Jean Ragnotti never took rallying’s ultimate prize and is therefore nowhere near as well remembered as men like Juha Kankkunen, Ari Vatanen, Tommi Makinen, Colin McRae or even his compatriot, Didier Auriol. Indeed, he won just 3 WRC wins over the course of his long, 25 plus year career, all on tarmac and all at the wheel of the same car, the Renault 5. There’s a very good chance that many of you will have only heard his name in passing (if at all); a household name, he most certainly is not.
As is so often the case when it comes to motorsport however, titles and silverware are a poor measure of a driver’s raw ability and to those in the know Ragnotti’s, name can be placed alongside the legends mentioned above without so much as a second thought.
Why? Because this intense yet affable Frenchman was one of the most gifted and quickest drivers to ever set foot in a two-wheel drive rally car. Footage of Ragnotti hurling both front and rear-wheel drive Renaults of various types around Gallic tarmac stages with carefree abandon must rank as among the most compelling bits of rallying footage ever committed to celluloid. Put simply, Ragnotti wasn’t merely fast – he looked it, perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries.
Ragnotti was one of the earliest examples of a breed of driver which was to go onto make a massive impression on the World Rally stage as the 20th century neared its conclusion, that of the tarmac specialist. Invariably from continental Europe (and normally France), tarmac specialists crafted their unparalleled sealed surface skills on the asphalt stages of their domestic rally series. The likes of Gilles Panizzi, Phillipe Bulgalski, and even fully formed World Champions like Auriol and Sebastien Loeb, they all owe at least a partial nod of recognition to Ragnotti’s tarmac trailblazing.
An ability to grind headline-grabbing results from unfancied machinery would become a trope of Ragnotti’s career, and it was in evidence from the very beginning of his career. He spent much of the ‘70s performing giant killing feats in cars like the R8 Gordini, the Alpine A110, and in a rare move away from ‘Le Regie,’ the Opel Commodore. Alpine aside, these couldn’t really be called class winning cars and would otherwise have struggled to be competitive, but ‘Jeannot’ made the difference.
Ragnotti’s faith in Renault’s competition department was rewarded with the launch of the Group 4 Renault 5 in 1980. This was the same season that the Audi Quattro made its competitive debut, and while the big Audi would ultimately prove to be simply too temperamental a proposition to beat the more conventional opposition of the Mk2 Escort RS and Talbot-Lotus Sunbeam to championship honours, its potential was clear to see.
The Renault 5 was something of a ‘halfway house,’ spanning the bridge between conventional Group 4 cars like the Escort and the brave new world now being rudely ushered in by the Quattro. Unlike the Audi it was rear-wheel drive, albeit with its archaic 1397cc ‘Cleon’ engine mounted amidships. In this it was something of a trailblazer, the mid-engined, comically widened 5 acting as something of a template for cars like the 205 T16 and even the Delta S4.
The 5’s trump card was the fact that its ancient pushrod motor was also turbocharged, giving it an instant power advantage over naturally aspirated opposition. The R5 Turbo’s power output, a mooted 250bhp at first, rising to as much as 285bhp by the end of its career, was modest by the standards of what would soon follow, but it proved enough. Ragnotti underscored the potential of forced induction by taking it to overall victory on the 1981 running of the Monte Carlo Rally, a result made all the more remarkable for occurring on the slippery, low grip conditions of the French Alps.
The combination of Ragnotti and the original Renault 5 Turbo would be triumphant once more, this time on the Tour de Corse a year later. Corsica’s mass of tight, twisting, off-camber bends proved something of a happy hunting ground for the pairing, where the Renault’s traction deficit was minimised and Ragnotti’s phenomenal tarmac skills could be clearly showcased.
Come 1984, though, and it was clear that even the might of ‘Jeannot’ was no longer enough to stem the Group B tide. The Quattro was now both reliable and an increasingly potent sealed surface weapon, while Lancia’s 037 had proven to be an even more capable tarmac racer than the 5. The solution was the ultimate Renault 5, the Maxi. The new car was wider, sported more extravagant aero appendages and an even wider track. Most importantly of all, the new car had a 1527cc ‘C7K’ engine, with the multiplication factor allowing it to remain within the B-12 class. Power jumped to 370bhp at a stroke, making the 5 a viable rival to some of the Group B supercars – but only on tarmac and only with Ragnotti driving.
The Maxi was the distillation of the 5’s undoubted potential, turned up to eleven in order to give Ragnotti a fighting chance on tarmac. It remained rear-wheel drive so was never going to be a Quattro-beater on gravel, but that was hardly the point; Renault picked and chose its battles carefully, majoring on tarmac rounds like the Monte and the Tour de Corse.
The Maxi’s moment in the sun was both brief and tinged with tragedy, as was so often the case in the Group B era. Ragnotti drove the Maxi to a flame-spitting victory on the WRC’s 1985 visit to Corsica, and while it was richly deserved and rightly celebrated, the event also witnessed the death of Lancia’s Attilio Bettega. It was the first of several such incidents, and within year, Group B was no more.
The demise of Group B sent much of the WRC driver market scrambling around for employment, and Ragnotti was left somewhat high and dry. Renault’s interest in rallying was waning and there was no real desire within the company to build and homologate a four-wheel drive Group A car, but it didn’t stop its lead driver from being anything less than mind-meltingly fast, this time in a variety of front-wheel drive cars.
Ragnotti’s most famous outing in the aftermath of Group B occurred at the wheel of the Renault 11 Turbo on the 1987 Rally Portugal, when the Group A Deltas had already established themselves as the cars to beat.
A run of damper failures left the Lancia of Markku Alen floundering, which contrasted with the 180bhp, two-wheel drive Renault of Ragnotti, a proven car the Frenchman knew like the back of his hand. His decision to plump for semi-slick tyres on one of the mixed surface stages which made up the final day allowed him to muscle into 2nd place, and he then set about taking chunks of time out of the leading Lancia. One of the greatest upsets in world rallying was only prevented when Alen’s Delta received a new set of dampers late on the final day, though Ragnotti’s second spot on the podium was still a phenomenal achievement, proof of his mastery of front-wheel drive rallying.
Ragnotti rounded out his top line career with a spell of incredible performance in cars like the Clio Williams and Maxi, both of which he was nothing short of sensational in. He was even on hand to aid the development and initial competition of the Megane Maxi, one of the most capable of the F2 Kit Cars.
So, Jean Ragnotti: hardly a household name and a driver with a scant 3 wins to his name, but easily one of the most spellbinding individuals to ever set foot in a Renault. A Retropower Hero in the truest sense.