Created to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, the speedy Renault Alpine A442 was a sports prototype racing car. Designed and constructed by Alpine, the A442 was financially backed by Alpine's owners Renault. Several different versions were entered into the Le Mans event in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Behind the skillful driving of Didier Pironi and Jean-Pierre Jassaud an A442B won a race. In 1978 an A442 chassis was updated into an Alpine A443 model with a more powerful 2138 cc engine After this premier French motorsport event Renault chose to take a break from sports car racing to focus on their Formula One efforts.
Since 1971 both Alpine and Renault had been working extremely close together and by the start of the A442 project in 1975 the two companies were nearly merged. In the beginning of 1976 Renault bought Alpine outright and in the process Renault inherited Alpine's sports prototype program. The creation of the A442 was brought about by the compilation of the popular Alpine A440 and the award-winning A441. Differing though from previous models, the A442 sported a large Garrett turbocharging powering the 2.0L Renault-Gordini powerplant, which pushed power output to 490 hp. This number would grow to over 500 bhp in the next three years with the A443's 2.2L unit that developed 520 bhp.
The engine was housed in a small steel spaceframe chassis that was placed in a much longer glass-fibre body, a common occurrence for earlier vehicles. The tail section was were the extra length of the body was found which improved high-speed aerodynamic efficiency. This setup was credited to the top speed on the long Mulsanne straight at Circuit de la Sarthe. The A442 sported conventional open two-seater bodywork and was designed as a 'hare' to compete with their Porsche 936 opponents. The A443 featured a slightly longer wheelbase. During the fall of 1977 the A442B and A443 underwent extensive wind tunnel testing that resulted in new acrylic glass 'bubble' partial roof in 1978. Though this roof added an extra 5 mph in top speed at la Sarthe it unfortunately reduced driver visibility. A443 drivers Patrick Depailler and Jean-Pierre Jabouille were so uncomfortable in the bubble during practice for the 1978 Le Mans race and complained of trapped engine heat inside the cockpit and claustrophobia that the only model to contend with the bubble was the A442B.
In the spring of 1975 the A442 made its first racing debut at the Mugello 1000 km with Jabouille and Larrousse behind the wheel. The car did better than expected for its first race and even snatched a win despite its relatively underdeveloped turbo addition to the Renault engine. The following year two Renaults qualified in the front at Nürburgring 300 km before unfortunately crashing out in the second corner. The team failed to win another race due to mechanical issues before going into the 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans. Before even half of the race, the single car entered dropped out due to engine failure.
To Renault, the Le Mans was the epitome of racing success, so for the 1977 race the Renault Sport works team fielded three cars. The team recruited Derek Bell; endurance specialist, and was supported by an additional, privately entered A442. The Renault Alpines started out exceptionally well taking second and third places in the 500 km ACF race at Dijon-Prenois, along with second place at the high-speed 4h Monza round during the intervening period between the two Le Mans starts. Unfortunately momentum was lost as the four cars were beat out by the white Martini Racing Porsche 936 and 935. The Porsches were tough competitors and went on to score repeated wins in both World Championship series of 1976.
The following year Renault once again entered three cars: an old A442 dubbed A442A; the bubble-canopied A442B, and the A443 at the 1978 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ecurie Calberson entered a second A442A. Vast improvements had been made in the past year to ensure that the Renault cars were on the same level as the leading Porsche 936 turbo cars. For the first four rows of the grid the two manufacturers shared equally. Because of its aerodynamic layout and 800 hp achieved over 360 km/h on the straight, the Porsche 935/78 Moby Dick qualified third right behind the A443 and the new 936.
At the halfway point the Bell/Jarier A442A works car suffered transmission failure and was the second Renault to be retired after the A443's engine broke in the 18th hour. The A442B with Pironi and Jaussaud were well placed to snatch the lead as two 936's suffered technical issues while the third crashed at 11am. For the final few hours the pairing held on the lead and finished four laps ahead of the second-placed Porsche. Taking fourth place behind the two remaining 936s was the privateer A442A.
Gérard Larrousse was now in charge of the Renault Sport team in 1978 and his focus was spelled out for the team. The most important goals were to win at Le Mans before shifting all attention on repeating the Formula One success. No expense was spared as Renault began developing the A442 into a Le Mans champion. Numerous hours were spent testing the model and even long airport runways were used to test the mechanical and aerodynamic stresses induced on the lengthy, fast Mulsanne straight. The engine department of Renault where hard at work increasing the power as much as possible out of the five year old powerplant. The capacity was improved to 2138 cc, which was just shift of the theoretical 2142 cc limit for turbocharged cars. This updated engine was placed in the new longer chassis and became the Alpine Renault A443. The A443 achieved the auspicious honor of becoming the fastest car ever produced by Renault with a top speed of 236 mph on the Mulsanne straight. Sources:
By Jessica Donaldson