by their spirit of constant improvement, Renault eventually fielded a highly competitive EF1-powered car. With driver Alain Prost, they captured second in the Constructor’s and Driver’s championships in 1983 with the RE40.
Renault’s ultimate development of the EF engine, called the EF15 type C, carried the great Ayrton Senna and his Lotus 98T to four pole positions and three podiums in 1986. By that time it was reliably making over 1200 hp.
What does all of this have to do with the Bell & Ross BR126 Renault Sport 40th Anniversary? Well, everything.
While motorsports watches may have some functional utility as timing devices they are, at heart, signifiers. They embody motorsports enthusiasm, knowledge, history, team loyalty or all of the above.
Viewed from that perspective, the Bell & Ross BR126 40th Anniversary chronograph is a fitting tribute to Renault’s smoking yellow teapot.
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